Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lyon Opera Ballet and Hubbard Street—The Rep's the Thing

Sarabande. Photo: Michel Cavalca
Lyon Opera Ballet can be counted on to bring interesting repertory to New York. Last year, at BAM, it performed Christian Rizzo's ni fleurs, ni ford-mustang, a somewhat impenetrable, glacial  performance work that exploded into ecstatic dance only in its final minutes. This year, it presented at the Joyce works by three buzzy choreographers: William Forsythe, Benjamin Millepied, and Emanuel Gat.

The dances by the first two put to ample use the company's ballet training. Steptext, by Forsythe, dates from a relatively early 1986. Women are on pointe, and the movement is frenetic and all-out, pushing our expectations of the athlete/dancers. There is still a casualness to the affair; moves sometimes ended abruptly and petered out in a walk, rather than a tightly closed fifth or fourth position. Millepied's Sarabande (2009) has a similar dance-and-dash quality. Four men in nifty, colorful shirts noodle and play with the ballet steps they're given, interacting at moments with the on-stage violinist or flautist (reminiscent of Jerome Robbins).  

Gat's Sunshine drew particularly on the idea of a group—reliance on one another, assembling and breaking apart, pushing through the fourth wall to draw in the audience. Gat's lucid lighting scheme seemed to add vast dimensionality to the stage. His movement, so distinctive when he began choreographing a decade ago or so, has expanded to encompass a vocabulary that feels similar to a number of Europeans working today. But his theatrical sense remains fascinating. 

Sunshine. Photo: Michel Cavalca
A couple of weeks later, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago arrived at the Joyce for a two-program run over two weeks. Years ago, under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, this company shifted its focus from jazzy fare toward the European ballet-influenced modern style, more akin to (and including repertory by) Kylian and Forsythe. It is a more global approach, and the company's dancers do well in the elastic, sock-clad movement. 

However, in the matinee I caught on May 16, many of the five dances on the program blended together stylistically. Two works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo displayed his seamless, organic movement, lovely and harmonious, but after 20 minutes or so, ultimately monodynamic and in the case of Second to Last (Excerpt), the use of Arvo Part's very familiar music did nothing to distinguish it. 

Crystal Pite's new solo, A Picture of You Falling, with text by Pite spoken by Kate Strong, was danced powerfully by Jason Hortin. It follows in the dance-theater canon of movement plus words, in stark lighting. And Robyn Mineko Williams, a longtime Hubbard dancer turned choreographer, contributed Waxing Moon, a trio. While the movement was slightly more angular and spasmodic than Cerrudo's, the tasteful black costumes, stark lighting, and long string of duets unfortunately felt very similar to the previous dances.
I Am Mister B. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

What did stand out, for puzzling reasons, was I Am Mister B, by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. The choreographer danced in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, and in theory this premiere is a celebration of Tchaikovsky's ebullient music, and an elegy to Mr. B. The women and men both wore blue dinner jackets, white shirts with narrow black ties, and black pants, to evoke the subject. This faithfulness to wardrobe fell flat when it came to footwear, which was the Hubbard's current rep default—socks. Three sets of semi-transparent copen blue curtains that reeked of a fusty baroqueness fell and rose periodically, compartmentalizing or opening up the stage. The dancers sprang and thrust their pelvises forward, chopping at the air with bent arms. One man spoke some lines so rapidly that I couldn't understand him. Perhaps they held the key to the work.

Sansano's choreography is his own interpretation of the music that has nothing to do with Mr. B's classic. It felt as if Sansano loved the music so much, yet didn't want to do an end-run around Balanchine, that he worked in the conceit of the character of Balanchine, maybe breaking loose after a performance of Theme and Variations. What made it even more confusing was the fresh, sweet memory of seeing Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane lead ABT in Tuesday's Met performance of Theme and Variations. Besides Balanchine's Symphony in C, there is perhaps no plotless classical ballet more musically adept and in concert with its score.

Hubbard Street's dancers continue to be outstanding performers, but I wonder if the repertory isn't too similar to draw on all of their talents. Maybe one piece without socks?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Refreshing, Ancient Bournonville at NYCB

Bournonville Divertissements. Photo: Paul Kolnik
It seems illogical to view New York City Ballet's Bournonville renaissance as fresh, as opposed to what defines new—brand new work by young choreographers, increasingly by men such as Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher, from the company's ranks. Bournonville (1805—79) is about as ancient a ballet choreographer as we see, and at that, we see very little. But we must thank Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins for putting together a program of Bournonville Divertissements (1977) and La Sylphide (1985), performed on the evening of the company's spring gala.

Tyler Angle. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Apart from a story with a melancholy ending such as La Sylphide, Bournonville's choreography, as noted previously, is often characterized by a multitude of petit and grand allegro steps, and a generally sunny mood. Dancers are in the air more than they're on the ground. The style makes use of deep pliés from which to spring upward. There is rarely a moment of stasis. The body is an axis, and the turned-out fifth position a ready-set-go point from which to move in any compass direction, and up and down, with fluidity, delicacy, and ease, despite the speed and challenging technique. 

The Divertissements' many sections, derived from Bournonville's Napoli, Flower Festival in Genzano, and Abdallah, offered choice spotlights for many of the company's fleet-footed dancers. Erica Pereira danced with Allen Peiffer, whose shorts and sailor top gave him the look of a teenager. But it simply contributed to an air of youthfulness and promise. Tyler Angle excelled in the style, unsurprisingly, given his lofty ballon and deceptively effortless bearing. But Sara Mearns, somewhat unexpectedly, managed to articulate each position; her broad dramatic sweep and luxuriant emphasis no hindrance. 

Amar Ramasar and Adrian Danchig-Waring partnered Lauren Lovette and Lauren King (both delightful), Rebecca Krohn (with a warmer demeanor than ever), and Megan LeCrone, whose cool modern outlook was somewhat at odds in the work. Anthony Huxley, who danced the gem of a short solo, was superb as always. The entire cast, beating tambourines, took turns dancing and goading on the others in the jubilant, earthy Tarantella.
Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide. Photo: Paul Kolnik
La Sylphide made its NYCB premiere in a staging by Martins. This production debuted at the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1985, with bright, mannerist sets by Susan Tammany, who also designed the kilts of purple tartan (read the fascinating story about how she also ushers). It's a bit of an odd duck of a ballet; two acts without an intermission. But it contains some great roles for a few dancers, including the previously mentioned De Luz, more radiant and magnetic than ever before, and like so many of the company's many principals, underused. Sterling Hyltin is ideal for the Sylph, whisper-light and delicate, and, as needed, alternately strong and frail. Georgina Pazcoguin played Madge, the witch, with ravenous, and at times contemporary, gestures, reinforcing her reputation as the company's leading character actress. Daniel Ulbricht danced Gurn, the spurned, yet ultimately redeemed suitor. The role is shallow enough that he made little memorable of it.

This dose of Bournonville is welcome, even in a repertory chock full of Balanchine and the talents of many youngsters. It also shows that the company can handle any challenge with flair. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Get Out the Good China

Gown by Guo Pei. Photo: Susan Yung
China: Through the Looking Glass, the Met's new blockbuster exhibition focused on China's influence on Western fashion design, peppers stunning vintage and new haute couture garments among artifacts from the museum's vast collection, setting both in a resonant light. Details from ancient jewelry sing anew next to a beaded gown. An animated calligraphic rubbing feels practically anarchic next to a silk dress imprinted with characters. And a hall of gilded buddhas becomes a monument to a regally opulent gown with an octopus train from 2007 by Guo Pei, who aims to unite cultures in her couture. (Pei also provided the ball's most stunning gown, a 55-pound gold ensemble with a teardrop-shaped trailing cape, worn by Rihanna, that proved the gala's hottest click bait.) 

Roberto Cavalli, 2005
The sprawling show, organized by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda and on view through August 16, includes sections such as Saint Laurent & Opium, Perfume, Ming Furniture, Anna May Wong, Communist uniforms, Emperor to Citizen, Moon in the Water (Astor Garden), and Blue & White Porcelain. The latter is one of the more dramatic juxtapositions, placing a vase next to a curvy 2005 Robert Cavalli gown. It also draws into the equation the tradition of blue and white porcelain in Northern Europe, an early example of borrowed stylistic cues.   

Filmmaker Wong Kar Wai is the exhibition's artistic director, and his romantic, elegant eye is evident throughout the extensive show. Clips of films by such directors as Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee are projected in select spots, providing a jarring modern, animated backdrop. The Astor Court houses a tribute to Chinese opera—stone floors are polished to a mirror finish, emulating reflective water; a moon is projected on the ceiling, but the lighting is too dark to clearly see the somewhat distant garments' details. More legible is the Imperial China gallery, featuring yellow and gold finery both ancient and modern. 

Imperial China gallery. Photo: Met Museum

Wuxia Gallery, Craig Green ensemble. Photo: Susan Yung
The Wuxia Gallery, with its magnificent, vast, early mural of Buddhist imagery, also contains the most modern installation—a forest of plexiglass rods, like giant fiber optics, amid which are situated Craig Green's neo-Mao outfits of quilted cotton, and Gaultier's futuristic silk damask getup with a laser headlamp. It's a lot of space to show a few mannequins, but such is the luxury of the Met's huge acreage.

Because the Met is a museum of everything, it has eluded the critical traps that have snagged the Guggenheim when it mounted a show of Armani's oeuvre, or one of motorcycles, and also MoMA, whose cold new building and Bjork exhibition have been favorite critical punching bags. There is no more brazen marriage of commercial and high art than the Met's Costume Institute (oh, sorry, the Anna Wintour Costume Center). Its gala raises millions for the museum, while allowing its future exhibition subjects a vast red carpet on which to display their latest wares—gratis—on the buzziest starlets, who invariably steal the limelight from the art on view. (Read about the influx of money from China in this Wall Street Journal piece.) 

There are few castigations of crassness or decadence, in part because the Met is the grand dame of US museums. With these fashion shows, it walks the fine line between supporting the arts, and abject capitalistic decadence and celebrity worship and exhibitionism—apparently the perfect equation for raising money now.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Brown + Judd: In Plain Site

Figure Eight. 4th Floor, 101 Spring Street, New York. Photo: Susan Yung 
Standing beside an artwork comprising a stack of bricks, Jamie Scott began the signature thumb gestures that begin Trisha Brown's solo, Accumulation (1974), to the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," and instead of of 41 years falling away, they seemed to compound and well up like a mini stormcloud of emotions, dumping its sentiments all over me as I sat watching on the floor of the Judd Foundation at 101 Spring Street. 

I thought of how the gesture is so emblematic of Brown, no longer performing; how she was one of the artist pioneers of the wilds of 1970s industrial Soho, where brave now means taking a pop-up store lease for more than a month. How she lived around the block on Broadway and commandeered the rooftops for her expansive site-specific performances. How the crossroads signs, Mercer+Spring, loomed through the window just behind Scott, signifying so many years spent on both streets, plying endless paths for work and life. How the jangly music was more of a time-stamp than the dance, written at a time when moonshots were realistic but rock was still in its youth.

I imagine Trisha Brown: In Plain Site, the performance collaboration between the Judd Foundation and Trisha Brown Dance Company, was meant to evoke all these things and more. But most of all, it summons the moment in time when modern art met post-modern dance, and created an artistic biome that has not been surpassed in New York. The program runs today and tomorrow (info at

Diane Madden in M.O. 5th Floor, 101 Spring Street, New York. Art © Judd Foundation Archive, Licensed by VAGA, New York, Art © 2015 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo: Susan Yung
As we moved to the second floor, Marc Crousillat and Stuart Shugg performed an excerpt of Rogues (2011), a far more kinetic and space-eating dance to Alvin Curran's music. The space was surrounded by a wall mural of earth-hued, painted color blocks and huge windows with panes of original wavy glass. On the fourth floor, Cecily Campbell, Leah Ives, Olsi Gjeci, and Tara Lorenzen moved through the sublime Figure Eight (1974), in which their arms floated around their heads as they kept their eyes closed; they then performed Sticks IV (1973), a challenging task dance in which they formed one long pole with four segments, and rolled under it as they held it intact.

Passing through Donald Judd's house, you get the idea from a few massive dining tables and wall of liquor bottles that he liked to eat and drink, but otherwise immerse himself in his work at one of the desks. The five stacked floors of this iconic cast iron loft building could have inspired Judd's regimented geometric sculptures, many of which are on view alongside works by Oldenburg, Dan Flaivn, Ad Reinhardt, and furniture by Alvar Aalto.

Ascending the steps to the fifth floor could, hokily enough, be compared to arriving in heaven, where longtime Brown dancer and current associate artistic director Diane Madden, in a white chiffon tunic, floated through M.O. (Excerpt, 1995), to JS Bach. We viewers watched across Judd's two mattresses, with a major Flavin sculpture of red and blue neon shimmered at left. Shafts of sun speared the space, and for an hour, we were transported from the chic honky tonk of Spring Street back to an era where space, time, food, and art conspired. Trisha Brown's work happily continues on.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The New Whitney Flings Open its Doors

Gansevoort St. Photo: Karin Jobst

Touring the new Whitney, I thought about how Hurricane Sandy has inadvertently seeped into our collective thought processes about how to live in this city on a practical level. How since we are ultimately at the mercy of nature, perhaps we are better off going with the flow, or at least learning to live within its foreseeable dictates rather than building a fortress against it. 

View to an outdoor terrace and staircase. Photo: Susan Yung

Thus the Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, seems at every chance to embrace the outdoors. Numerous doors lead to vast terraces with sculptures. There's an outdoor staircase, an alternative to an interior one (albeit bestowed with great river views) or a set of elevators with whimsical designs by Richard Artschwager. From nearly every point, it's possible to see daylight, and in a few steps, be outside. It's a stark contrast to the interiority of the stately Breuer building, a veritable cocoon, albeit welcoming in a different way. The new building uses reclaimed pine flooring, which goes a long way toward warming up the galleries.
A gallery, with wooden floor. Photo: Susan Yung
The fact sheet about the new building includes a substantial section on flood mitigation. And while most of the points in this section discuss enhanced waterproofing and flood gates and barriers, the main lobby could conceivably open its many glass doors and simply let the storm surge pass through without much damage to the art, while the bulk of the museum hovers safely above. 

This might well apply to the hordes that will surely descend upon the museum, funneled neatly from the popular Highline. This 1.5 mile promenade—the latest, hottest city park—has pioneered the idea of re-use and has embraced urbanity while providing a place to bask in some sunshine and fresh river-borne air. Pedestrians will pass through the Whitney just as they pass through Meatpacking and Chelsea, a flow of humanity soaking up the sights. There are fewer and fewer barriers between inside and out, in a way that is perhaps unprecedented in the city. It's quite possibly the opposite result one might expect from the apocalyptic scenario of Hurricane Sandy.

A Jonathan Borofsky hangs above leather
couches on the river side of a gallery wall.
Photo: Susan Yung
A Rothko observes the conservation studio.
Photo: Susan Yung

The inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, is a well-organized, 23-section reason to view legacy artworks from the collection—many old friends—such as Hoppers and O'Keefes with work from recent generations, grouped chronologically. Around 400 artists are represented; it's essentially a roll call of luminaries from the last century or so. Of course, it's not without holes—Mary Heilman created an installation for a terrace primarily comprising dozens of brightly colored chairs, but as a friend pointed out, her glorious paintings are not included in the interior exhibition. 

Studio for photography and documentation.
Photo: Susan Yung
Adding to the air of openness, the museum allowed access to chambers normally not closed to the public, such as the conservation studio, where a Rothko stood waiting patiently, vying for attention with the demanding vista of river, and a slate-hued documentation room with its equipment poised to work. There's an education center, a theater, special project rooms, and cafés.       

A light sculpture by Felix Gonzales-Torres hangs in a lower interior stairway that leads from the ground floor up. There's a balcony on a landing from where one can observe the busy lobby, a large open space containing the shop and a restaurant. It's a human-scale iteration of the terrifying Atrium at MoMA, where looking down from the upper floors can feel like a suicidal siren call even to those of us unafraid of heights. 

The Whitney is a friendlier place that embraces the city in a fresh way that might only be possible in the wake of the floods of Sandy and the repurposed Highline. It's a seismic shift to Meatpacking that was largely solidified by Chelsea becoming the center of the art world over the past decade. Welcome to a new art paradigm for New York City.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sculpture, Having a Chelsea Moment

James Siena, Just Read the Instructions. 2013, cherry wood. @ 48 x 69 x 60". Photo: Susan Yung

Chelsea/Meatpacking is abuzz with the impending opening of the new Whitney this week, and some warmer weather. A few shows of note:

James Siena, Pace Gallery
Siena is known for his paintings and drawings, graphic OCD works that seem to diagram the imperfect, if ultimately effective logic systems that humans can create. In this group of sculptures, his  exploratory, inquisitive thought process is somewhat revealed. A series of maquettes is built around grape stems. Siena takes this natural, functional structure and extrudes it with toothpicks, building a kind of exoskeleton. He has scaled up a few into wood and bronze, creating satisfying and delightful lattices. Another series explores the cube and its varying multiples; the works approach architectural explorations. Through April 25.

Charles Ray, Matthew Marks
In stark contrast to the organic lightness of Siena's show is that of Charles Ray, with two new sculptures. Baled Truck appears to be a densely crushed truck, such as one might see at a junkyard—a hunky rectangle of metal. In reality, Ray machine carved the sculpture from a solid block of stainless steel; the work weighs 13 tons. The second work, Girl on Pony, is a relief panel carved of aluminum, resembling the manner of a coin. Closed.

Robert Irwin, Blue Lou (detail). 2014—15. light + shadow + reflection + color. Photo: Phillipp Scholz Ritterman.

Janine Antoni, Luhring Augustine
Antoni has been taking inspiration from, and collaborating with, choreographers in recent seasons. These new works, of polyurethane resin, take human ribcages and bones and morphs them into delicate, eerie pieces, some with reassigned functions—rib baskets, intertwined spines, some physical manifestations of emotional connections. Through April 25.

Robert Irwin, Pace Gallery
Irwin has long used light as a medium, creating otherworldly atmospheres with the help of scrim fabric. His new series employs fluorescent tubes, combining them in rhythmic pattern and color juxtaposition. The media he gives tells it all: light + shadow + reflection + color. Intensely hued sections take on individual characters, helped in part by the often witty names, such as Blue Lou. Through May 9.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An American in Paris, and Ballet on Broadway

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope. Photo: Angela Sterling
Broadway has a new pair of ballet-bred stars: Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) in An American in Paris, opening today at the Palace. Both are superbly cast as the leads—one an optimistic American ex-GI roaming Paris as an artist, the other a blossoming ballet star tethered by moral debts and expectations. Ballet native Christopher Wheeldon's direction and choreography brings elegance and intelligence to this popular milieu. The book, adapted from the movie, is by Craig Lucas, and doesn't shy from acknowledging the all-consuming war, including the resistance and the persecution of Nazi sympathizers.  

Those of us fortunate enough to have followed Fairchild's starry career at New York City Ballet have seen his athleticism, his jazzy approach, his irresistible enthusiasm and generosity in performances. A natural in Jerome Robbins' work—a stepping stone between ballet and musical theater—it seems perfectly logical to move to Broadway. He can sing as well, and if not his strongest suit, certainly as well as other famous dancers-with-other-skills such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, his role model. Fairchild's ballet training is his secret superpower; his leaps on the relatively small stage appear even more heroic and weightless than at the Koch; his turns top-like. And as a chatty viewer behind me exclaimed every time he began a solo, he is so smooth. Smoothsmoothsmooth!

Cope, a Brit of Royal Ballet pedigree, possesses an intangible magnetism that, in the show, quite understandably makes her the object of three men's affections. A petite gamine with a million-dollar bob, she has gorgeous lines and feet. She also manages to convey humility and a secretiveness so essential to contrast with Jerry's American openness. The supporting roles are deftly cast as well, including Max von Essen (Henri), Brandon Uranowitz (Adam), and Jill Paice (Milo). 

Fairchild in flight. Photo: Angela Sterling
The production should appeal to Broadway audiences seeking the Gershwins' sturdy romantic pop standards (music is overseen by Rob Fisher) sprinkled with old favorites such as "I Got Rhythm," "The Man I Love," and "'S Wonderful." But for those of us who don't care for the shrill, unsubtle performances so often seen on Broadway, the good news is that Wheeldon's production is tasteful and smart. His choreography, not surprisingly, tends toward the balletic, with jazzy angular arms and a low center of gravity. There's little of the abject need for attention so often felt in Broadway production numbers.

Bob Crowley's sets are compact mobile pieces, some with picture frames or modern art motifs onto which imagery is cast (by 59 Projections). Large-scale projections in an Impressionist style grow and shimmer on the backdrop, including some of Paris' iconic sights. Key production numbers include one set in Galeries Lafayette, in which Jerry hops from showcase to showcase, his extended leg skimming the countertop. "Stairway to Paradise" moves from a jazz speakeasy to Radio City and back, and includes the requisite kickline done by both showgirls and tux-clad guys (the natty costumes are also by Crowley). 

An avant-garde, salon style ballet presentation features dancers making hilarious moves that manage to be just one notch to the left of real. And the beginning and end of the grand finale ballet cleverly situate us behind the stage, looking out past the performers (in Mondrian-esque costumes) into the "audience." Jerry and Lise are clad in sleek black outfits for the dream sequence—a snazzy, captivating duet in which the white set is reduced to simple geometric shapes, better to feature the couple. And as with the best dreams, we want them to keep dancing forever.