Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Greco—Contextual Immersion

El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo courtesy of Met Museum Presents.

The Park Avenue Armory may have a lock on presenting some of the city's biggest cross-genre spectacles, but the Met Museum Presents boasts a vast choice of rooms, and thereby time and culture capsules, in which to host a variety of events. Some are tied to current exhibitions. This past weekend, Capella de Ministrers gave a series of concerts linked to the exhibition El Greco's Toledo, in the Velèz Blanco Patio, from Renaissance-era Spain. When combined with a tour of the El Greco show, it felt like a micro vacation, or being in a  snow globe within a larger snowglobe (the vast cultural riches of the Met) within the city.

Capella de Minstrers comprises five members: soprano Elisa Franzetti, and four on period instruments: director Carles Magraner (viol), David Antich (flutes), Sara Àgueda (double harp), and Pau Ballester (percussion). Franzetti's rich, focused voice permeated the small hall, moving between dancey, playful lines and the haunting lilt of more somber songs. Magraner, on viol, most often provided the steady pulse; the percussion, by contrast, was more embellishment, and Ballester deployed a wide array of small instruments in addition to a handheld, platter-sized drum. Antich's flutes at times engaged with the vocal line, or trailed it, while the harp contributed a delicate wash of notes, at times even taking the lead.

The song selection ranged from a Greek instrumental, with a nod to El Greco's hometown of Crete, to the Italian and Spanish Renaissance period, with longer selections of work by Ceari Negri and Fabrizio Caroso. In "Romerico Florido" by Mateo Romero, Franzetti sang with attack and felicitousness, boldly engaging while spinning a story. In the encore, "La Muerte de Absolan," a Sephardic lamentation, she strolled about while briskly regaling us in song.

The Blanco Patio, just off of the grand lobby, was a nearly ideal setting other than some ambient chatter from passersby and some echoing footsteps from above. The concert demanded a re-viewing of the El Greco in New York show—now degrees richer, armed with a greater context. 

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608—14, oil on canvas, 87.5"x76"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956
The show, up through Feb 1, is a gathering of the painter's works from the Hispanic Society of America and the Met. It is surprisingly compact, filling one relatively small gallery. It includes two of the artist's best-known paintings: View of Toledo, in which every object and surface shimmers with electricity, and The Vision of St. John, whose modernist tendencies purportedly influenced Picasso's composition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. One of the earliest paintings on view, Christ Healing the Blind (1570), with its clinical approach to perspective, is a reminder of just how radical El Greco's subsequent work was, with its unfettered, supernaturally expressionistic brushwork and flattened planes.

The show contains several portraits: of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, with his searing and judgmental gaze; Saint Jerome as both a scholar and a penitent, his elongated features compounding his otherworldliness; and a tiny cameo cut from a larger canvas, painted with Holbein's exactitude. The collective experience of the art and the music— artifacts five centuries old, yet very much alive with us today—is a surprising gift amid the holiday clamor. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

MoMA—Forever Now, or at least until April 5

Kerstin Brätsch, Sigi's Erben (Agate Psychics) (2012) at left; Matt Connors, Variable Foot (2014), at right. Photo: Susan Yung

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is the kind of show you'd expect MoMA to do more frequently—a compact survey of young painters expanding the genre, curated by Laura Hoptman, like a biennial (and including a number of artists that were in the last Whitney Biennial). In press materials, the obtusely titled show is parsed into four loose categories: reanimation, reenactment, sampling, and the archetype, which provides intellectual crunchiness if you prefer to go deeper than "I know what I like."

Some highlights:
Dianna Molzan, Untitled, 2012. Photo: Susan Yung

Kerstin Brätsch—some of Brätsch's "Blocked Radiant" paintings sit outside the gallery, like either greeters or warnings; frittery shapes surround fuzzy orbs. The large installation inside, Sigi's Erbe (Agate Psychics) (2012) is composed of a metal framework off of which hang panels made of glass or aluminum with imaergy, or of agate segments arranged into compositions, all meant to be seen from both sides. 

Mark Grotjahn—his carefully arranged psychedelic compositions of layered arcs, such as Untitled (Circus No. 6 Face 44.22) (2013) could be biological snapshots, or dense jungle. They are hermetic new worlds.

Julie Mehretu—she has relaxed somewhat from her hypothetical utopias that approach architectural renderings into scribbled graphite-hued fog banks that will be unavoidably compared to Cy Twombly, such as Heavier than Air (written form) (2014).

(Here, take note of the penchant for parenthetical titles. What gives?)

Amy Sillman, Untitled (Head), 2014. Photo: Susan Yung
Dianna Molzan—what she does—playing with the traditional format of painting—may not be entirely revolutionary, but it is entertaining and beautifully done. In the example pictured here, she has painted on sheer silk, which is then stretched onto bars so that both the canvas and stretchers are visible. In others, she slices the canvas, or reduces it to a net, whose strings receive the paint.

Amy Sillman—among the more traditional-seeming painters, which is perhaps the most ambitious. Her still lives and portraits resonate for their reductive shapes and gorgeous palettes.

Oscar Murillo—his extensive representation within the show is enough to make a statement. He pieces together canvases, using primarily dark hues with looping scrawls and dense occlusions.

The exhibition, through April 5, is on the sixth floor, next to the Matisse Cut-Outs. Catching both might give you a sense of the ongoing continuity within art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Maliphant—Sculpting with Humans

Carys Staton and Adam Kirkham. Photo: Warren Du Preez & Nick Thor
Russell Maliphant's Joyce Theater programStill Current, features his strong, fluid dancers solo or in small groups, moving in a fairly limited spatial range, in lighting (by Michael Hulls) restricted to geometric shapes, otherwise surrounded by utter darkness. In some ways, it banks on certain aspects of his last Joyce presentation, The Rodin Project, but it's unencumbered by the dubious, if elegiac, allusions to the sculptor's work. Still Current presents in abstract terms the beauty of the human form, but without the pretensions. In some cases, movement is limited to just the upper body, or a repeated set of phrases performed with great precision.

It's impressive how focused this program is, despite Maliphant being injured, causing a rejiggering of pieces. A men's duet, Critical Mass (featuring Thomasin Gulgec and Dickson Mbi) feels grounded and muscular as the pair fit their bodies together, or narrowly miss one another. Clothed in chambray shirts and pants, they appear as regular people. Two, a solo for Carys Staton, similar to the duet Two x Two seen in the recent Fall for Dance, confined her to a square, whose lit border she swiped with her feet and hands. Her folded arms became shapes bereft of function. In Still, Mbi's sculpted torso flickers under banded lighting; he is joined by Staton in a contrasting pale blue gown. In Afterlight, Gulgec appears alien, with a beanie covering his head, a white orb floating above a red warmup jacket. (The costumes, by Stevie Stewart, are for the most part casual tops and pants.) 

In Still Current, Marlon Dino danced in place of Maliphant with Staton. Until this piece, most of the partnering was atypical—same gender, or not load-bearing in the male/female tradition. But Dino repeatedly slung Staton over his shoulders, her legs maintaining a parallel, spear-like aspect, sliding her around his torso. It closed a tightly curated evening, mercifully trimmed of artifice and extraneous set pieces.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marooned in Manhattan

It's an unlikely time of year for the Park Avenue Armory to mount tears become... streams become..., given that its premise is to flood the Armory's vast hall along artist Douglas Gordon's specifications, and have pianist Hélène Grimaud give a concert of water-themed piano pieces (or at alternate times, have a player piano operating). Especially during weather like this week, when rain drenches the cold air. But the Armory has not shied from ambitious projects that few other presenting institutions in their right minds would undertake. 

The logistics of the project alone are breathtaking. 
At a press preview, as Grimaud sat on her piano island (there are so many metaphors to this image alone) surrounded by mostly dry black material, water began to seep up through the seams, nearly silent except for a stray burble or bloop. In a matter of minutes—under 10—the Drill Hall was a glassy pond. Grimaud played Fauré's Barcarolle No. 5 in F# minor, Op. 66, and Berio's Wasserklavier. While the acoustics are challenging, the effect of one brilliantly played piano floating on a glassy lake was transporting. Gordon sat beside her, giving lighting cues; after she was done, they walked through (on?) the pond to the dry deck, sloshing and looking like beached shipwreck survivors. Grimaud wore a sporty white track suit designed by Agnès B.

The most surprising and powerful aspect is how the hall's ceiling and roof trusses were illuminated by the choreographed lighting cues. From engulfing darkness, the east/west spine at the apex of the hall's ceiling was lit gradually. Then the "ribs" of the ceiling's armature were emphasized, and it appeared—seated at the very center to capture the symmetry of the ceiling in the reflecting water—as if we were in a giant whale's ribcage. Spots hit Grimaud's piano, and then the idle player piano. This tranquil yet humbling image will likely never be replicated in the middle of New York City... one more singularly memorable experience in a one-of-a-kind space, provided by the Park Avenue Armory.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Varone—Hitting Reset

Xan Burley in Dome. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
After 28 years of running a highly respected company, Doug Varone has done the unexpected. He has departed, if by degrees, from his signature style of modern dance, which is a fluid, looping, channelling of energy that looks organic but which is carefully constructed and practiced expertly by his trained dancers. In a new group work, Dome, and a solo for himself, he has created stuttering, angular phrases separated by long moments of stillness. In a sense, he has hit the reset button.

The Joyce program leads off with Castles (2004), representative of Varone's essential style. It's marked by a matrix of pin spotlights (by Jane Cox and Joshua Epstein), at times reduced to light just the stage's perimeter. The lively, danceable music, Prokofiev's Waltz Suite, Opus 110, coaxes the mood from carnivalesque to martial to grandiose. The 3/4 tempo accommodates Varone's affinity for dropping weight into the ground. Xan Burley is particularly effective in this dance—lush, boneless, muscular.

Doug Varone in The Fabulist. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Varone then performed a new solo, The Fabulist, to "Death Speaks" by David Lang, presumably sung by an uncredited Shara Worden, whose lilting voice imbues a folk music touch. The lighting, by Ben Stanton, plays an important part, as it does in most of Varone's repertory. Just Varone's head and shoulders are lit at the start; he is bathed in a cone of light and moves almost begrudgingly, primarily using his arms and upper body. As the lights pull apart to rake him from both sides, he expands his range, stutter-stepping, hunching, and walking awkwardly, almost as if relearning his first steps. He plops down and with some effort pushes a stray leg into position with his hands. He eventually gains power over his environs, batting away a spotlight, and finally snapping his fingers to extinguish the light. It's atypical of his extravagantly graceful movement, and an overt reckoning of his own role as a choreographer/creator. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung's gray silk suit with sheer sleeves and pant hems seem overly fussy for Varone, who generally comes across as the super graceful pugilist-next-door.

Dome, the group premiere, builds on the angular, fitful phrasing. To Christopher Rouse's strange, at times cyclonic Trombone Concerto, it feels emotionally dark (despite Jane Cox's golden lighting) and vaguely post-disaster. The dancers read as detached from one another, in contrast to their usual cohesiveness; they move robotically, bursting into a phrase, or freezing in arabesques or beaching themselves on the floor apathetically. Hsiao-Jou Tang captures the sense of resigned doom in her elegant, economical phrasing. In a flurry of brass instruments, the eight dancers finally trundle together, each raising an arm. Dome showed some fresh approaches from an established choreographer.

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.