Sunday, September 21, 2014

From the Margins—Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis at the Jewish Museum

Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds, 1947, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 28". St Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. John Peters MacCarthy, the Linda and Harvey Saligman Endowed Acquisition Fund, Billy E. Hodges, and the Art Enrichment Fund 
An upside to modern art history's favoritism of white males? The latent "discovery" of talents who weren't. Two such artists are the focus of the Jewish Museum's show, From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945–1952, through Feb 1. The genesis of this show came about when the two artists were included in a 2008 exhibition at the museum of work primarily by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and their works both stood out and resonated with one another. 
Krasner, of course, is a more conventionally recognized figure, if often in relation to Pollock, her husband. However, she was established as an artist prior to their marriage, and in fact introduced him to a number of art world habitués, including de Kooning and critic and Ab Ex advocate Clement Greenberg. Who knows what course his career would have taken had she not done so? But her dense, agitated paintings such as Composition (1949)—bursting with small, ordered pictographs that fairly demand, yet ultimately resist reading— and her intricately layered dripped works (such as Untitled, 1948), can be seen in a fresh light in this show, detached from Pollock's magnificent, demanding canvases.

Norman Lewis, on the other hand, was unknown to me, a fact which confounded me while moving through the galleries. (If I had caught the Pollock/de Kooning show, I would've been enlightened six years sooner.) Was his relative lack of fame because he didn't hang with the downtown gang, as Pollock did? Or perhaps it was the delicacy of his lines, even though they vibrate with energy? No doubt being African-American contributed to his lack of recognition although his circle included familiar artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. One work inspired by social causes is included in this show, but his outstanding works are abstract, which perhaps marginalized him as he was more difficult to pigeonhole. In any case, his work is a wonderful, belated personal discovery. 

Lee Krasner, Untitled (1948). Oil on pressed wood, 18 x 38". The Jewish Museum, New York
Promised gift of Craig and Caryn Effron 
Interestingly, many of the paintings in this exhibition, curated by Norman Kleeblatt, derive from series with diminutive titles: Little Image paintings (Krasner), said to be inspired by her study of Hebrew, and Little Figure works (Lewis), which refer to African-American culture, including music. One of Lewis' major paintings on view is, in fact, titled Twilight Sounds (1947), which causes a modestly jarring conceptual disconnect. How does one depict sound? His vertical subjects resonate with the sense of fitting together, the way a band of musicians fits together visually as well as audibly. His compositions almost always surround the subjects with a wide border of color, isolating them and pushing them into focus. They are beautifully balanced, weighted like complex chemical compounds floating in space. 

Krasner tended to fit shapes just into the frame, or extended them past the edge, indicating an endless vista, a broad and busy universe. Several works show her experimentation with composition and technique—large organic shapes, or rectangulars spaced rhythmically, like paintings in a museum, or windows in building. The dense layering and scumbled pigment on her canvases tell of an inner life bursting at the seams, waiting to emerge. 

The Jewish Museum should be congratulated for bringing to light the work of these two artists essential to modern art. And who knows what other marginalized artists are waiting to be rediscovered?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Alice's Adventures—A Dizzying Delight

Sonia Rodriguez (Alice) and Cheshire. Photo: Bruce Zinger
Is it possible nowadays to make an entertaining ballet combining technology with a classic of literature? Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, danced the National Ballet of Canada and presented by the Joyce Theater at the Koch, offers a resounding yes. (It originally premiered at the UK's Royal Ballet in 2011, and with CNB that year as well). It falls closer to Broadway-destined spectacles by Matthew Bourne than traditional ballets—not a bad thing. Most enduring popular classical ballets are based on romances either tragic or hard-won, in part to justify the big pas de deux, the beating heart of the genre. Alice has a somewhat stitched-together storyline which fails to tug on the heartstrings like chestnuts such as Giselle or Swan Lake. Here, it's all about the adventure, as the title says, and a thrilling ride it is.

Photo: Bruce Zinger
The most prominent and surprising elements of the ballet are the sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. It feels as if he pulled every last proverbial rabbit out of his hat, where they've been multiplying for generations. Some effects are plain old stagecraft—puppetry (an enchanting Cheshire Cat, in large and extra-large), admirably built set elements (the Queen's rolling heart-shaped carapace), clever applications of playing card graphics (spade-shaped tutus). Video elements (projection design by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) are used cleverly, taking us through convincingly dizzying plunges through the rabbit hole, or causing a wall of doors to vibrate hallucinogenically. As in the book, one drawback to talking caterpillars and floating cats is that our protagonist is reduced to a wistful cipher, fading from prominence even as she hardly, heroically even, leaves the stage over the course of roughly two hours (excluding two intermissions). She is called upon, not surprisingly, to react to the various crazy events into which she is coaxed or thrust.

Elena Lobsanova and Xiao Nan Yu. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Sonia Rodriguez danced the lead role on Wednesday, with Naoya Ebe as her suitor, Jack/Knave. The flamboyant role of Mother/Queen went to Svetlana Lunkina, who landed at the NBC after departing the Bolshoi last year—threatened in the wake of artistic director Sergei Filin being attacked with acid. This real-life drama would be hard to match, but the Queen's eye-popping costume and favorite gesture (slashed throat) did just that. Lunkina switched from preening to bloodthirsty in a split second. Juicy signature phrases went to the Rabbit/Lewis Carroll (Robert Stephen) wearing Lennonesque round pink specs and twitching neurotically when not leaping about, the Fish and Frog Footmen (Dylan Tedaldi and Francesco Gabriele Frola) slithering and waddling with charm, and Raja/Caterpillar (James Harrison), slinking on his stomach, which he also comically rubs in circles. Alice and Jack are given relatively brief duos, in which little chemistry is produced, but Ebe displayed his elegant lines and expressive back, and Rodriguez her solid arabesque when she isn't wriggling through a tiny door or acting shocked, surprised, or delighted. 

Jody Talbot wrote the pleasing music, often filmic in feel, and recalling Prokofiev and Danny Elfman at moments. It moves the action along pleasantly; perhaps further listenings will let it imprint on the brain. New York City Ballet's orchestra manned the pit, led by David Briskin, music director of the National Ballet of Canada.

One niggling criticism about Crowley's costumes, which are on the whole brilliant and witty, is the clashing hues of Alice's lavender frock and Jack's red and white outfits (he is on the lam from Team Queen, whose color is red). Even when their lines are in harmony, they are visually off key. But what lingers in the mind's eye should be the abattoir complete with slaughtered pigs, giant teapots, flowers dancing down the aisles under a flurry of confetti, a massive neon labyrinth, and multiple houses of cards. Catch it if you can.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Recent Novels of Note

It's pretty quiet in the dance world now, so thought I'd share some notes on books of interest that I've read recently.

In the historical novel vein, I was quietly won over by Michel Déon's The Foundling Boy, originally published in 1975 in French, but recently translated into English by Julian Evans. It follows twists and turns in the life of Jean, a foundling, in France during WWI. Despite some gender chauvinism, which winds through the narrative, Déon paints an absorbing portrait of Provence, Paris, London, broaches the topic of nature vs. nurture, and brings to life some all-too human characters. This fall, the translated second volume in the Foundling series is being published; I look forward to it with relish.

California, by Edan Lepucki, made headlines as the first of Hachette's titles to be touted by Stephen Colbert after Amazon began its campaign to punish the mega-publisher. This post-near-apocalyptic story focusing on a couple surviving in what they thought was solitude resonated with me far more than I expected. Some plot changes were at times predictable, at other times shocking, and some settings fantastical to the point of disbelief. Lepucki treats the lasting significance of institutions on impressionable youth, the enduring bonds and resentments of family, and the terrifying mindset of survivors.

Haruki Marukami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, currently being über marketed, is strange, as the author's settings and conceits can be. The book itself is highly designed, from its Mondrianesque hard cover cloaked by a perforated surcover, to the graphic treatment of its page numbers, to the precious size and look of the volume. It reflects in part Marukami's smooth, almost glib language to describe complicated emotional states. The novel follows the title character in the aftermath of being banished from a clique of five friends, and his efforts to come to terms with it. Marukami makes even the most difficult of topics emerge in casually forced pitter patter. There's a supernatural streak that runs through his novels—less so in this than his epic previous work, 1Q84—that makes you wonder if the events in dreams can possibly be real. At times it can feel lightweight, but his writing style is distinctive. Still, all the hype feels misplaced.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mark Morris' Acis and Galatea

Douglas Williams (Polyphemus) with Spencer Ramirez, Lauren Grant, and Noah Vinson. Photo: Richard Termine
Mark Morris is among the few modern choreographers at this moment who can put together—direct and choreograph—a dance-driven, full-length opera. His new production of Handel's Acis and Galatea was performed as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival at the Koch Theater last week. It is telling, and fitting, that Morris is as at home in this music festival as anywhere else. The music which provides the structure, however, is at times fallible. The opera itself is largely light, bubbly, sometimes silly, with jaunty rhythms and repeating lyrics, and a trenchant, somber aria by Galatea, mourning Acis, prior to a festive finale. It's also sometimes irritating, like a pop music station where you hear a clunker every now and then. It might explain why it's not as commonly performed as other Handel compositions.

The pre-dance overture however, with a toe-tapping tempo, is an immediate reminder of the joys of hearing well-played music, live. Nicholas McGegan conducts the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale with finesse and verve. (It is clear that the orchestra takes things seriously from the program's list of instruments and their provenances; some date back to the 17th century.) The 18 dancers sweep on and off in arcs, ebbing and flowing, spelling out some of the shapes that accumulate to create a selected syntax specific to this work, as Morris does with each dance he creates. Draped tree branch hands, or arms straight, palms spread, as a dancer rushes upstage. A woman is lifted and wafted back to earth, one arm held higher than the other. A couple echoes one another's side leg lifts, with the man peeling backward. The endless repetition of musical phrases means a mirroring of the companion dance phrases, providing ample views and reviews.

The singers, pure and agile in voice, were integrated into the movement, sometimes more successfully than others. Soprano Yulia Van Doren (Galatea) moved more naturally than her paramour, Acis (tenor Thomas Cooley), who might have benefitted from more movement training, particularly in simply running across the stage. Tenor Isaiah Bell (Damon) sang with ringing clarity and youthful brio. But it was Douglas Williams who grabbed the spotlight as bad-boy Polyphemus, rejected by Acis. In a snarling solo, he groped each dancer as they passed by him with increasing reluctance, as if on a conveyor belt. This from a choreographer who once famously yelled "No more rape!" at a performance of Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. But a cluster of dancers forms a chair for Polyphemus, who is in turn groped by them—turnabout is fair play. In the end, he throws a boulder (appropriately, the rock-solid Maile Okamura, held aloft by two men) to strike dead Acis, whom Galatea resurrects as a flowing, life-giving stream.

A joyous finale. Photo: Richard Termine
Adrienne Lobel created vivid, expressionistic painted drops; one psych evokes a mountainous grove, another more rigid geometric forms, and a mid-stage drop features cut-out portals. When they are all lowered in place, the effect is visual cacophony. The stage is covered with a garish green marley—more tennis court than grass—whose effect was heightened by Michael Chybowski's lighting. Isaac Mizrahi designed wonderful floor-length chiffon, floral camo print dresses for the women and skirts for the men; the singers wore individual designs in varying plant hues.  

Morris is masterful at creating lilting, organic movement phrases that present a bright, philanthropic view of love and life. His dancers glow and gaze with affection at one another, and at the singers. There are also humorous sardonic scenes, such as when some of the women gang up with Galatea and pummel Polyphemus. Rita Donahue leads a memorable scene comprising a rapid series of strident gestures—hands stab the air, arms flail as if rowing followed by a violent stomp, a phrase which elicited giggles time and again. In another section, to a militaristic march, Laurel Lynch, carriage upright, sweeps her bent leg in an arc and straightens her limbs rigidly. In a visual non sequitur, Polyphemus lies on the ground and circles his ankles like a dancer warming up. The movements can get literal—to the phrase "ample strides," several dancers lift and vault another who plants her flexed feet defiantly. For a playful choreographer such as Morris, even if the results can be somewhat obvious, such visual pictures are priceless gifts in an oeuvre filled with days worth of non-narrative choreography

Integrating opera singers and dancers onstage is, of course, nothing new. (Once in a blue moon, someone like Simon Keenlyside, who is an impressively fleet physical presence, comes along to shift the paradigm.) It's one way Morris has approached opera—he also worked this way with the Met's Orfeo and Eurydice a few years ago. He has also placed singers in the pit and given the lead roles to dancers, as with his well-loved Dido and Aeneas. As long as Morris continues to have opportunities to do one, the other, or yet something else, productions of even less sturdy scores are welcome.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bolshoi Ballet—the drama moves onstage

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus. Photo: Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Ballet
The Bolshoi Ballet was in town recently as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, in the wake of the scandalous acid-throwing incident suffered by artistic director Sergei Filin, who watched from the audience and is looking in better condition than I had feared from all the news reports. It was a relief to see the drama move onstage.

Spartacus, a historical ballet choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich to swashbuckling filmic music by Aram Khachaturyan, is a genre that is rarely produced in New York, with reason—there's a fine line between a historical costume dance and spoof. In the first scene's demonstrations of Roman military might, I had to stifle the giggles and adjust my mindset. Athletic bombast became the norm throughout the three-hour ballet, as the large cast's many men stomped and punched their expressions of prowess while carrying shields and swords, and wearing armor including shinguards and helmets. Many of the women, on the other hand, wore hand scarf-sized stylized togas with pointe shoes. Well, why not?

Mikhail Lobukhin chomped heartily into the title role, flexing his tanned muscles and flinging his lank hair in rhythm. He literally flew across the stage in jetés and even a rivoltade (a fancy, floor-stabbing tour jeté), flinging his arms wide and thrusting his chest out in extreme confidence. Simon Virsaladze's costumes for the principals, despite their mixed messages on veracity and a tendency to over-weaponize, were flattering, including Spartacus' red, one-shouldered obi/loin cloth over grey tights.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina in Spartacus. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Svetlana Zakharova, glamorous and conspiratorial, gobbled even more scenery as the courtesan Aegina. Dripping with rhinestones to complement her mini toga, she used her fabulous forced arches as lethal weapons, repeatedly brandishing them at anyone nearby. You could practically hear her purring as she minxed her way through the ballet, slicing the poor air with her ferocious developpés, upturned palms, and in one scene, a floral staff. In the less gratifying "good" roles, Alexander Volchkov as Crassus, leader of the Roman Army, and Anna Nikulina, as Phrygia, Spartacus' gal pal, fared as well as could be expected. 

While Spartacus reads as kitsch much of the time, it has entertaining pre-battle pep rally scenes and bacchanales, although a little goes a long way, and many of Grigorovich's choreographic inventions—duly repeated, again and again—are artless and bone-jarring. Virsaladze's expressionistic scenery—columned stone temples—is modernized by an evocative, hammocked scrim raised up and down to conceal and reveal stage elements. This ballet may not be one that you'd want to catch repeatedly, but as a staple of the Bolshoi's repertory, it was a fascinating glimpse into the Russian cultural canon.
Alexander Petukhov (Sancho Panza in Don Quixote) in flight. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Last week, I saw the company perform Don Quixote. There are few surprises since it's comparable to the ballet that ABT just performed earlier this summer. The Bolshoi's production, by Alexei Fadeyechev after Petipa and Gorsky, goes for busily milling crowd scenes, Cubistic painted flats by Sergei Barkhin, and a sultry Flamenco number, although in this scene both the pace and the leg-hiding floor-length dresses drag. 

Kristina Kretova, a leading soloist (the rank below principal) danced Kitri, flashing huge smiles and fanning her ruffled skirt with fervor. Lobukhin was her Basilio; despite its broad comic strokes, the role requires far more restraint than Spartacus, not to mention more clothing (the black tights tend to make Lobukhin's legs look skinnier than they are). But the bold, joyful attitude of Don Quixote is well-matched to the Bolshoi's nature. 

Random notes:
The orchestra sounded bright and lustrous; Pavel Klinichev conducted.
The Koch Theater is perhaps slightly small for these productions, but the closer proximity than the Met (where ABT performs its spring season) makes it easier to read.
Some of the technique looked slightly ragged, especially in Don Quixote.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mortal Davids

Herman Cornejo in The Dream. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Ballet and baseball seasons coincide, and deep into both seasons, key players are suffering wear and tear, and that has a ripple effect on their colleagues and fans.

Namely, the Davids have been waylaid—Hallberg (ABT, foot) and Wright (Mets, shoulder). I got a hefty, overdue dose of Hallberg in recent weeks, seeing him in Cinderella and then twice in Giselle, the second time when he substituted for an ill Herman Cornejo. Then Hallberg succumbed to an injury last Saturday—perhaps from overwork?—and Cory Stearns stepped in for a performance of Swan Lake. Stearns again replaced Hallberg last night in Frederick Ashton's The Dream (1964) in a double bill of Shakespeare. It was a good opportunity to see him dance, and one I wouldn't have had otherwise.

The best news of last night, however, was that Cornejo had recuperated and danced Puck in The Dream, among his finest roles, and one which he originated with ABT in this production in 2002. It fully displays all of his strengths—his utter naturalness (complemented by his woodland creature costume) in a highly unnatural art form, suspended leaps, a lovely musicality both precise and organic, and dashing wit. And while he is among the most romantic and sensitive of dancers, and is now in the regular rotation in white-tights roles, he remains legend in such spritely  characters.

Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak in The Tempest. Photo: Marty Sohl
His compact body type is of course not a first in ballet's principal ranks, though it is still the exception. It serves as a fine example for newly-appointed soloist Joseph Gorak, who on this program reprised the romantic duet with Sarah Lane in The Tempest, by Alexei Ratmansky, to music by Sibelius. Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin portrayed Prospero and Ariel, and James Whiteside the beast Caliban (with a fright wig and patchy fur); Cornejo debuted that role last year, although I can't say it entirely rewards such accomplished dancers. Gorak has also been cropping up with regularity in lead roles including in Ashton's Cinderella and Ratmansky's Nutcracker. As previously noted, he recalls Hallberg in his innate nobility and épaulement, elegant line, superbly arched feet, flexibility, and composure. And since there are several gifted smaller women in ABT, he should be busy.
Gillian Murphy in The Dream. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Seeing The Tempest in its sophomore season and transferred to the Met from the Koch, it still reads as overly prop-heavy, which forces the staging into a flat, narrow horizontal area, and it is visually over-busy. Gomes is given solid geometric movements to underscore Prospero's gravity. Ariel is an ideal role for Simkin, freeing him to flit and spin, and fly in one of his signature moves, a low arabesque sauté in which the torso is kept perpendicular. (He is another principal who distinguishes himself best in solo character roles.) As Prospero's daughter, Lane is convincingly girlish and devoted. The corps comprises the ocean, most effective when spilling downstage in a crashing wave, although Santo Loquasto's overly embellished costumes distract.

(In addition to Gorak, other ABT promotions are the buoyant and pristine Isabella Boylston to principal, and new soloists are Christine Shevchenko, who acquitted herself so well in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, Devon Teuscher, and ABT's resident actor par excellence, Roman Zhurbin—all deserved and made from within the ranks.)

Back to The Dream, which is such a prime casting vehicle. Gillian Murphy danced Titania with a proper mix of fortitude and flourish, and her auburn ringlets somehow reinforce the fairy tale setting. Stearns seemed more at ease as Oberon than ever, again, finding the right balance of petulant and regal, and properly savoring the moments of technical braggadocio.    Blaine Hoven was Bottom, and while he needs to hone his pointe shoe work, he captured the charm and innocence of his furry, long-eared avatar. The star-struck lovers were Adrienne Schulte, so comically expressive; the plastic-faced Grant De Long, Stella Abrera, convincingly puzzled at being spurned, and Jared Matthews, who once more showed his acting chops, which we will miss as he departs to Houston Ballet with Yuriko Kajiya. 

Heal, shoulder of David Wright.
And as for the other David, over at the Mets (and not the Met)... fortunately, it's just a bruised rotator cuff on his non-throwing left shoulder. He should be back in the line-up this weekend, which is fortunate, as the Mets need him, his bat, his shoulder, and his rally towel. • Frank Cashen, Mets GM during the team's late 1980's golden era, passed away recently. He put together the 1986 world championship team which, in retrospect, was miraculous. Mex, the Kid, Doc, Nails, Strawbs, Mookie, Backman, Knight, Darling... while their fates have mixed to say the least, at least we have the privilege of hearing commentary by Keith and Ronnie, even as they twist in the wind as they cover the lackluster current team. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Q&A with Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga

The Boston Ballet is performing at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater, through June 29. Principal Misa Kuranaga, phenomenal in William Forsythe's The Second Detail, answered a few questions for Ephemeralist.

Ephemeralist: What does it mean to you that the company is making its debut at Lincoln Center, and in particular on the Koch Theater stage?

Misa Kuranaga: This means a lot to me and the entire Boston Ballet organization. We are such a versatile dance company at the height of our skills and it will be a joy to share this with the dance scene of New York City.

E: Of the repertory to be performed in New York, what do you most eagerly anticipate performing, and why?

MK: I love The Second Detail and I'm the most excited to perform this ballet. It is such a thrilling piece... you can give it all you have and explore your art form in the midst of a performance. It is a piece that is constantly growing and changing.

Working with Mr. Forsythe was such an amazing experience for me. He inspired me by sharing his life experiences. I hope I can share all of the things he taught me on stage with the audience in NY.

E: You guested with New York City Ballet in Serenade. What memories do you have from that performance?

MK: I remember when I first got the news of receiving the opportunity to perform at the Koch Theater with New York City Ballet. I was just so excited! I was given the chance to dance the Russian girl in Serenade and Heather Watts and Margaret Tracy helped me prepare for the show. I had a great time dancing on stage with friends I had not seen in years and they were all very supportive. It was a special moment for alums of School of American Ballet. I'm not always happy with my shows but this one I was very happy with, and it is one of the best shows I can remember. Because of such support from everyone, I was able to dance comfortably and perform my best at the time. 

It was definitely one if the most memorable performances of my career.

E: What are you looking forward to doing during your free time in the city?

MK: I'm in every show so I'm not expecting to have a lot of free time, but meeting some friends I haven't seen in a while for dinner will be something I'm looking forward to.