Monday, January 20, 2020

Shanghai Ballet's Swan Lake

Shanghai Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo: North America Photography Association
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the Shanghai Ballet’s Swan Lake did not include the swans in the formation of a heart (at least through the curtain call), as their marketing images showed. It did, however, have many, many formations made by up to 48 swans massing on the Koch Theater stage. Mostly grids of incredible precision and symmetry, with subtle arm movements like rippling water, paired with subtle head angles, but also wheels, wedges, and lines, to mesmerizing effect.

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019's Notables


David Byrne and friends in American Utopia. Photo: Matthew Murphy 

PERFORMANCE

American Utopia, Hudson Theater
If you're like me, do you avoid Broadway? Loud music? Overly enthusiastic crowds? No matter, do not miss this show if possible. David Byrne’s sui generis music, Annie-B Parson’s joyful movement, and an energetic, dedicated cast produce one of the best shows in memory.

Houston Ballet, New York City Center
Excellent rep choices for New York, including Mark Morris’ crisp and vibrant The Letter V. And a good showcase for a top-notch company that we don’t see enough.

New Goldberg Variations, Joyce Theater
In a breakout year for Pam Tanowitz, New Goldberg Variations finally made it to New York’s Joyce in full, and did not disappoint. A perfect evening of pure movement, with Bach’s music played sublimely by Simone Dinnerstein, gorgeous costumes by Reid Bartelme/Harriet Jung, and creamy/vanilla lighting by Davison Scandrett.

One & One, Baryshnikov Arts Center
Vertigo Dance Company, based in Israel and led by Noa Wertheim, presented this work, in which the theater’s floor gradually became covered in dirt.


Michael Trusnovec in Pam Tanowitz's All at Once. Photo: Paula Lobo 

Michael Trusnovec and PTDC moving on
You’ll finally stop hearing me rave as much about Michael Trusnovec, because he retired from Paul Taylor Dance Company this year. However, he’ll reprise Taylor’s solo by Balanchine from Episodes at New York City Ballet this spring, if you missed it at the PTDC gala program.
     About a half-dozen additional PTDC dancers retired from the company, whose evolution is fast-forwarding more than a year after Taylor’s death. The change is probably overdue but the delay, understandable. A smart, bold departure under Michael Novak's direction—to add New York performance runs in smaller venues—the Bach Festival with Orchestra of St. Luke's at Manhattan School of Music, and this summer, a slate of early crunchy Taylor pieces at the Joyce, danced by a slew of young talent.

ART

Agnes Denes
A deserved museum-level survey of this pioneer, yet ignored, environmental artist’s work. It  also validates The Shed’s visual arts program, which until now seemed a bit like an expensive extension of the Chelsea art scene.

BOOKS

Underland, Robert Macfarlane
It’s a bit too neat to parallel this non-fiction essay collection to last year’s amazing Overstory (by Richard Powers), but it makes you think about everything underground, probably for the first time. Each chapter treats a totally different subtopic. Truly mind expanding.

Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel
This tome looks at the undersung careers of women artists connected to, and mostly left out of, the oppressively macho Ab Ex movement starting in the late 1940s, including a few whose careers were subsumed by their male partners. Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthal, and Elaine de Kooning.

American Woman, Susan Choi
This 2004 novel captures the desperation and loneliness of being a fugitive from the government, and the thrill as well. I read this because Trust Exercise, Choi’s lauded 2019 novel, had such a long wait list at the library, and am grateful. The latter book is worth a read as well; it’s completely different in tone and experimental structure, revolving around a theater company. 


The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
Okay, I finally read this 1974 monster on urban planner Robert Moses, and it was worth it. Now, moving around the city, I think about his negative and positive impact on the metro area constantly, and how extensive and deep his power ran. Scary and enlightening.

TV


Jane the Virgin
There were many series I watched that came to an end this year, but this was the saddest departure. Gina Rodriguez (Jane), luminous, hilarious, and relatable; Jaime Camil (Rogelio), somehow incredibly self-absorbed yet lovable; Ivonne Coll (Alba), the wise and stern moral compass of the show, whose lines were mostly in Spanish. Structuring it after a telenovela gave it license to be completely over the top while giving audiences the head-snapping plot twists, including serious themes and the all-important nucleus of the daughter/mother/grandmother.


SPORTS

New York Mets
Yeah, they didn't make post-season, but it sure was fun to watch the new kids anchoring this team now, especially Pete Alonso, Jacob deGrom, Jeff McNeil, JD Davis, and Michael Conforto. Real reasons to say "Let's go Mets."

Thursday, December 26, 2019

New York Notebook—Dorrance and Ailey

Josette Wiggan-Freund and Joseph Wiggan in the Nutcracker
There are some compositions that are basically siren songs for dance makers, which simply must, at some point, be choreographed to, rocky shore be damned. There’s Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ravel’s Bolero, and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which suffers most in redundancy due to the work’s seasonal nature. Over the past couple of weeks, I caught the last two treated by, respectively, Lar Lubovitch for Ailey and Michelle Dorrance/Hannah Heller/Josette Wiggan-Freund for Dorrance Dance. 

The Nut, a Joyce commission, is a joyful, hip, brief addition to the canon. (Its official title is a paragraph, not likely to be printed in full—a wink acknowledging that it will be referred to as the Nut.) Mostly tap danced, with some sneaker-shod street moves, it uses Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite,” a jazzy, brass-heavy, uptempo selective rendition that dares you to sit still. The abbreviated party scene quickly introduces Clara (Leonardo Sandoval)—tall, awkward, with childlike wonder, in a teal chiffon dress. Her parents are real-life siblings and tap power duo Joseph Wiggan and Josette Wiggan-Freund in a killer, swingy half-waistcoat (costumes by Andrew Jordan). Drossy’s arrival signals the shift into fantasy, where the toys and rodents grow, and the rats‚—led by a crisp, snazzy Heller—multiply and intimidate the humans, throwing what look like cheese balls.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Tanowitz's Goldberg Variations—Restoring Faith

Simone Dinnerstein (at piano), Netta Yerushalmy, Jason Collins, Maggie Cloud, and Melissa Toogood. Photo: Marina Levitskaya
When choreographing, Pam Tanowitz doesn’t always give the lead to music, but in the case of New Work for Goldberg Variations at the Joyce, she does so unreservedly. And why not? when it’s Bach’s Goldberg Variations played live—onstage and centerstage—by the brilliant pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The sublime costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) and ambrosial lighting (Davison Scandrett) warmly suffuse and complement the piece. Dinnerstein's sensitive, romantic interpretation acts as a gravitational force around which the dancers spin, flit, and play. The 75-minute work is a double dose of perfection if you love dance and music. 

Tanowitz has experimented with ballet and modern over the course of her career, pulling apart conventions, splitting up the body’s symmetry, applying a little bit of “exquisite corpse” to predictable positions and phrasing. In Goldberg, the vocabulary relaxes into what are often basic, fundamental human moves—step-taps, grapevines, loping chassées, jumps. But it’s less of the post-Cunningham analytics that we’ve seen from her before, even if some quirks pop up now and again.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance—Full Steam Ahead

Rob Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney in Only the Lonely. Nina Wurtzel.
Paul Taylor Dance Company has been evolving since its founding in the 1950s, but it has likely never undergone an overhaul of dancers like it has over the past year. Without question, I missed the departees during the 2019 fall Koch season of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (more leave soon)—most of all, Michael Trusnovec, who graced the stage just once in a guest appearance of Episodes at the gala performance (which, hearteningly, he’ll repeat a handful of times with NYCB during its spring season). For the first several of the season’s performances I watched, I could not help but remember how Trusnovec danced a certain role, and tried to not find the current dancers wanting, through no fault of theirs. It took some time, and no one can ever replace him.

But Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera, and even Beloved Renegade went on without him. In fact, I was free to watch with care all the new dancers, and appreciate the senior ones even more. The great news is that the company is in fine form, and under Michael Novak’s direction, its artistic mission has become even more relevant and rewarding. (Novak’s retirement from the stage received moderate fanfare; it was the first and last time I saw him dance the lead in Beloved Renegade, which he did quite movingly).


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Forsythe and Denes Enliven the Shed

Jill Johnson and Brit Rodemund. Photo: Mohamed Sadek.
Clearly, choreographer William Forsythe meant it when he titled his Shed bill A Quiet Evening of Dance. So much so that he appeared before the show, acting as a kind of flight attendant, showing us how to turn our phones to airplane setting, and running through the four steps to silence an Apple Watch. Nothing said about the dance, just ensuring his ideal setting in which to watch it. (It also feels a bit like managing expectations, for whatever reason.) Unfortunately, the Griffin Theater—the traditional proscenium theater in the Shed—seems to abut a hallway in which someone wearing hard-soled shoes walked repeatedly, and faint music could be heard playing, a la Trisha Brown’s Foray Forêt.
The first act comprised a series of duets, solos, and trios, with only some birdsong and Morton Feldman to accompany it. Forsythe is adept at many different styles—from conceptually crunchy installation/performance works, to straight up (often breakneck) ballet, to the genre he brought to the Shed, a contemporized ballet peppered with street dance and other influences. There is indeed something velvety and quiet about this style—epitomized by Jill Johnson—with its basic vocabulary moving bonelessly between rigid posés and attitudes, and held poses to meter the flow. His influence is profound in modern ballet, right down to his frequently-copied use of thick socks instead of ballet slippers. Here he took it one step further, slipping colored socks over sneakers, and pairing them with matching long-sleeved gloves to spiff up simple t-shirts and pants.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

ABT Showcases Royalty

Herman Cornejo in A Gathering of Ghosts. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Twyla Tharp has been one of ABT’s consistent choreographic contributors, ever more so during the company’s brief fall Koch season. A Gathering of Ghosts, created to Herman Cornejo, celebrating 20 years with ABT, was the key premiere in the run. Cornejo “hosts” a cavalcade of guests, purportedly historical figures or metaphors—Louis XIV, Greased Lighting, Proust—and possibly facets or reflections of his own being. They swan on, perform showy passages while interacting with Cornejo (or not), and swan off. Cornejo is repeatedly ignored or slighted, and in this vacuum of indifference, he takes the opportunity to let loose and show off. It could be an analogy for his whole career, in which his lack of ego moved him to the background, only for his raw talent and appeal to refocus the spotlight on him.

The “ghosts’” movements don’t seem particularly demonstrative of characteristics; perhaps the work demands a second viewing to discern them. But it gives Tharp a reason to play with Cornejo and other superb dancers, mixing in sections for the women in flat and pointe shoes, pairing up company members in interesting ways. Mostly, it is a gift to Cornejo, and thus to us. 
Tharp’s longtime collaborator Norma Kamali designed the variegated costumes, primarily black and silver—shorts, jackets, tulle skirts for both genders—plus two amazing flared-leg jumpsuits, and a parachute-like regal cape with a train for Cornejo, donned only for one ceremonial coronation in the closing scene.