Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Splendid Partnership

Arcell Cabuag and Ronald K. Brown. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
It's hard to believe that Arcell Cabuag is celebrating 20 years with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. He's the company's associate artistic director, and the steady on-stage soul of the troupe. His partnership with Ronald Brown was on display at the Joyce Theater on February 6, in the premiere of Den of Dreams, a duet created in tribute to Cabuag. He entered, slinky and prowling, moving slowly and fluidly. Brown joined him, and they continuously watched one another even as they moved apart and behind one another. At one point, they shook hands at centerstage, affirming to us the strong bond that obviously exists between these collaborators and friends.

The program was otherwise a mix of older works (the other programs contained another premiere). In Come Ye (2002), the dancers' feet kept in time to the complex drum rhythms, while the torso and arms elaborated on the darting melodic lines. A repeated motif of clenched fists held aloft signaled a call for unity as the company clustered, split up, and traced the perimeter of the stage. Excerpts from Lessons: March (1995) featured Annique Roberts and Courtney Paige Ross moving to a recording of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; he said in essence that having money doesn't make you rich, and that there are no superior or inferior races. It's a somewhat futile task to match in movement the power of Dr. King's oration, but Roberts and Ross are both engaging and dynamic presences. 

The Feb 6 program closed with Upside Down, an excerpt from the 1998 work Destiny. It embodied many of the signature elements for which Brown is known and loved—a relentless, pulsing rhythm delineated through movement; a communal experience marking a passage; and the increase in dynamics to a feverishly ecstatic apex. A recumbent Cabuag is carried off, aloft, by the others; it might mark yet another nod to the decades of service that he has given to the company. And well deserved.          

Friday, January 5, 2018

#MeToo, from a viewer's standpoint

Andrew Veyette and Sterling Hyltin in Everywhere We Go, by Justin Peck. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The fallout of #MeToo has been surprisingly swift, with no end in sight. It seems that there have been abuses in every field, wherever power is there to wield. The seemingly genteel world of dance has not been immune, most prominently with the resignation of Peter Martins at NYCB. Past accusations of spousal abuse are public knowledge, but the list of aggressions to dancers and students lengthens each day, not to mention the DWI's that Martins has received, including last week's.

I don't mean to diminish the charges brought to light in recent weeks, which are shocking to hear about, much less live through. But I bring up another sort of abuse of power that has simmered throughout the two decades I've been watching NYCB, and that is from a viewer's standpoint—the commandeering of resources by Martins to create new work for NYCB over the years, and the continuing imposition of that repertory on audiences despite lack of critical support. 

The company's website says he has made over 80 dances, most for NYCB, in four decades. Add up all the hours of time, and bags of money, invested in the creation and presentation of these dances, and no doubt it would be staggering. Dancers, rehearsal directors, composers, musicians, set/costume designers/fabricators, administration to support it all. But audience time as well, for not only do ticket buyers pay a premium price for their seats, but their time is valuableespecially in New York where there are dozens of dance events a week from which to choose.

A few of his dances hold up to scrutiny, including his first, Calcium Light Night. But nearly all of Martins' choreography that I've seen is unremarkable, roughly in the manner of Balanchine, but with passages of absolutely rote ballet that any competent teacher might put together in ballet class as an exercise. Some of it is truly pointless. I've often felt angry after being forced to sit through his dances if I wanted to see works by some of the other far more talented choreographers in repertory. It's like he's flaunting his power at the world—"I don't care if it's any good, or if you like it; I'm the one in power and I can do what I want." When no one stops him, why shouldn't he?
The Wind Still Brings, by Troy Schumacher. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Another kind of arrogance is seen in, perversely, his blind belief that NYCB's nonpareil dancers are able to perform too many steps, joined together clumsily, done too fast, and come out unscathed. As often as not, they fail. Why make these top-notch dancers look foolish? Is it a kind of challenge to them from Martins, like "bet you can't do this"? He himself was an accomplished principal, so perhaps he is measuring everyone against his own skills. I also recall silently cursing the ubiquitous partnering where a man lugs a woman around, flipping her in various ways. Of course Martins is not alone in this tendency, but when the choreography is so consistently tepid, these things tend to stick out even more.

With the advent of the Fashion Galas, begun in 2012, lavish costumes were created by Valentino and numerous other name designers. Certainly these galas have raised enormous amounts, but the expenses have likely been proportionately high. They have been notable events, but in a certain sense, the dance took a back seat to the fashion (although less so in recent years with the recruitment of emerging designers).

In the near past, with the emergence of such talented choreographers as Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and Peck, the number of Martins dances in season repertory has seemed to dwindle. However, he has not been above inserting an existing work of his on a program before eagerly anticipated commissions by younger choreographers, even at the last minute. You got the sense that he knew he had a captive audience that had no choice but to sit through Bal de Couture once more to see Justin Peck's latest work.

Martins had plenty of merits to be allowed to remain in his post for so long. He is to be credited for fostering the talents of the men above, as well as founding the Diamond Institute in 1992 to develop younger choreographers. Commissions have included a number of women recently, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Lauren Lovette, and Gianna Reisen. The technique has remained at a high level, with a whole new generation of accomplished principals emerging in the last decade. The company looks fantastic in repertory by Peck and Ratmansky, who craft interesting and challenging movement without making the dancers look as if they can't handle it. As a long chapter in this illustrious company comes to a close, we look forward to the future, which has in a sense already begun. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017—What Stuck

Dorrance/Van Young at the Guggenheim. Matthew Murphy
Just some of the things that impacted me in 2017... most for the good. Happy 2018!


A Body of Work, David Hallberg

The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell

Endurance, Scott Kelly

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan

The 12 Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti

Borne, Jeff Vandermeer

The Leavers, Lisa Ko


Justin Peck: The Times Are RacingPulcinella Variations, Koch Theater

I used to love youby Annie-B Parson, Martha Graham Dance Company, Joyce Theater

Ten Poems, by Christopher Bruce, Scottish Ballet, Joyce Theater

Layla and Majnun, by Mark Morris, White Light Festival, Rose Theater

Michelle Dorrance: Guggenheim Works & Process (with Nicholas Van Young), Guggenheim Museum; Fall for Dance, Myelination, New York City Center

Whipped Cream, by Alexei Ratmansky, Met Opera House
The exit of Marcelo Gomes; the return of David Hallberg


The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro


America's Cup

The abject terribleness of the New York Mets and the New York Giants

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Meaning of Ailey

Shelter. Photo: Paul Kolnik
It’s already been six years since Robert Battle took over as artistic director of the Ailey company. Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations (1960) is still on just about every program over the month-long City Center run (through Dec 31), making the late choreographer’s presence feel disproportionately prominent in the season’s repertory. There are five Ailey works being danced this season—one more than by Battle, who, all the while, has been adding or showcasing commissions and older repertory by interesting dancemakers. Gone are the “best of Ailey” medleys that both awkwardly showcased highlights and underscored how thin some of his dances can be. And on the rise are dances by company members, such as a premiere by Jamar Roberts and a reprisal by Hope Boykin.

As the company’s repertory has, through time, necessarily experienced a decrease in percentage of Ailey works relative to those by others, to me the Ailey name has shifted to signify less a choreographic style and more the Ailey dancers. Many members have long tenures in the company, and have developed big fan bases, even as turnover continues regularly. It’s not quite a cult, but at this point it is more about the performers than the repertory, which exists mainly to showcase these remarkable artist-athletes.

Battle has been quietly remounting older works he has done for his own troupe, or as commissions for other entitities. Seeing some of his classics, like The Hunt (2001), I’m reminded once again of his own stylistic roots which emanate more from Paul Taylor than Ailey. Battle was a long-time member of and choreographer for David Parsons Dance, and Parsons was a Taylor dancer for many years. The Hunt, for six men, contains direct—albeit brief—movement quotations from Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, such as inverted-curving arms and hunched shoulders rotating forward aggressively. In fact, The Hunt feels like a blood relative of Cloven; both feature men as barely tamed pack animals, alternating between hunting and societal rituals. It’s exciting, a crowd pleaser, and makes use of the dancers’ athleticism. Another Battle work that serves to spotlight physical prowess is In/Side, an emotionally expressive solo; I saw the amazing Yannick Lebrun perform it, funneling his energy toward a powerful finale. And Mass (2004) focuses ecclesiastical fervor into sheer kineticism, as the 16 robe-clad dancers move en masse and form geometric shapes and lines. Chalvar Monteiro distinguished himself with a charismatic presence.

Clifton Brown and Glenn Allen Sims in The Golden Section. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter (1988) counterbalanced The Hunt in terms of gender (six women, although it is performed by a male cast at times) and theme (the prevalance of homelessness in a wealthy society). The spoken text, including poetry, felt slightly didactic at first, but the varying movement dynamics and invention quickly became the driving force. The dancers planted themselves in grounded stances and threw their legs up in high, hatchet-like kicks. The clustered nervously, a wary communal unit on the defensive.

In high contrast was Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section (1983), to David Byrne’s score. Few companies could handle the breakneck speed and technical demands, and Ailey essentially fares well; a little good humor offset any panic induced by the challenging choreography. The production was refreshed in 2006, but Santo Loquasto’s gold lamé or mustard velveteen pieces still encapsulate 80s glam. Belén Pereyra-Alem was notable for her precision and focused energy.

As for Revelations, it continues to bear up well after constant performance and viewing. There was a time when I didn’t relish seeing it yet again, but now, I look forward to it greatly. Its array of juicy roles are vehicles in which to discover new faces, or see tenured ones try something new. I was greatly heartened to watch Clifton Brown, who returned to the company after a break, in “I Wanna Be Ready,” displaying his amazing gift for delivering maximum emotion from minimal kineticism. And his heartfelt smile in “Rocka My Soul” was truly moving; a prodigal son was back home again—or had he brought a piece of home back to me?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Trisha Brown—Seeing the Old Anew

Groove and Countermove. Photo: Stephanie Berger
A side effect of the sad loss of Trisha Brown is that in recent presentations, her mid- to late-career work has been overlooked in favor of remounting her best-known dances. Audiences may never get enough of Set and Reset or Opal Loop, but at the Joyce this week, it was bracing to see some dances that were new to me. It was a rediscovery of sorts of Brown's technically rigorous style. While all of her choreography has an underlying rigor, the outward expression of that rigor is often suppressed in favor of a organic silkiness. Less so in the three dances presented at the Joyce. 

L'Amour au Théâtre (2009) is among a group of Brown's work set to early music—in this case, a recording of Hippolyte et Aricie performed by Les Arts Florissants. The regular rhythmic structure of the music perhaps inspired Brown to experiment with structures built with bodies. Dancers counterbalance each other, bracing one anothers' arms, then place an elevated foot on her partner's shoulder. A man lifts a woman in a circle, her legs and feet flexed as if ready to cycle; horse and rider motifs followed, and in a sole literal gesture, a woman mimes a hunter firing an arrow. The pace is quick, the action athletic. The backdrop was painted by Brown—charcoal arcs and circles inscribed on white by the span of her limbs.

In stark contrast musically is the flute score by Salvatore Sciarrino for Geometry of Quiet (2002), played on stage. Its dynamic and phrasing are shaped literally by the breaths of flutist Sato Moughalian, lending a humanism and intimacy. The movement is no less challenging than L'Amour. Two women penché deeply, balancing for long counts. Pairs interleave legs and squat, resting on their partner's knee; they totter off locked in that position. The pace is deliberate and slow; the action continues as the curtain lowers. 

The final dance, Groove and Countermove (2000), is leavened by Terry Winters' witty paintings and Dave Douglas' score, featuring sax and guitar. Brown seemed inspired by the jazz music to create jaunty, loose-hipped moves, injecting moments of absurd humor, as when a woman falls into a split and stares at us to satirically flaunt her skills. Perhaps most notable was the return of Leah Morrison, a longtime TBDC dancer and the only company member who danced with the group while Brown was alive. While all of the new company members are impressive, Morrison has an unforced ease and liquid quality, whereas some of the others seem to be exhibiting their technique more. The multi-hued costumes were reminiscent of Merce Cunningham's Second Hand; when lined up in a certain order, both casts create the colors of the rainbow.

While we are immensely grateful and relieved that the company continues to perform, it is different. To state the obvious, we all miss Trisha, but are glad for the gifts she gave us.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Renaissance has a, well, renaissance

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome).
Archers Shooting at a Herm, 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 in. (21.9 x 32.3 cm)
If it was ever out of fashion, the Renaissance seems to be having another big moment. Besides Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, at the Met Museum, Walter Isaacson (who wrote Steve Jobs' riveting biography a few years back) has just published a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, who was 30 years older than Michelangelo. And Christie's is auctioning a small da Vinci painting: Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500, which was only determined to be painted by Leonardo in 2011. (Dr. Carmen Bambach, curator of the Michelangelo show, has concurred with the attribution.) The lot is dubbed "The Last Da Vinci," and is part of, oddly enough, the Post-War & Contemporary auction on November 15

Shows at the Met, such as Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, are reminders of how lucky we are to have access to such a literal treasure trove, and to the exhibitions it has the resources to put together. Collections tapped for the Michelangelo show range from international museums to the Queen of England's private cache.The exhibition, organized by Dr. Carmen Bambach, a curator at the Met, is primarily composed of 128 drawings, with supporting paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo, but also his mentors and colleagues. 

Many of the drawings are small-scale and informal in feel—the sort you might find done on a napkin or perhaps done idly while daydreaming. The imagery sometimes shares paper with handwritten notes, or can occupy both sides of a sheet of paper. Of course, there are larger, more formal drawings as well. But part of the charm of the exhibition is this focus on process, on lively renditions of parts that unite to compose a larger whole.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome.

Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Drawing, 1542–46

Black chalk and charcoal; 8 ft. 7 9/16 in. × 61 7/16 in. (263 × 156 cm)

Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples 398
A major focus of the show is an illuminated reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Below it are displayed studies for figures in the mural, with a key showing the corresponding finished part above on a small, gridded diagram. It is a thrill to see up close the sketch of the two hands reaching toward one another in The Last JudgmentAs a teen, Michelangelo studied with Ghirlandaio, who also has several works on display at the Met. The most engaging compositions are not formal ones, such as portraits either full-length or cameo—but bodies in motion: twisting, pulling, advancing. A large drawing, Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of St. Peter, shows a mass of bodies from the back. You feel like you're amid the scrum of men surging forward.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome)

Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)

Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study (recto); soft black chalk, or less probably charcoal (verso). Sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924

I coincidentally just read the novel The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, which revolves around a small (fictional) painting by Antoine Watteau that finds its way to a junk shop and is bought for a song by a young woman. The painting holds a deep, dark secret which is revealed throughout the book. It is eventually put up for auction, and along the way  captivates numerous prospective bidders as a priceless symbol of pure love. While the central artwork derives from the Rococo period, it's another story of the power of art to endure through time, making immortal human emotions and artistry. 

The story of the Leonardo up for auction now seems like the perfect fodder for a novel about the timelessness of art. And yet it's real, another episode in the painting's sixth century on earth. On it goes as we watch for a brief time.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Red Shoes—Devilishly Entertaining

Photo: Johan Persson
If you're familiar with Matthew Bourne's theatrical productions, you expect a story told without text, only through movement, gesture and music. Oh, and scenery. In fact, the sets, by regular collaborator and designer Lez Brotherston, are so key that they virtually become another character in the cast. This is certainly true for The Red Shoes at City Center, in which a proscenium-within-the-proscenium seems to have a clever mind of its own by the end of the production, and even more possessed with spirit than the eponymous toe shoes.

The story, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, revolves around a love triangle between Victoria, a young dancer, the object of affection from both struggling composer Julian and impresario Boris Lermontov, who gives Vicky a pair of red pointe shoes when she is cast as the lead in his new ballet, The Red Shoes. The set design for the ballet is a modern, all-white construction of nesting arches which together comprise a surface to catch video projections (by Duncan McLean). All of the costumes and set elements for this sub-show are in striking black and white except for Vicky's red shoes, which represent the blurring between reality and fiction. While Vicky's success as the lead in the ballet is celebrated, Lermontov becomes jealous of her relationship with Julian, and drives Julian to quit, taking Vicky with him. Although torn, she ultimately chooses to return to the ballet, and in a delirious state, is struck by a train.  

Tackling the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with music by Bernard Herrmann, is an ambitious task. Obviously, film is without limits as far as settings and editing go. But Bourne and Brotherston do amazing things with Proscenium, spinning it to take us back and forth between Covent Garden in London, and Paris, flipping our points of view between watching the stage, and watching the audience and foregrounded backstage antics. With other scenic changes, we jump to Monaco, the south of France, a dance studio, a salon. At one point, the proscenium's curtain is pulled half open, revealing Lermontov's study (with a kitschy bronze statue of a foot in a toe shoe); it rotates simply and brilliantly to reveal a shabby flat where Vicky and Julian restlessly pace.  
Ashley Shaw and Dominic North. Photo: Johan Persson
I caught the cast with Ashley Shaw and Dominic North as the young couple, and Sam Archer as Lermontov. (In some celebrity casting, Sara Mearns alternates as Vicky in New York shows, and Marcelo Gomes as Julian throughout the show's tour.) Shaw impressively evokes the spirit and bearing of the film's star, Moira Shearer. Perhaps more than most of Bourne's past productions, The Red Shoes demands ballet technique of its female lead, although I had to remind myself that most of the ballet is a caricature. It also requires Broadway worthy charisma and projection through physical means alone. And, unlike film's ability to show a close-up (and therefore emotion), we are never very close to Vicky's face, so her body must do the talking. 

While it is greatly entertaining, there are some weak spots. Character development is hasty and somewhat shallow (in part due to the lack of language), which provides the audience with less reasons to become as empathetic as when watching the film. The front of a locomotive is ferociously frightening in the end scene, if somewhat tonally jarring. And City Center's stage felt somewhat too small for the production, but Bourne is a master of creating high-impact movement with limited breadth. Dancers perch on furniture and stamp, clap and twist, which is echoed in spots around the stage. He uses vertical space as much as lateral, compressing a huge amount of action into a compact cubic area.

Bortherston also designed the costumes, flattering 1940s influenced fitted and flared dresses and high-waisted trousers. But it is his Proscenium that steals the show—swiveling, sliding, revealing and hiding the cast members, who dart through it and around it to unravel the story. The Red Shoes is another entry in Bourne's sui generis canon, one that we New Yorkers can only wish to see more of.