Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017 Whitney Biennial

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017. Photo: Susan Yung
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is the first edition to be held in the new building, which itself still feels more like news than the show itself. The museum's 2015 inaugural aspirational statement show on Gansevoort (America Is Hard to See) felt like a biennial, and probably helped to alleviate some of the pressure that builds up before each biennial. Mia Locks and Christopher Lew curated this edition, whose work was chosen prior to the 2016 election.

Biennials, by nature, are notoriously overstuffed. The most memorable works are often distinguished, for me, by scale or craft. The standouts in this show are the site-specific installations that make use of the vast window walls facing the Hudson River. Foremost among them are Samara Golden's Escheresque work, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, comprising scale models of the offices or residences of several occupants of a multi-story building. Tenants include a treatment room (of an unspecified medical, dental or vanity service), a restaurant, an office, and more, all with breathtaking river views. By using mirrored panels and securing some of the units upside-down, the effect evokes that of an infinity mirror. It's both realistic and completely disorienting. (Curator Locks is publishing a book on Golden's work this spring.)

Raύl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Photo: Susan Yung

Another work that takes cunning advantage of the glass and sunlight is beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end by Raύl de Nieves. Using mundane media, de Nieves has crafted an impressive faux stained glass composition on the windows, which backgrounds beaded, knobby, vaguely monstrous sculptures and costumes, some of which de Nieves wears in performances. It's not exactly water into wine, but he does create the feeling of ecclesiastical opulence with simple materials. It occupies the lounge area behind the partial wall that provides shade to the galleries, where people check their phones while resting on the tasteful leather sofas.

Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel, Reflections, 2017
In a similar vein, in Reflections, Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel adhered reverse cut-out vinyl text that appears in negative form on the adjacent wall. The text summons verbiage from the 1968 student strikes in Paris, which aimed to destabilize the university system.

In Root sequence. Mother tongue, Asad Raza arrayed 26 individually potted saplings in one of the galleries that leads to an outdoor exhibition space. The trees have been assigned personalities, scents, and/or traits. This indoor grove is clearly conducive to socializing, with groups of chatters standing amidst the installation as if the trees were guests at a cocktail party. 

Occupy Museums is an installation organizing the debts of 30 artists, with artifacts somewhat hokily embedded within the sheetrock walls of the galleries. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement from which it derives its name, it is meant to underscore economic disparity—in this case between debt-laden artists and the lending institutions which profit from the debt.  
Occupy Museums, Stress, Fear and Anxiety Bundle, 2015.
One of the oldest painters represented is Jo Baer (born 1929), whose unstretched, sparingly-marked canvases with a harmonious organic palette are a breath of fresh air. Other art world veterans include Lyle Ashton Harris, with an atmospheric video room installation, and Jon Kessler, who combines machinery and detritus into densely-packed sculptures. Of representational art and photography, the subject matter is predominantly, refreshingly, non-Caucasian. There are full rooms devoted to one artist's work; some puzzling, such as the grotesque, charred pastiches of KAYA; others check the pulse of painting, including Carrie Moyer Ulrike Müller, and Shara Hughes.

The fact that the work was made in a pre-Trump presidency time gives it an almost nostalgic feel, free from the overbearing story line that will most likely dominate work made in 2017 and after—the way 9/11 affected everything that came after. And there's no getting around the tension between the prominence of the disenfranchised in the subject matter and the expensive river views and surrounding glitz. Tis ever thus.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Angel, Feet Planted Firmly

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Since her 2014 retirement from New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan has kept consistently busy exploring genres outside of the genre of classical ballet, which made her a beloved star there for decades. One of the first projects she pursued was Restless Creature (2013), in which four male choreographers created pieces with her. It was intriguing, but she was still a Ballerina, for whom to design reverential and mostly careful movement. One of those was Brian Brooks, and the two perform Some of a Thousand Words at the Joyce, a five-part work plus musical interlude, with live music (by five composers) played by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

From the outset of the evening, it's clear that Brooks has worked extensively with Whelan on neutralizing her innately lyrical line and comportment, which were honed and developed expansively over her 30 years with NYCB. At the start, the two walk slowly downstage. Of a similar height, wearing tank tops and pants, and with Whelan's hair pulled back tightly, they almost look like mirror images. The movement becomes bigger—deep second positions, pivots, tilting torsos, slashing arms. The phrases form a kind of serialism reminiscent of choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Lucinda Childs. In the next section, the pace quickens and the dancing is more darting and pond-skimming. Whelan has a solo that is sinuous, fluid, organic, lifting a pointed foot and snaking her body. 
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Brooks brings two chairs onstage. They each stand atop a chair, and Whelan slowly tips to the side while Brooks stealthily rushes to catch her atop his shoulders. It's a fancy trust fall, and the timing is impressively synchronized. They sit on the chairs and tip to one side, evoking a kneeplay from Einstein on the Beach (more Childs). Still seated, they perform a passage of arms and upper body moves and poses that recall Brooks' Bolero, in which his dancers perform the entire work with their feet planted, using only their upper bodies. Brooks has always explored movement ideas like a mad scientist, taking an idea to its physical limits and sometimes beyond. 

It's hard not to watch Whelan, whose luminous presence and clarity of line have always distinguished her onstage, but actually Brooks draws the eye equally. His everyman appearance and humble bearing don't demand our attention, but he has a lush muscularity and physical intelligence, and creates movement that complements these factors. The final section, which incorporates parts of his duet for Restless Creatures, feels as if it was made early in their working relationship, when reverence for her illustrious ballet career was at a high. She comes across as more fragile, a falling angel now in white (her body in a cruciform, no less) to catch softly on his back time and again. It's good to have seen in earlier sections that their partnership has brought her back down to earth and alongside a partner who is inspired by her, and vice versa, feet planted firmly on the ground.   

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dorrance/Van Young Transform the Guggenheim Into a Giant Instrument

Photo: Matthew Murphy
No other building in New York City can compare to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim. The spiral ramp that forms the rotunda may pose logistical problems when installing an exhibition, but who among us hasn't daydreamed of rolling from the top to the bottom on the ramp, ideally free of visitors? The museum is currently showing Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim, which is essentially a selection of core works elucidating the museum's mission, essentially the history of modern 20th century abstract art.
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, plus her company, were given free rein on Feb 16 to turn the rotunda into a giant instrument, with the full-house audience as participants. Dorrance is known for her imaginative tap choreography, but here the company for the most part wore street shoes (at least I think that's what they were, as I watched at a distance from the top level). As Dorrance whacked a drum, dancers pushed boxes on the ground (that comprised platforms when assembled), tracing figure 8s, and slapping or stomping on them to create sounds. A pair lay on the floor and posed in various shapes which read clearly from on high.

The performers hit together red plastic sticks, and mock dueled one another. A trio stood mid-level and sang out into the atrium. They then ran down the ramp for a circuit, repositioned themselves against the railing, and sang again. Just below me, a team with longer plastic tubes whacked them against the railing in rhythmic patterns. 
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Van Young stood at the ground floor's center and conducted us, the audience, in alternating rounds of claps, varying in speed and pattern. It was remarkable how quickly people picked up what he was doing, and what we needed to do in response. He and Dorrance hit some spheres floating in the small pool (which I always forget is there), creating yet more types of sounds. Wooden platforms for tapping were dragged in, and the dancers carried their tap shoes out, laced them up, and made a cacaphonous barrage of reports which bounced around the rotunda. Dorrance's ingenuity emerged not only in the tap routine she performed solo, but in the simple yet effective section where most of the company marched in a looping line, each step resonating loudly.

The event is part of the Works & Process Rotunda Project, which intends to activate the main gallery space. Dorrance/Van Young certainly left no area unused, showing the potential of the iconic space when in the hands of visionary creators. The next work in the series will be in September by ABT principal Daniil Simkin. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Punch and Judy, Refreshed

Anne O’Donnell and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

Choreographer Annie-B Parson and her company Big Dance Theater have frequently used existing narratives and texts as bases for their varied repertory. In I used to love you, a premiere for Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, Parson has succeeded in acknowledging an oddity of Graham's repertory while creating an intriguing new entry. And the Graham company, under Janet Eilber's direction, continues to evolve smartly while embracing its rich history.

Parson conducted a "conversation" with Graham in I used to love you, using a film of Graham's 1941 comic dance drama Punch and Judy as a starting point. Parson skillfully deploys her wry wit and conceptual curiosity, enfolding scratchy clips of the original with other footage (video by Jeff Larson) to create something completely new. The Greek chorus, a standard feature in many Graham dances, comprises Anne O'Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Laurel Dalley Smith. They're the first thing we see—posed on the apron, strikingly costumed in Oana Botez's beautiful, hot-hued, pleated crinoline and floral dresses, a nod to Graham's focus on couture as an important production element. They each sit on a white rolling office task chair and hold mics with color-coordinated cords, fan kick their legs, and roll on their chairs casually while a drum roll (music by Tei Blow) sounds, raising the level of anticipation. 

Anne O’Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, Laurel Dalley Smith, and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

The choristers utter phrases that seem random while making bits of sense (text by Will Eno), referencing the moment (reciting the date) or an action (tapping the mic). Judy (Xin Ying) and Punch (Lorenzo Pagano) appear, bringing onstage a rolling cot and a portable film screen, which they set up. They dance as baggage-laden husband and wife, alternately beseeching and violent, and always intense, as the chorus moves downstage in slow motion, revolving on their chairs. Their daughter enters (So Young An); she's cradled by her mother, and then is partnered by her father as one of the corps describes the action as "virtuosic lifts, conveying complex emotions." It evokes an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I must confess that at times I've wanted to similarly, and snarkily, narrate a war horse ballet like Swan Lake, just for fun.)

Ben Schultz then proceeds to steal Punch's affection. The two men strip off their shirts and perform a muscular acrobatic duet on the cot. There's a blackout, and we're informed that it represents the place where the original film broke. A stunning video of a giant moon appears on the backdrop. Judy dances a passionate solo filled with sweeping limbs and taut lines (Parson reinterpreted the original Graham choreography), and her face appears large onscreen. The kneeling chorus members pull their skirts over their heads and rock in a sort of physical keening as Judy hinges to the floor on her back. Martha's projected face looms over the drama, as the chorus moves to sit on the edge of the stage, their legs dangling. 

The February 14 program included works by Graham: Dark Meadow Suite (1946), an exercise in clear shapes and structures; the solo Ekstasis (1933), a snaky solo for PeiJu Chien-Pott; the bizarre, self-mocking Maple Leaf Rag (1990), plus Woodland by Pontus Lidberg, a work showing off his elegant, balletic phrasing.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Retracings—Cecily Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Bruce Springsteen

As much as we seek out the new, there are moments when retracing becomes essential. In the past week or two, I've experienced work by three artists of different genres who have retraced in wide-ranging ways.

Untitled (Paradise), 2014
Cecily Brown: Rehearsal

In what is, unbelievably, her New York museum debut, 80 of artist Cecily Brown's watercolors and sketches comprise an exhibition titled Rehearsal (from the French word "rehercier"—to achieve understanding or mastery by retracing) at The Drawing Center through Dec 18. This highly focused show, curated by Claire Gilman, is a collection of reworkings by Brown of source material, including Goya, Brueghel, animal bestiaries, and even a Jimi Hendrix album cover. In the process of her retracings, she can isolate subjects or clusters, creating intriguing incomplete compositions; add sheets of paper when she runs off the page; and even work without glasses, or with low resolution imagery, to blur perception and and allow an absorption of general massing and color balance. Seeing her "rehearsals" of the album art for Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (in one example, she overlays it with another artwork), provides some insight into her painting compositions, which seethe with unspecific, irrepressible life.

Canto Ostinato. Photo: John Sisley
Lucinda Childs: A Portrait

Childs' dancers can perform a passage, and then etch and re-etch the same, or similar, one again and again. Each phrase is beautifully crafted to move the dancer in a direction, or back, swiftly and with an effervescent flow. A quickly extended arabesque can be counterweighted by arms tossed overhead, effectively braking the impetus. The repetition can be hypnotic; a sudden change of direction or added move lends unexpected drama (not unlike such a musical shift in a composition by Philip Glass, a frequent collaborator). A Portrait, at the Joyce, was composed of eight repertory dances spanning the decades since 1963, when she created conceptual works such as Pastime—consecutive brief vignettes, including one in which a seated dancer, enfolded within a stretchy length of ecru fabric, assumes a sculptural position, straightens her body langorously, and shifts angles. Radial Courses (1976) features four men walking rapidly in circles; two break apart to leap and turn, and rejoin the circuits, or turn to head the opposite way. In a work from this year, Into View, an intense light pierces through the upstage scrim, like the sun cutting through fog. The dancers pair up for a change of pace, the women doing fanning leg lifts or ducking under their partners' arms. Childs is a master of retracing, using it as a framework for her intricate, mesmerizing movement structures.   

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Another type of retracing is telling a life's story. Springsteen's autobiography, Born to Run (Simon and Schuster), recounts his path to becoming one of our generation's biggest rock stars while maintaining a strong connection to his working class New Jersey brethren. I confess that I've never bought an album by him—a consequence of his music being ubiquitous in life, whether on the radio or blaring from someone's stereo loudspeakers. Nonetheless, I do seem to have unconsciously absorbed the words to many of his songs, and some of their rough-hewn poetics reverberates in his book's prose. He knows how to write, and the ease of the syntax makes the book a pleasure to read (plus, he drops in title or lyric quotes, a kind of game within the story). A bonus of retracing a musician's life in the age of Spotify is being able to play, and doubly appreciate, the songs being read about. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New York Notebook—Vail: ReMix & Minter/Iggy Pop

Lil Buck, Michelle Dorrance, Robert Fairchild, Melissa Toogood. Photo: Erin Baiano
Last week, the Vail Dance Festival manifested itself at City Center in ReMix NYC, put together by renowned long-time NYCB principal Damian Woetzel. We New Yorkers who haven't made the pilgrimage to Vail for this festival were given a glimpse at what all the chatter's about, though I'd imagine the experience is far more energizing in an outdoor setting, far from the dance world's American locus (and from where many of the performers are based). That's not to say that City Center wasn't abuzz—it was, particularly with Woetzel as the most enthusiastic viewer, tapping his foot to the music and running around at intermission. His ardor is felt in the varied programming.

ReMix featured stars of NYCB and ABT, plus Carla Korbes (late of Pacific Northwest Ballet, and now associate artistic director of LA Dance Project), Lil Buck, Fang-Yi Sheu, Matthew Rushing, and others. Wendy Whelan showcased her recent collaboration with modern tinkerer Brian Brooks. Gabriel Missé and Carla Espinoza performed a charged tango with bandoneonist JP Jofre and band. And BalletX and Keigwin + Company bookended Saturday's performance, representing some of the foremost American contemporary/ballet troupes.

L-R: Eric Jacobsen, Yo-Yo Ma, Lil Buck, Kate Davis, Sandeep Das. Photo: Erin Baiano
The programs were stuffed full; both I attended were more than 2-1/2 hours. Live music was paramount. Kurt Crowley (music director of Hamilton) led a pit orchestra when musicians were not seated onstage. Lil Buck and Ron Myles had an extended suite which featured Sandeep Das on tabla and later, Yo-Yo Ma playing Saint-Saens' The Dying Swan—one of Lil Buck's famous, and surprisingly moving, solos (although truth be told, his even more riveting lead-up to it involved bonelessly gliding up and down a staircase and slinking from one platform to another). The work that was on both programs I saw, and which received the strongest ovation, was Christopher Wheeldon's The Bitter Earth, done by Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III, both coming off of a fantastic ABT season.

Carla Korbes. Photo: Erin Baiano
Part of the point of ReMix, it seems, is to allow these outstanding dancers to experiment outside of their normal genres. In that respect, Robert Fairchild shone brightly, displaying his double threat skills in ballet and tap, lending a relaxed virtuosity to the former, and a taut verve to the latter. He shifted from filling in for an injured Herman Cornejo as Apollo to hoofing alongside tap wiz Michelle Dorrance as Lil Buck jooked, and Cunningham star Melissa Toogood performed some modern phrases, around them, to mixed effect. 

Sara Mearns performed Ratmansky's Fandango, in which she was inspired to do some flamenco-ish phrases in response to the musicians' rendering of Boccherini. Sheu's duet with Ron Myles was somewhere in-between modern and jooking, with the its signature "tossing" of energy between dancers. (I missed Korbes in Martha Graham's Lamentation, Sheu being one of Graham's fullest interpreters.) Tiler Peck and Jared Angle were reliably superb in various ballet duets, and it's always heartwarming to see her dance with her husband, Fairchild; they were sublime in Jose Limon's joyous Suite from Mazurkas. Korbes performed a moving rendition of Balanchine's Elégie, recreated from a videotape and last done in the city in 1982, the year of its creation. Utlimately, Vail: ReMix was a great deal of fun, even if in the wake of Fall for Dance it felt like an embarrassment of riches.

Marilyn Minter, Smash (still), 2014. HD digital video. Courtesy of the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

Marilyn Minter and Iggy Pop

The Brooklyn Museum opened Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty last week. The artist is known for her outsized close-up paintings of body parts—often tongues, eyes, and grotty feet clad in heels—dripping with metallic liquids in states of splattering and coating. She paints on metal with enamel, giving the work a candy-coated hardness. Early works include 1970's "boudoir" shots of her mother, which exude Minter's penchant for providing more intimacy than is comfortable. A series of kitchen paintings show her fascination with the depiction of metal surfaces, even as banal as a stainless sink or a sheet of aluminum foil. A later series of food porn, and then porn, lead to her best-known paintings that both fascinate and repulse.

Also on view is Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller, a fascinating exhibition of life drawings by New York Academy of Art students. Deller invited rock star Iggy Pop to model without informing the class of his identity. The results are shown juxtaposed with artworks of male nudes from the BMA's collection. It's an exhibition idea that is both rewarding on a conceptual level, while providing access to some of the museum's stellar collection, such as an Egon Schiele drawing.      

Monday, October 10, 2016

Quadrille—Facing Four Ways

        Jason Collins and Victor Lozano in Sequenzas in Quadrilles by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
It may have been the simple addition and subtraction of some seats, and the construction of a floating platform that bridges the house and the stage, but these relatively minor renovations qualify as tectonic shifts in the life of the sole New York stage devoted to dance, the Joyce Theater. Pam Tanowitz's company was the first to take the spotlight in the Joyce Theater's New York Quadrille, a series of four companies chosen by choreographer Lar Lubovitch. (Work by Roseanne Spradlin and Loni Landon completed the series.) Tanowitz recently was given the Juried Bessie Award, which is chosen by a select panel of three, rather than the standard selection committee of 40. 

Tanowitz has been innovating for years, delving into every aspect of dance theater: parsing the forms of ballet (including on point) and Cunningham modern, site-specific work, the interplay between movement and design, and formal spatial exploration. All of these come into play in Sequenzas in Quadrilles at the Joyce, for which musicians (including a harp) of The Knights play selections by Berio and John King live, scattered in various spots on the mezzanine. Davison Scandrett designed the lighting and Suzanne Bocanegra designed the set (including, presumably, a set of small cards with vintage looking landscapes with the dance's geometric lighting scheme depicted, distributed to each audience member).  

The movement flowed on and off the platform from the wings. From my seat onstage, I could see the backstage area and the dancers prepping to enter, or managing not to crash into things as they exited. Tanowitz's work draws strong comparisons to that by Merce Cunningham (MCDC alum Dylan Crossman danced in Sequenzas); she was mentored by Viola Farber, mainstay of Cunningham's company for years. Generally speaking, the style is based on turned out positions of fifth and fourth; the limbs move about these open forms to create geometric volumes; the torso tilts and twists on top of a stable base. 
Victor Lozano, Lindsey Jones, Sarah Haarmann, Jason Collins and Dylan Crossman in Sequenzas in
by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
Tanowitz's dancers have worn toe shoes in past performances, but here they are barefoot. They wear multihued unitards with patterns reflecting those in the Joyce Theater's deco scheme, with chiffon scarfs draped around the midriff in the early sections. Cunningham's dancers often related to one another the way animals might—looking at one another to check distance and intention—and Tanowitz's performers have the same feel, as much animal as human. They dance solo, in pairs and trios, and as a group, although they may split in half, drawing the gaze in two directions. The phrases are densely packed. The music emanated from solo instruments placed throughout the house on the mezzanine level. 

Tere O'Connor's Undersweet, a duet for Michael Ingle and Silas Riener, seemed to go with the series' quadrille theme, implying a form of social dance which, in itself, consists of given forms and expected behavior. The use of Lully's Atys fomented this external gloss, beneath which course primal urges and emotions. The pair began by hewing to pathways on the square stage's periphery, or diagonals, prancing, keeping good posture, heads held high. Yet O'Connor's spare costumes—brown tights for Riener, navy t-shirt and shorts for Ingle— lent a casualness. As the dance evolved, their interactions became more personal and intimate; at one point, they kiss suddenly. Lully's music is mixed with other sounds (also by O'Connor), paralleling the surficial and underlying dynamics. Riener, a Cunningham alum and kind of rock star in modern dance, is never less than riveting to watch.

Riener also danced in Transcendental Daughter with Eleanor Hullihan (another rock star) and Natalie Green, with music by James Baker. This work showcased O'Connor's broadly inventive movement language which encompasses quirky, banal gestures with balletic grandeur. He attracts superb dancers time and again, itself a testament to the seriousness and rigor of his technique. The in-the-round stage set up is not foreign to O'Connor, who has performed at Danspace Project previously (as has Tanowitz), with its option to transform to any configuration. But at the Joyce, such a stage design feels more like a boxing ring, with its slightly raised height and strictly defined edges. Both dances have a seamless fluidity, and the dancers skillfully projected outward, rather than simply to one side. It's invigorating to see the Joyce experimenting with what would seem to be an intractable traditional proscenium design. It was also fun to sit onstage for once.