Sunday, December 2, 2018

Tharp, Pared Down

Eight Jelly Rolls. Photo: Ian Douglas
If Twyla Tharp had failed at choreography, which she obviously hasn’t, she could’ve become a professor. Half of Minimalism and Me, the Twyla Tharp Dance program at the Joyce Theater (Nov 14 to Dec 9), features Tharp at a downstage lectern recapping the ideas behind works between 1965 and 1971, accompanied by priceless video footage of original company members and live performance segments by current dancers. It’s an excellent primer on a less-known period in Tharp’s prodigious, multifarious career which is best known for Broadway smashes and symphonic ballets. 

She traced her path through minimalism, citing simple concepts: the body at a right angle, standing in releve in a star position for 2+ minutes (demonstrated by an implacable Kellie Drobnick), placing one foot in front of the other, and putting the performers behind a wall. Tharp placed an emphasis on learning, not presenting; and going for shock and not entertainment. These experiments were done mainly without a large audience, although for the purposes of the demonstration, a small group sat on folding chairs and conveyed puzzlement or comprehension. 

Twyla Tharp and Rose Marie Wright at the Met
Museum. Photo: James Kravitz
Then a group of rising choreographers—including Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, besides Tharp—were collectively featured in a program on Broadway, and public became an increasingly important component. This led to Medley, a flash mob in Central Park, and a piece at the Met Museum, and the realization that a dance was a commodity. (A group of volunteer performers helped to show the gist of these happenings at the Joyce.)

In the wake of that epiphany came The Fugue (1970), an excerpt of which Kara Chan, Drobnick, and Reed Tankersley performed. It’s full of experimentation and invention, blending numerous forms of dance genres such as tap, modern, jazz, gesture, and body percussion, and solos and intricate interplay among the trio.

The second act of the evening comprised the 1971 opus Eight Jelly Rolls, in which the previous dancers were joined by Matt Dibble, Ron Todorowski, and Mary Beth Hansohn. It’s looser, more playful, and presumably takes cues from the accompanying music, by Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Luke. Tharp expands the kinetic ingredients from The Fugue to include more ballet, vaudeville, quotidian and gestural movement, giving each individual dancer sections that correlate with each one’s character and strengths, as she has always done. Chan has a standout solo done as if tipsy; Jennifer Tipton’s lighting features Chan in white hues while the upstage dancers are bathed in blue to create a background. Drobnick—lanky, fluid, and magnetic—has a quieter passage of poses, small moves, and stasis, echoed by five others.

In a coda, Tharp pokes fun at her aging self, skipping and running after her young brood, and being lifted and spun rapidly, held by her heels (a repeat trick from a recent past Joyce run). While her company is technically stellar, when Tharp is onstage at the Joyce—whether teaching or moving—there’s no doubt who the star is.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

NYCB's Fall Gala—Revolution in the Air

The Exchange. Photo: Paul Kolnik
By Susan Yung

In a sense, it was business as usual at NYCB’s fall fashion gala, “the most important night of our year,” as Teresa Reichlen put it in pre-show remarks at the Koch Theater on Sep 26. Somehow it felt more trite than that in the wake of the departure of Peter Martins last spring, and more recently three male principals, leaving the company in limbo both leadership-wise (currently four company members share that role) and with a shortage of tall leading men. Three new dances focused around fashion designs were hardly the headline.

Reichlen’s speech alluded to the departures: “We won’t allow talent to sway our moral standards.” There’s no dispute this is moral high ground, and yet who among them—us—are unimpeachable, morally? And yet in the face of powerful figures falling each day, the high ground seems to be the only safe spot.

Those remarks set the tone for three premieres which felt, as the evening passed, increasingly what the future will look like for new repertory for NYCB, apart from by now stalwarts Justin Peck and Chris Wheeldon. Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange seemed to pit the old against the new, or conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. atheistic, etc. In any case, a group of rule-bound people (the women in Gareth Pugh’s Martha Graham-esque long red gowns; the men in drum major reds and blacks; all wear red chiffon head covers) move in an orderly fashion, before the rebels (in short tablecloth, diagonal-drape dresses; the men in strappy harnesses and gaucho pants) move in and shake things up. The Dvorak accompanying it set a mostly solemn tone, with hints of Slavic dash.
Lauren Lovette & Preston Chamblee in Judah. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Still just 19, Gianna Reisen’s second work for NYCB, Judah, is set to John Adams’ frenetic score. Four dancers began the piece by walking onstage in front of the curtain, which then parted to reveal staircase segments on each stage side (an allusion to Apollo, intentional or not). Perhaps because Reisen is a woman who performs, sometimes on pointe (with LA Dance Project), she pushes the capabilities of NYCB’s women, who are astounding athlete-artists. An indulgent arc of piqué turns, or an arabesque “nailed” after running to a spot, or finishing a pirouette with an extended leg rather than a planted foot are examples of such ambition, rewarded. Alberta Ferretti designed the costumes—scarf-draped dresses and unitards with, oddly, silhouettes of dancers printed on them. Reisen uses the stair elements as perches and launch pads; Lauren Lovette leaps off of one into Preston Chamblee’s arms. Harrison Ball showed his power and magnetism in a featured role. Reisen packs a lot into the piece, which sometimes feels frenzied, but merits another viewing.

Taylor Stanley in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway promised to be the mystery of the program since he had never choreographed a ballet. The curtain rose to reveal Taylor Stanley (in a black and white romper, by Giles Deacon) in a solo that began and ended with him slumped over and blossoming like a flower. It perfectly showed his absolute precision, nuance, and impeccable line, and which blended ballet with Abraham’s richly varied lexicon, from break to club to voguing. Unfortunately, Deacon’s costumes for some of the other dancers, mainly the women, were baroque and overwrought; headpieces with big side extensions looked ridiculous and rendered the women unidentifiable.

Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, & Ashley Bouder in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The mixed soundtrack ranged widely from Nico Muhly to Kanye to Jay-Z, and perhaps the sound of hip-hop and rap in the Koch Theater felt like the most revolutionary thing about the night. At the same time, it adrenalized the dancers and created an interesting tension with the tradition and classicism associated with the institution and theater itself. Despite the contemporary music, the ruffles, feathers, and crinolines used by Deacon created a courtly atmosphere. Punchy solos were danced by Ashley Bouder (in a flapper mini) and Georgina Pascoguin, who shed a bulky skirt with a sassy toss reminscent of Ratmansky’s fourth wall-breaking asides. 

In some ways, Abraham’s fluid, heady mix of styles evoked William Forsythe, who has underscored the physical intelligence of dancers to transform them into incredible alien beings. In the end, Stanley resumed his bowed position alone. Fittingly, the work began and ended with him, currently one of the most exciting dancers in a temporarily depleted troupe that is facing revolution on several fronts.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Paul Taylor, 1930—2018

James Samson, Michael Trusnovec, and Sean Mahoney in Brandenburgs. Photo: Paul B. Goode
We mourn the loss of Paul Taylor at 88. As a choreographer, he was a shapeshifter. How else to explain the fantastically varied body of work he produced over his nearly nine decades of life? His work ranged from conceptual and rebellious; slap-stick humorous; dark and psychologically probing; wartime based; stories; and formal with patterning, often to classical music, for which he is probably best known. 

Some favorites:

Beloved Renegade (2008)
Michael Trusnovec perfectly portrays the Poet facing death, tenderly interacting with his friends and being led mercilessly out of life by the Angel, Laura Halzack.

Promethean Fire (2002)
A masterpiece in patterning and coordination, but also a gut wrenching paean to human bonds through a 9/11 lens.

Brandenburgs (1988)
The odd-numbered groupings, with passages for women that are as powerful as the mens', plus a wonderful hero solo.

Sunset (1983)
Old world gentility, romance, poignant war motifs, a moving male duet, Alex Katz's simple and beautiful set. 

Lost, Found and Lost (1982)
Antipathy and apathy to elevator music, done in elegant rhinestone-studded catsuits and veils.

Le Sacre du Printemps: A Rehearsal (1980)
A funny, scary story dance done in Taylor's flat Egyptian style, plus socialist demagoguery.

Profiles (1979)
A quartet related to a section of Sacre, and one of the most challenging short dances requiring incredible strength and coordination.

Polaris (1976)
Amid Katz's simple cube of tubes, two casts perform the same sequence to skew time and space.

Cloven Kingdom (1976)
Societal norms butt up against primal instincts in both movement and music. The male quartet among the fiercest and rousing passages in Taylor's oeuvre.

Esplanade (1975)
Walking, running, and hurtling through space, plotless but elicits all range of human emotion.

Junction (1961)
Elemental sculptural, modern, abstract shapes made by the dancers' bodies, spiced up with Katz's color block costumes and set elements.

Three Epitaphs (1956)
Caveman style walking—slumped over, effortful—and windmilling forearms by dancers in mud-colored catsuits with mirrored accents, to a New Orleans brass line. Breaks so many norms.

His dancers were his clay to mold and create sculptures. They inspired him and their great abilities and courage fueled his demanding choreography. So the current company members are the last ones to work personally with Taylor, which in the near future will perhaps be compared to Balanchine's last stable of dancers. The company goes on under the artistic direction of recently appointed Michael Novak (recent interview here), but no doubt it is a new era in modern dance. We are richer for Taylor's output, but sadder for his loss.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sarasota Ballets Gifts of Ashton and Gomes

Victoria Hulland & Marcelo Gomes in The Two Pigeons Act II. Photo by Frank Atura
Sarasota Ballet’s visit to the Joyce Theater last week brought things I have been wistful for of late—the repertory of Ashton, and the performing of Marcelo Gomes. The August 19 show led off with There Where She Loved, a suite by Christopher Wheeldon from 2000, to music by Kurt Weill and Chopin performed live. The seven sections featured small groups—four men and a woman, a trio, duets—emphasizing the difficult and sometimes knotty partnering that the choreographer endlessly explores. In the quintet, Ryoko Sadashima’s toe shoe-clad feet rarely alight as she is hoisted, flown, and manipulated in myriad ways by her four squires. (The main theme is danced by the men in shirts and pants, and later without shirts.) Some moments feel awkward: a couple lies head to head, holding hands, and rolls upstage; a woman scooches backwards offstage, seated. The singers (Stella Zambalis and Michelle Giglio), accompanied by pianist Cameron Grant, add luster.

Works by Frederick Ashton comprise the rest of the program. Monotones I & II are performed periodically by ABT, but on the larger Koch Theater stage. Each is done by a trio in yellow and white unitards with sparkles and toadstool headcaps. The three often move in unison, or in canon, or the two women partner one man, and vice versa. The pace is stately and even-paced for the most part; abrupt moves might include a jump into fourth position, or a sissonne into a low arabesque. The close proximity at the Joyce adds even more possibilities to scrutinize off timing or bobbles. But the company essentially fared well under pressure.
Ryoko Sadoshima, Samantha Benoit & Alex Harrison in Monotones I. Photo Frank Atura
Four wide-ranging Ashton miniatures closed the bill. La Chatte, a study of a cat woman, features cliched air-clawing and ear cleaning gestures, and a comedic loud meow at the end; it shows Ashton’s earthy sense of humor. Les Patineurs pas de trois demonstrates Ashton’s fluency with capturing the essence of expression, in the case of ice skating. Elongated chassees and strategic hops impressively create the effect of the real thing, and the simple joy skating evokes is conveyed by the dancers’ luminous faces. Méditation from Thaïs is a more traditional pas de deux with “exotic” costumes of orange and apricot, and numerous technically difficult lifts and partnering maneuvers.

It was only when Marcelo Gomes appeared at the start of The Two Pigeons that I was reminded of how great stage presence can be relayed even while simply walking (albeit with a live dove on his shoulder). Lost in thought, it’s clear he is consumed with emotion as he tenderly places the dove on a chair. Victoria Hulland enters, settling into a “dying swan” pose; he impulsively plunges his arms around her waist to pick her up. It’s during such elemental moments, and not necessarily bigger moves, when Gomes is most moving—like he has created a backstory and lives that character. As they dance together, absorbed in romance, another dove flies onstage and joins the first. The poetry of the parallel pairs carries great pathos and reminds us of the power of theatrical ballet, of which Ashton is exemplary. And also of the recent absence of Gomes, one of his generation's finest performers, but the glimmer of hope that he will periodically return.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Gabe Stone Shayer in Whipped Cream

Gabe Stone Shayer as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gabe Stone Shayer, a corps member of ABT since 2012, made his debut in the lead role of The Boy in Alex Ratmansky's Whipped Cream on July 4, dancing with Sklyar Brandt as Princess Praline, and alongside Gillian Murphy (Princess Tea Flower) and James Whiteside (Prince Coffee). While Shayer is perhaps a bit larger in frame than the role calls for, his fresh youthfulness and exuberance are entirely appropriate.

Fittingly for the holiday, there were fireworks onstage as Shayer soared and leapt high, with his outstanding ballon and scissoring legs, and spun breezily, showing his solid balance. Besides his technical ability, honed by years studying and performing with the Bolshoi, the Philly native has a magnetic personality and an infectious enthusiasm that has won audiences’ affections. He dances with tremendous confidence and with a relaxed joy more commonly held by far more experienced dancers. (This relaxed attitude unfortunately applies to the carriage of his arms and hands, which could be crisper and might convey less flourish.)

Whipped Cream finale. (Gabe would be in the gold shorts suit at left center; this cast featured Herman Cornejo.) Photo: Gene Schiavone

He has been steadily garnering meaty roles at ABT, notably performing the lead pirate recently in La Bayadère and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie announced season promotions recently. Zhong-Jing Fang (at last!), Catherine Hurlin, and Katherine Williams are now soloists. I was half expecting Shayer to receive a promotion this season; no doubt it will follow soon given his abilities and appeal. I'm looking forward to seeing him in even more primary roles.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mark Morris Dance Center Shows—Welcome Home

Pacific. Photo: Nan Melville
Mark Morris' choreography captures the full breadth of being human. For him, music elevates the quotidian into art. We can all walk or run to get somewhere, but when his dancers do so in time to music, it becomes a spirit-lifting pleasure. A jaunty tune provokes a hand gesture that can appear inelegant, but it's what the music asks for whether you're a professional dancer or a little kid. By the same token, a soaring melody can be visualized by a gravity-defying leap or an ecstatic leg extension that take full advantage of the years of dance training by each of Morris' dancers. 

The two 2018 spring programs performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group showed the choreographer's range, in scale from intimate to large. Solos, Duets, and Trios (Program B) was a survey of smaller cast pieces and excerpts that fit naturally within the cozy studio venue. Lou 100: In Honor of the Divine Mr. Harrison (Program A) comprised another solo suite plus some large cast pieces to music by Harrison.

Little Britten. Photo: Nan Melville
Each program had one (more or less) premiere. Little Britten is built on a solo suite made by Morris for David Hallberg for last year's Fall for Dance. The Isaac Mizrahi toga-over-t-shirt is now worn by Lesley Garrison; she is joined by Brandon Randolph, sporting gym shorts, leg warmers, and a long chiffon scarf, and Aaron Loux, in a cropped bee-striped unitard. To piano studies by Britten, each song featured a movement motif, from a simple tendu with open face palms, to turns with an upper back arch, to exuberant extended-leg jumps. Morris has the ability to play with both quotidian and balletic movement, and is able to divine a relatable essence. 

On Program A, Numerator was a New York premiere using Harrison's fascinating Varied Trio for violin, piano, and percussion. Six men wearing brightly-colored camp shirts crawled on their bellies, crawled, and rose up to standing, like an evolutionary chart. Much of the piece uses big movement that eats up space. A man pretends to pass something to another; there are many lifts and partnering feats. The dynamic flicks between controlled and untethered. The pace builds until they're all moving swiftly and powerfully, their individual energies humming in a kind of spatial harmonic.

Grand Duo. Photo: Nan Melville
The older repertory included the beloved and audacious Grand Duo. It is perhaps too large for the studio, but seeing it so close gave me a new appreciation for the hard work, speed, and machine-like cooperation on behalf of the dancers, whose precision prevents whacking one another. The mysterious opening features a double row of dancers crowding the apron, their semaphoring fingers shot with light, and the rousing, wheeling "Polka" finale invariably makes me want to jump onstage and join in (See? It's that thing he does, making you think you could do it!). Pacific, which opened the Harrison program, was made for San Francisco Ballet in 1995; the vocabulary is thus more classical, with lots of sweeping arabesques and turns (performed in soft ballet slippers rather than the usual bare feet). Serenade featured Garrison in a kabuki-like outfit moving through a series of seated and kinetic studies—just the arms and upper body, shoveling hands, and dense, detailed moves that echoed the guitar, percussion, and castanets (by Morris) played live onstage.

In Program B, Morris put his castanet chops to further use in From Old Seville (2001), the only dance in which he performed in the run. This hilarious trio pits Lauren Grant—sleek and assassin-serious—against Morris in a faux flamenco dance-off. Morris seems more interested in the frequent drink breaks (poured by Noah Vinson) than the dancing, but never have more evil eyes been thrown in a modern dance. One Charming Night (1985) was another anticipated revival; Morris originally performed the role of the vampire, which this season was taken by his contemporary doppelganger, Dallas McMurray, dancing with the elegant (relative newcomer) Sarah Haarmann. Its lengthy bout of neck-biting seems a bit overly literal for Morris, but it showed McMurray's suavity and plush movement.

These "studio shows" toe the line between full-out proscenium productions and more casual events. What is perhaps most appealing about them is the family-style atmosphere, with Morris and his staff and ex-dancers greeting people warmly, and down-to-earth technical director giving the pre-curtain "phones off, exits are there" speech as a bus driver might announce the next stop. In a good way, of course. And last but not least, kudos to the six fantastic musicians led by Music Director Colin Fowler, who accompanied every minute of the two programs.

Friday, April 20, 2018

V.4 Dance Festival—Innovations from Eastern Europe

Guide, by Vera Ondrasikova
Mini-series such as Skirball Center's V.4 Dance Festival are good for navel-gazing New York dance-goers as they remind us of innovations taking place in dance-theater abroad, specifically Eastern Europe, which we wouldn't likely see in New York otherwise.  

April 19's program, curated by Laurie Uprichard (ex-director of Danspace Project), led off with Guide, by Czech native Vera Ondrasikova. The first eight rows of house seats were blocked off, presumably so the lasers and fog wouldn't bother audience members as much. The two elements combined to create some mesmerizing effects. Lighting technology has advanced so that light can be emitted in very precise shapes, and manipulated into planes that undulate, so when the light captures floating fog, it looks eerily like an ocean wave; or the beam can be shaped into a precise box, forming a pyramid around a performer. Two dancers, largely seen in silhouette due to the overall darkness, appeared to push the light, and also break the plane. It evoked some sort of sci-fi scenario about passing through a portal into a different realm.

Pawel Sakowicz in Total, by Dawid Grzelak
The second piece on the program was Pawel Sakowicz's Total, for which the crew laid down white marley during intermission. While Guide relied on technological advances to transform the theater, Sakowicz, of Poland, performing solo, simply utilized his moving body, a lecture-like monologue, and a small notebook which he consulted at times. His lecture involved virtuosity and the different ways people value it. The piece consists of four parts, each beginnning with a challengingly cerebral intro, followed by a section of movement. Sakowicz spoke of "eco-virtuosity," and minimizing energy output in a given dance phrase. As he demonstrated, the range of his limbs and amplitude diminished until he was using merely his eyes to suggest direction. 

Another topic involved imagining one cell undertaking the basic range of bodily functions, delivered while doing a chain of poses on his knees, accelerating each time through. He polled us to see if we wanted to see him dance his own choreography (we did), which turned out to be a section by Merce Cunningham, most recognizable in bent torso stag leaps. Finally, he said that for himself, there is no virtuosity without an audience present. While I wished he would have danced more, his intellectual musings were certainly thought-provoking and performative in their own right, delivered with wry wit and charm. 

A second program of V.4 is tonight, including Wow! by Debris Company (Slovakia) and Timothy and the Things: Your Mother at My Door, by Emese Cuhorka and Laszlo Fulop (Hungary).