Monday, November 23, 2015

Thomas Adès—Composing and Performing with Friends

Polaris. Photo: Andrew Lang
Thomas Adès: Concentric Paths—Movements in Music featured four choreographers who set dances to pre-existing works by the British composer, produced by Sadler's Wells London and at City Center as part of the White Light Festival. The highlight—the composer played piano or conducted for all four works, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Calder Quartet. Two veteran dancemakers were included—the ubiquitous Wayne McGregor, and Karole Armitage. But the revelations were the dances by Crystal Pite, who created a giant 264-limbed organism, and Alexander Whitley, whose velvety, muscular style captivated. These four dances and their requisite personnel—prime among them the composer, hard at work—make this scale of presentation a rarity. 

Pite's Polaris was easily the most popular piece on the bill, deploying 66 black-clad NYU students in mesmerizing shapes and formations, through which energy rippled and parted, like "the wave" done by fans in a baseball stadium, or magnetic filings being drawn to and fro. It is set to the pseudonymic 2010 composition by Adès, which includes a wondrous, yearning piano line, shades of a Bach symphony, and fractured notes coalescing into harmonic, organized order in the finale as the crowd looked up in anticipation, as if greeting ET's ship. 

In one scene, the dancers look like praying mantises, crouching low to the floor, elbows up; the insect evocation recurred in roiling swarms and mind-hive behavior. Kudos to lighting designer Tom Visser, who created an atmosphere of eerie moonlight and darkness, and Jay Gower Taylor's plowed-field-textured backdrop augmenting the alienscape feel. Pite's fluid and incredibly well-drilled piece would not be out of place on So You Think You Can Dance, or in an Olympics opening show, and it was a welcome addition on a highbrow slate.

The Grit in the Oyster. Photo: Andrew Lang
Alexander Whitley is a British choreographer who has spent time with the Royal and the Birmingham Royal Ballets, but whose work is rarely seen in New York. For The Grit in the Oyster, he chose Adès' 2000 Piano Quintet, which the composer played onstage with the Calder Quartet. Dancing were Natalie Allen, Wayne Parsons, and in particular the pliant and warm Antonette Dayrit, who led off and finished with an absorbing solo passage. Whitley's style is informed by ballet, but it's performed barefoot. At no point does any movement appear to be catalyzed simply for its own sake; the impetus arises unbidden and is carried through the dancers' bodies and limbs organically. It comes across as unaffected, muscular, and feline in its elegance and innate physicality. He frequently integrates floor work, building upon it with deeply planted lunges and triangular braced limbs; lifts include diamond- or scissor-shaped leg formations. The music begins with a dark piano line, and grows as all five instruments join in—fractured violin lines, warm cellos, darting rhythms, plucked and sawed strings. 

It's in contrast to McGregor's phrasing in Outlier (2010), which feels abound with random starts and stops. His ballet looks effortful and self-conscious, decorated with mannerisms and oddities. Adès' Concentric Paths violin concerto (2005) shocks from time to time with a seismic "boom" chord, threaded with keening or tumbling melodic lines. The dancers of McGregor's company wring the most out of his inside-out, hyperextended vocabulary but apart from its impressive athleticism, it fails to move.

The fourth work stands apart for its literary derivation: Armitage's Life Story (1999) which uses the same-titled composition by Adès and poem by Tennessee Williams. Ruka Hatua-Saar and Emily Wagner take the stage in front of Adès on piano and soprano Anna Dennis. The narrative ponders the aftermath of a feverish romantic encounter, apparent in the dancers' brisk flirtations and forthright exchanged gazes. Armitage injects wit and sassiness into the duet, which mirrors the character of the aria—vaulting octaves with free abandon in dialogue with the piano part, and in turn, in dialogue with the dancers. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Two Sides of Twyla

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp-Coppula in Preludes and Fugues. Photo: Ruben Afanador

Twyla Tharp has always been slightly ahead of the curve and outside of the pack. She has forged an unconventional choreographic career, along the way treading post-modernism, jazz, ballet, Broadway, vaudeville, and myriad points in between. Her current run at the Koch Theater, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation, draws from all of these genres to embody her fluid, pigeon-hole resistant, utterly distinct style.

The two premieres mark the complexity of her dances, and a reduced version of the duality of her creative output. Preludes and Fugues, to Bach, is the more balletic and classical of the two. The women are in soft slippers, already a radical idea given their pedigrees (two hail from New York City Ballet), because pointe work is an irresistible tool for so many choreographers, given the chance. But it gives the women a better chance at dealing with the speed and torque that Tharp builds into her restive passages that explode from a hovering stillness into sheer kineticism in a split second.

Tharp doesn’t shy from traditional gender roles that basically acknowledge physical size differences—men slowly pressing women overhead, showing the brute difficulty of the move, or a man swinging a planked woman to and fro between his legs. The NYCB women—Savannah Lowery and Kaitlyn Gilliland—are as tall most of the company’s men. But when her style veers toward the pugilistic, the men appear far more comfortable, as it is less of a stretch for them to spar and jog athletically than the women, trained to never be ungraceful.

Amy Ruggiero, John Selya, and Ron Todorowski in Yowzie. Photo: Ruven Afanador
The action morphs from pairs to groups to solos, driven by an irrepressible energy that rides atop the shifting dynamics of Bach’s short compositions, or sometimes beside it or underneath. Sometimes it’s literally, as when they pogo-hop to a bouncy line. To layered piano arpeggios, the company splits the stage in half in mirrored symmetry, pealing out of lines like petals blooming. Bravura moves end in suspended releves, and small gestures add a touch of humor to these skilled show offs, who wear Santo Loquasto’s gold and jewel-toned outfits. They can leap offstage in a split, or dissolve a similarly heroic passage in a relaxed walk, as if in rehearsal. Tharp’s sheer audacity is mind-boggling, not to mention the level of technique and precision, or sometimes casualness, demanded of her dancers.  

Yowzie is the flip side of Tharp, bringing into play drunkenness, mayhem, and clashing colors to a suite of American jazz tunes (recorded, as was the Bach). A fragile romance between Rika Okamoto and Matthew Dibble may have been the result of beer goggles, and we see them wobble woozily through the infatuation phase before parting ways. Okamoto, spurned and presumably regressing, adapts simian behavior, revealing a comic gift (her dejected full-body slump is hilarious). All the dancers in this piece get the chance to display their rubber-limbed best, bouncing off one another or dropping with dead weight into splits. Ron Todorowski, sporting glasses, slices precisely and thrillingly through Tharp's challenging steps. The exceptions are Gilliland and Lowery, wearing midi dresses and sun hats, who swan as elegantly as possible through the riff raff. Loquasto’s costumes here are riotously colored and tie-dyed, and topped off with headpieces. While he certainly knows how to fit and finish costumes for these dancer-athletes, I suffered from visual overload, in addition to a quasi-psychedelic backdrop.

But the program’s mix of high- and low-brow certainly showed off Tharp’s imaginative and sui generis choreography. Chances are if you liked one, you cared less for the other. But a full evening of premieres is a rare, choice chance to glimpse one of the best hard at work, doing her own thing. Twas ever thus for Tharp.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Au revoir, Sylvie

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper
The mature, modern prima ballerina can express her artistry in so many ways apart from wishing to be cast in the repertory of her choice. These days, customized, or vanity, “projects” are not uncommon. In New York this week, Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress, at New York City Center, celebrated her farewell to American stages at the age of 50. Nowhere in sight were toe shoes or plucked feathers; rather, she chose repertory by leading modernists Akram Khan and Mats Ek, with a duet by William Forsythe danced by guest artists from his company.

Khan’s Technê, a US premiere, featured Guillem squat-walking in a circle like an animal around an oddly uncredited, sculptural mesh metal tree, touching it as if it were an interloper, to live music by Alies Sluiter. This study of odd slinky moves punctuated with an occasional whipped spin or leg gave Guillem chances to show off her extension and feet (but not her copper hair, covered by a brunette cropped wig).

DUO2015 by William Forsythe, with score by Thom Willems, was danced by two of his company members, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both superb translators of his humorous, torqued style. Unfortunately, in this program designed around Guillem, it proved to be the most kinetically interesting. Careful poses, at times contortions, mixed with bursting phrases; they retreated upstage into the dark, and then darted forward in spins and quick tours. It was a reminder of how well-suited Guillem is for Forsythe’s contemporary style, which relies on a foundation of ballet around which to build anti-balletic shapes. Memories would have to do.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: Bill Cooper
Guillem returned with Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant’s Here & After (also a US premiere). To Andy Cowton’s mystical, pulsing strings, the orange-clad duo was bathed in similar shades of striated light. They swept their arms in ovals and around one another’s head, crafting swirls and curves in synchronicity, clockwork-style. An exercise in style and timing, it didn’t reveal much about the two dancers.

The finale was suitably titled Bye, a reprise from Guillem’s 2012 stint at the Koch. It’s understandable why she would want to include it—a symbolic farewell that shows her stepping into, or returning to, another life. Its dramatic emphasis allowed Guillem to strike some singular poses to show off her lines, but the frumpy costume (by set designer Katrin Brännström) did her no favors. The packed house applauded heartily as it bade farewell to Guillem the dancer. But given her curiosity and resourcefulness, who knows in what capacity we might next encounter her?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gimme a Capital E

Cory Stearns (center) in AfterEffect. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
By Susan Yung

Receiving a choreographic commission from one of the large ballet companies is no small matter. Even favorite children—that is, popular principal dancers—such as Marcelo Gomes, are not assured the resources to do such a thing without providing some kind of proof. Gomes has created a few “pièces d’occasion” for ABT in recent years, including one from two years ago titled Aftereffect, and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie obviously saw enough to entrust Gomes with more.

The result is a major dance of the same title, but with another capital within: AfterEffect, with a painted mural by François Gilot, to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Op 70, which premiered in the company's short fall Koch Theater season. It employs 27 dancers, in Reid Bartelme/Harriet Jung’s color-brushed white leotards and flattering handkerchief skirts. This allegorical dance, with Tudorian part names (The Man, His Loss, His Hope, The Community), is not a radical departure, but it feels substantial enough to merit a recurrence in the repertory.

What makes it feel different is its language, which emanates from Gomes’ body. He is among the most beloved of ABT’s current men. He is clearly gifted, but he does not possess great height, stretch, or hyperarched feet, as, say, David Hallberg does. He has maximized his physical gifts, compounding this with superb emotional expressiveness and peerless partnering skills. He has worked extremely hard to make the most of what he has been given.

This translates into movement that feels cyclonic, but on a human scale; extensions and spins quickly withdraw, only to lash out again. There is a consistent elegance and plushness—pliés sink deeply, the body twists elegantly in opposition, and even powerful moves ease into place, as we have seen Gomes himself do for years, even in the most persnickety allegro passages. It’s not humorless, though—witticisms include waggling hands and arms that flap like chicken wings. Cory Stearns (Man) ends the first part by jumping up as the lights blackout; the second part opens with him ostensibly landing from that jump. 

Cassandra Trenary kisses Cory Stearns in AfterEffect. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
The Man is restless and distant from those nearby. When he is still, the crowd roils around him; he also plants himself downstage to watch the Community bustle about. Cassandra Trenary (Loss) literally flies on with the help of a male gang, dipping to kiss Stearns. Joseph Cirio (Hope) makes a fleeting cameo as well, spinning and imbuing Stearns with some understandable optimism—as in, I can’t wait to see more of his verve and snap in future roles. Gomes handles groups adeptly, and one couldn’t blame him for having taken notes on how Ratmansky moves the corps, nor for noticing his humor and musical treatment.

Would I rather see Gomes dance than watch his choreography? Right now, yes. But he holds promise as a dance maker when he hangs up his tights. Joining Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher as an active dancer/choreographer, and one with a huge Prince workload, he should be proud of all the hard work that obviously was invested in AfterEffect. And ABT's spring Met Opera House schedule already seems less populated with Gomes' name, which is sad. All the more reason to cherish his moments onstage when they arrive next summer.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Partita 2—Music, Dance, and Absence

Photo: Anne Van Aerschot
Eventually, we all deal with the fragmentation and mutability of memory. Certain events appear clearly in the mind’s eye; others might shift and realign with different narratives. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz play with this idea in their engaging work in Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, Partita 2, at John Jay Theater, with Amandine Beyer on violin heroically playing Bach’s composition twice. The work's structure is simple and bold. In the pitch dark, Beyer first plays the five movements; De Keersmaeker and Charmatz then move to Bach’s absent rhythms; and finally the music and dance are performed together. Michel François designed the scenic scheme—a portal of light that moved left to right with the passing of time, and stage air lit by accompanying silvery, phasing moonlight.

The music, by itself, offers a solid dose of sheer pleasure. Our hungry eyes are forced to rest, adjusting only enough to identify the shapes of surrounding viewers, but better off kept closed. And yet I was cognizant that I should be paying strict attention to the music’s rhythms and melodic lines to prepare for viewing the dancers, and noting whether—or how—their movements adhered or departed from Bach’s scoring. But that felt like trying to describe the molecular structure of ice cream while eating it. As well, watching the dance without music was certainly plenty of information by itself. The duo offers its own tensions and felicities—De Keersmaeker, an icon in the dance world, is known for her disciplined choreography that mixes and enchains the seemingly pedestrian with great skill. Her delicacy and cat-lightness contrasted with Charmatz’s large frame and athlete’s bearing. Both sported sneakers; she in a black dress and top, he in a rugby-style shirt (they both shed a layer as the show progressed). In the second, unaccompanied part, their footfalls and shoe squeaks mixed with some verbal yips and chanting. I felt Bach’s beats, but without his crystalline melodies, it could’ve been any music.
Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

In the third, complete section, Beyer took a spot at center upstage, and De Keersmaeker advanced and retreated in a short line perpendicular to us, darting furtively around Beyer at the apex, touching her blouse hem, and then running downstage to peer at us. Charmatz chose a circular path around the stage, bolting a quarter arc and then coiling, bolting and coiling. These beginning movements did not seem familiar to me after seeing part 2, but soon memory and performance converged. Yes, I recalled when he picked her up and she walked on the wall, and later when he strode in a small circle and she, lying on the floor, placed her shoe soles against his in a funny cartoon mirror way. I still can’t say for sure whether the first couple of sections were the same movements. But the dance performances felt entirely different in silence versus with music. I appreciated the distinctive qualities of both, but mostly the rewards of the complete package, with its gorgeous dimensionality and spirit of collaboration.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

ABT's Rewarding 2015 Fall Season

Arron Scott, Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal in After You. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
ABT’s season opening program was a knockout—Mark Morris’ premiere of After You, Ashton’s Monotones I & II, and Twyla Tharp’s Brahms/Haydn Variations. After You is a lovely, coursing rollick in which the dancers hold hands, march downstage, and embrace us with their warmth from the outset. Led by Gillian Murphy and Stella Abrera, they sport hot pink or orange jumpsuits with flowing legs, and dash and dart about in pairs and trios, clicking into and out of lines broken up by piqué turns. Morris can make a simple walk engrossing, and here he uses basic ballet phrases—chassée, pas de bourrée—with varying direction shifts and arm combinations in a similar way, as a grounding device. Repeating motifs include arms arranged like clockhands at 5:20, or in a sharp-elbowed “U”; one particularly delightful phrase, initiated by Calvin Royal, linked together sautés and modified barrel leaps. In a second cast, Boylston and Cornejo shone, with notables Blaine Hoven, Stephanie Williams, and Roman Zhurbin.  

After You contrasted sharply with Tharp’s more complex take on ballet in her piece from 2000. More dancers populated the stage, at times to distraction, as five lead couples took turns drawing attention to their rigorous partnering routines. It’s a dense technique unique to Tharp, who trusts these skilled dancers to rise to the challenge. Some handle it better (or are cast well); Herman Cornejo and Maria Kochetkova, for example. He happens to be a superb partner, measuring his proximity to her precisely, his attention never wavering, and smoothing out any potential rough edges. Gillian Murphy as well, with her redoubtable technique and wellspring of confidence, is perfectly suited to Tharp. James Whiteside took on the snap and flair of a flamenco dancer, and Sterling Baca showed his magnetism and fortitude paired with a lucid Isabella Boylston. (He recently sparkled in Josh Beamish’s work at the Joyce.)

Of Monotones I & II, the dancers’ identitities are somewhat difficult to discern, hidden under Ashton’s headcaps. But it’s all about the shapes and triangulations created by each trio, one in green, another in white. Joseph Gorak, master of line, paired well with an incisive Abrera and Boylston, and in II, Veronika Part was eloquent and plush stewarded by Cory Stearns and an elegant Thomas Forster. The Satie Gymnopédies, played in full orchestration, sounded a bit like elevator music, but their general hypnotic mood set the foundation for the works.

Luciana Paris in Company B. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
On another program, Daniil Simkin embodied the Rose in Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, with Cassandra Trenary as the Young Girl. It’s the best kind of role for Simkin, who sailed effortlessly alone around the salon set, apart from a slip and fall (which demonstrated his unfettered confidence), and a couple of overly self-conscious poses. In Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie, Gorak, an epitome of classicism, similarly was cast perfectly, dancing with Devon Teuscher, who circled the stage smoothly in split grand jetes.   

The company brought back Paul Taylor’s Company B. Casting is so important in this bittersweet wartime ballet, and it was a joy to see Craig Salstein as the nerdy crush, Johnny, and Luciana Paris warmly romantic in "I Can Dream." Gorak was given the long solo in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"—a slight stretch for his controlled demeanor—letting loose a bit and enjoying it. Misty Copeland danced "Rum and Coca Cola," understandably wowing the guys with her sassy hip checks and skirt flounces. The dance is structured well to showcase the company’s varied and deep talent, and in an idiom translatable to ballet, yet more fun. The short season runs through this week at the Koch Theater.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Limon Parcels Out the Work

American Repertory Ballet in There Is a Time. Photo: Gabriel Morales
Credit the Limón Dance Company, and its artistic director Carla Maxwell, for the ambitious José Limón International Dance Festival now at the Joyce, which features work by Limón danced by his company plus a number of guest artists from around the world, including the Royal Danish Ballet. By “subcontracting” the repertory, we have the chance to see far more than the native company could prepare for one run at the Joyce, where it has annual presentations. It does, however, raise a question about quality control that many choreographers face when their dances are done outside their company's orbit. Merce Cunningham Dance Company closed in the wake of its founder's death, in part to avoid this situation (although some dances are set on other company's by authorized artists, much like the Balanchine Foundation).

Program C at the Joyce led off with sjDANCEco (San José) in Mazurkas (1958), with live Chopin piano music. It was immediately apparent that these dancers were not as polished as the Limón Company, even if they possessed youthful energy. The bright yellow and blue costumes, with ribbon trim and bunching seams, didn’t help, and the close proximity magnified any problems. But the sunny, romantic mood of the piece raised the spirit, and the dancers rode and leapt on and over the lively rhythms.

Once the Limón Company took the stage in Carlota (1972), an incisive political and psychological drama, the gap in technique and depth became even more apparent. This recounting of an episode in Mexico’s mid-19th century political history began with a hair-raising scream in the dark, followed by “Maximilian!.” The initial scene showed a couple—the Empress (Brenna Monroe-Cook) cowering in a thick grey cape, while the Emperor (Ross Katen) coaxed her into action (presumably it showed her waking from this terrible memory). They relished their privileged standing among the fawning court, at least until reformist President Benito Juarez (Mark Willis, razor sharp) in a dark suit, commanded his militia to arrest, and execute, the emperor for war crimes. Stomps and body slaps from the strident moves created the effective musicless score. The company's assured delivery and effortless confidence were a master class in the style.

There Is a Time (1956), to Norman Dello Joio’s score, was performed by American Repertory Ballet (Princeton, NJ). This lengthy, work comprises many sections that depict various emotional states of youth. Its lucid opening structure—the 15 dancers form a circle, which collapses and expands—is retraced toward the end, after each small grouping or soloist performed a passage with a signature movement, all of which were thrown together in the penultimate section. While a few sections too long, it serves as a good primer for Limón’s archetypal vocabulary, alternately organically flowing and geometrically crystalline.

Back to the question of the authenticity of the style... if it can't be done properly, is it worth allowing it to be performed? You might think that Limón's relatively naturalistic style would lend itself to this, but this side-by-side juxtaposition actually underscored the varying quality of his choreography's renditions. The takeaway: Limón's own company looked fantastic, and his repertory, performed by other companies, still felt relevant, if underserved by the lack of training and consistent quality.