Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Most Incredible Thing—Abundantly Stuffed

Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley lead the company in The Most Incredible Thing. Photo: Paul Kolnik
With The Most Incredible Thing, Justin Peck has been given the opportunity by New York City Ballet to push himself far beyond what he's accomplished thus far in his still young choreographic career. This 45-minute ballet, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, is his first attempt at narrative. It has a widely rambling score by the National's Bryce Dessner, and visuals and costumes by Marcel Dzama, and a cast of 56.

If it sounds like a lot to keep organized, it is, and that is one of the main issues with this ballet. The format—12 short sections, in accordance with the hours of a clock—are bookended by scenes depicting a competition between the Creator (Taylor Stanley) and the Destroyer (Amar Ramasar) for the Princess' (Sterling Hyltin) hand. As you might guess, each of the 12 dances is (mostly) populated by an according number of dancers; it begins to feel like sitting through the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a checklist of tasks that need to happen for us to reach the end.
Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring as Eve & Adam. Photo: Paul Kolnik
This isn't to deny observed degrees of invention. Dzama's costumes look rich—creatively, but also cost-wise—with lavish attention to detail. The two-man king walks as if in a three-legged sack race, but then splits in half like a gate to safeguard, or release, the princess. The Cuckoo's wings look like actual feathered wings, although this elaborate costume may have weighed down the spritely and typically steadfast Megan Fairchild (in the cast I saw) as she hammered through the too-rapid allegro steps, at one point slipping. Even birds fall.

The most dazzling and effective costumes were given to the Nine Muses—tutus with black spirals, and The Seven Deadly Sins or The Seven Days of the week (the name/s alone indicate the kitchen sink ethos), who wore flame-hued, patterned unitards. Poor Daniel Ulbricht, as The Gambler, was outfitted in a domino-patterned horizontal tablecloth and bare legs. Adam and Eve (Adrian Danchig-Waring and Rebecca Krohn) pulled off flesh-toned unitards scattered with leaves, and danced one of the more stately and fluid duets, ending with a bite of forbidden fruit. Three Kings were the unrecognizable Jared Angle, Daniel Applebaum, and Gonzalo Garcia, under samurai-like metallic armor. And 11 adorable children sported Hershey Kiss-shaped tunics and silver leather shoes. (As they tossed silver confetti in the air, I could only think that it might have reminded fellow audience member Mark Morris about his own Waltz of the Snowflakes in The Hard Nut.)

The Seven Deadly Sins, of The Seven Days of the Week. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Oh, about the dance itself, which feels like an afterthought—one of the problems with such an encrusted production. Stanley is perfectly cast, a valiant prince worthy of his dashing red cape, moving with a proud athleticism, sternum forward at all times. As he contracts slightly, his arms cushion pillows of air; he whips his leg in slashing arcs, eating up space. Hyltin's role isn't very memorable, but she pairs well with Stanley. Ramasar, who only appears at the end, has fun with his club, cartoonishly whacking and stabbing any nearby dancer. The three kings carry horse-headed staffs and incorporate them in various moves.

The carnivalesque atmosphere is enhanced by two slides—like you'd find at a playground—down which several dancers enter throughout the ballet. Dzama's painted flats evoke a kind of Weimar-era garish noir; his art is also installed in the Koch's grand atrium, giving the Park Avenue Armory's jarring installations some competition.

In recent years, Dessner has experimented beyond his rock band roots into classical and opera-esque evenings, but in Most Incredible Thing, it feels as if he deferred heavily to the movement and visuals. Surging chords and xylophones, medieval clarinet lines, mellow, lyrical swells, Glass-ian shimmers, and propulsive beats are thrown in the overwhelming mix. It didn't help that the premiere capped an already long evening of last year's fashion gala premieres plus Chris Wheeldon's 2010 Estancia, as much musical-theater as dance, and indicative of his now proven sure hand at Broadway. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dada Masilo's Swan Lake

Photo: John Hogg
Dada Masilo's Swan Lake (2010) at the Joyce Theater is a giddy reimagining of the classic ballet. It walks a tightrope between homage and satire, and it's entertaining, funny, and touching. The South African choreographer uses blocks of Tchaikovsky's original ballet score, supplemented by bits by Saint-Saens, Part, and Reich; The Dying Swan is performed twice. Many of the ballet's group dances become occasions for a raucous and riveting choreographic blend of African dance and ballet, all done barefoot with the exception of one male on pointe, as Odile.
Photo: John Hogg

Masilo follows the most basic storyline of a love triangle. But in her version, white swan Odette (Masilo) falls for Siegried (Songezo Mcilizeli), who then becomes enamored with male black swan Odile (Thamsanqa Tshabalala). But first we are introduced to the wedge of swans: women and men in tutus (the men barechested); white feathers festooning their pates. The tutus (by Masilo and Suzette le Sueur) are designed to flop and flare according to pelvic movements; they become almost like pom-poms, shaken with great vigor.  

Khaya Ndlovu, as Odette's mother, gives a monologue about ballet, describing it in laymen's terms: seaweed arms, virility splits, twiddles, fireworks, and weight lifting. It's a hilarious digression that doesn't quite fit within the story. But Ndlovu's comic timing is spot on. 

Most impressive is that Masilo manages to create fluent phrases of movement from the jerry-rigged assemblage of bits and pieces from various genres. She subverts mime into contemporary uses, making it more a tool of dialogue than a means of passive communication. When Siegfried is pushed to marry Odette, he stamps and twirls violently to say "I can't do this!" But then simple body language will do—while the group celebrates, Siegfried mopes about the periphery, deflated. He and Odile have a tender pas de deux; Tshabalala is every tall inch a regal ballerina to Mcilizeli's poignantly innocent Siegfried.

Despite the finale's "swanicide," the takeaway is terrific kinetic fun. It manages to poke at ballet while reassembling it for audiences apart from the traditional. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wagner's Precious—The Ring Cycle

Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905), Costume design for Brünnhilde, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Figurinen, Berlin: Berliner Kunstdruck- und Verlags-Anstalt, 1889, Chromolithograph. Gift of Hester Diamond, 2012. The Morgan Library & Museum.
It's practically unfathomable today to understand the popular impact of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle when it premiered in 1876. It is more rightly compared to the latest Star Wars or, more analagously, Lord of the Rings premiere than any modern opera. Or it's possibly comparable to the current publicity tsunami of Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton on Broadway. But none of those merited a series of newspaper front-pages dedicated to reprinting segments of the score or script, as the Ring Cycle did in the New York Herald. We're talking about major real estate, not simply one of 10 articles or photos.

Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Letter to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein including the closing measures of Das Rheingold, signed and dated Zurich, January 16, 1854. Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection, 1968. The Morgan Library & Museum.
Of course the 26-year build-up to the premiere, in Bayreuth, Germany, is the stuff of legend itself. This story is told at the Morgan Library's Wagner's Ring: Forging an Epic exhibition, on view through April 17. The trove of artifacts ranges from many letters and scores hand-penned by Wagner; a royal decree; costume designs; books; the aforementioned newspapers; an ivory, bejeweled conductor's baton; and a series of etchings showing Joseph Hoffman's scenic designs. Of particular note are a copy of Wagner's own score with his notes and remarks, and compositional drafts that would form the basis of the final opus.

Lilli Lehmann as Woglinde in Das Rheingold.
Bayreuth production. Photograph by J. Albert, Munich,
1876. Metropolitan Opera Archives.
As it goes for artists, Wagner needed money to fund his vision. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a young monarch with a passion for Wagner's music, stepped in when the wealthy composer Franz Liszt declined. Lest we think it was an easy ride, Wagner—who, fleeing creditors, had to be tracked down by the king's agent—signed a contract promising a finished score within three years; it would then belong to the king, and in return Wagner's debts were erased and he was given a salary and housing. 

Sounds pretty sweet, right? But Wagner decided he wanted it to premiere in Bayreuth rather than in Munich, as agreed upon by contract. This entailed designing a theater (Festspielhaus) to his specifications and raising the money for construction. In addition to the royal stipend, this meant leaning on private societies founded to support Wagner's work, a kind of precursor to Kickstarter. 

The exhibition shows what an institution like the Morgan does best. It draws on its own collection, but many objects are on loan from the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth. It's interesting to see what all the fuss was, and continues to be, about.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Stormy Weather—NYCB's Balanchine Slate

Sara Mearns in Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The storm Jonas dumped nearly a yard of snow in its wake, shutting down all of New York City, including cultural performances. But another tempest, Sara Mearns, channelled some of its vibrant fury in Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet (1980) at New York City Ballet on make-up night, January 26. Through her musicality and kinetic impulses, Mearns conveyed an astounding amount of inner life while remaining faithful to the choreography, which she has absorbed a priori. Adrian Danchig-Waring was a noble, strong partner to counter her contained passion.

The all-Balanchine program included Sonatine (1975), a duo with Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz to a Ravel score played live onstage by Cameron Grant. They shared a tender camaraderie, but she repeatedly left him and returned, as if testing the permanence of closure. Peck never stopped moving, giving life and evolution to seemingly static poses. De Luz crackled onstage; his roguish charm paired particularly well with Peck's joy and wonderment.
Tiler Peck & Joaquin de Luz in Sonatine. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The last time I saw Mozartiana (1981), Anthony Huxley danced the second male role; here, he was in the lead male part wearing white and violet, and the cocoa-clad Daniel Ulbricht danced the secondary Gigue. While Huxley continues to develop his partnering work, and on the softening of his placid facial expression, he was crisp technically and timing-wise, and bestowed his movement with more weight and plushness. Sterling Hyltin gave an elegiac, tender performance, her hand softly unfurling as if presenting a priceless gift; Ulbricht was light and appealing if somewhat flat—it's almost as if he reins in his personality and simply lets his flying leaps speak.

The sturdy Symphony in C (1947) featured Megan Fairchild in the first movement with a lackluster Gonzalo Garcia, who seemed rusty and uninspired. The cool pair of Teresa and Tyler Angle wafted elegantly through the second part, making its difficult chained lifts look seamless. A vivacious Antonio Carmena partnered Erica Pereira in the jaunty third, she emanated energy but her small stature tends to minimize the impact. And I wanted to see more of Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley, electric in the brief fourth movement.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Intensio—Daniil Simkin and Friends

Alexandre Hammoudi and Isabella Boylston in Islands of Memories. Photo: Paula Lobo
The most recent ballet vanity project, Intensio (produced by the Joyce Theater), is led by ABT principal Daniil Simkin, who is joined by some talented pals from ABT and Céline Cassone of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. While watching these fantastic art-letes provides many pleasures, the evening also raises questions. Are these already accomplished stars drawing resources—money, publicity, presenters—away from independent choreographers? If those indie artists are not able to attract donor and foundation support like the top ballet stars, how is their work produced—does it mean life or death? 

Socio-artistic issues aside, Simkin does have an unusual story, which is told cursorily in a humorous autobiographical piece with "balletography" by Ekman titled Simkin and the Stage (2015). Born in Siberia and raised in Germany, Simkin was taught ballet at home by his mother; his father designs sets including for Intensio's big finale, Islands of Memories. Throughout the program, we absorb Simkin's brilliance and rough edges, a diamond still in the process of being polished. 

At times his brio blankets his weaknesses; charm goes a long way. In front of a projected film of Simkin either repeatedly pirouetting, or training as an adorable child, the real Daniil performs a kind of highlight reel of his most eye-catching moves, such as leaps and tours in the air. His recorded voice tells us his story, and he humorously mimes nuggets like, "I wanted to be a dentist." Preceding this work is a hilarious film (that has been posted online for awhile) of Simkin going about his daily routine on the streets of New York, dressed in white tights and princely tunic and using only ballet vocabulary.

Daniil Simkin and Céline Cassone. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
These are the most personal works on an otherwise broader slate. Simkin appears in Jorma Elo's Nocturne/Etude/Prelude, a trio with Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, whose brown hair is now light blue (presumably to age him, but it just looks like cotton candy). Is he an older version of the identically dressed Simkin, his father, or just another man? The dance is a showcase for Boylston, chic in a one-shouldered white dress with a circle skirt (costumes coordinated by Maile Okamura). While the larger men seem huge in the modest-sized Joyce stage, the women—Boylston in particular—appear more vivid, limbs longer than at their normal venues, the Met and Koch. Elo adds dramatic touches, such as Whiteside dropping Boylston into a split and lifting her quickly, and Simkin flexing his hands, palm meat pressed together as he pirouettes.

Gregory Dolbashian's Welcome a Stranger (2015) is more edgy, announced immediately by ambient fog and looped percussion, which cedes to a guitar. Céline Cassone (who set the punk tone with her flame-red hair), Blaine Hoven, Alex Hammoudi, Calvin Royal, and Cassandra Trenary gather, lift one dancer up and over another ("gang chaos partnering," in my notes), disperse, and exit; the movement has an urgency and desperation. Royal shines in a brief solo. His long arms sweep like wings, his phrasing plushly muscular. Hoven and Cassone experiment with one another's weight, actions and reactions. 

Islands of Memories is choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to a "recomposition" of Vivaldi's Four Seasons by Max Richter. Dmitrij Simkin designed the nifty set: canted mirror panels show us the stage from above, onto which projected patterns outline and react to the dancers' movements. Ochoa's movement is fluent, elegant, and the dancers look happy doing it. They pair off, springing on and offstage like gazelles. Trenary shows ferocity, and looks fantastic paired with Royal. A woman's pointed toe becomes a protractor pencil tracing a circle around her body, being spun by her partner. Boylston displays her high arches in deep plies. In the group finale, Simkin is one of the gang—the slender kid who can match his mates' spins and jumps—but also the guy who brought the game ball. 

Monday, December 28, 2015


David Wright waving to us waaay up in the back balcony at BAM 
It was the Year of the Mets. After so many, many years of mediocrity and knockdowns, including the ripple effect from the Madoff debacle, the Mets finally got it together and wildly exceeded my expectations. Four incredibly good young pitchers assumed spots in the rotation—Jacob de Grom, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz with Tommy John-fixed elbows—plus the larger-than-life Noah Syndergaard. 

Instead of turning out to be duds, many important moves proved providential: acquiring Yoenis Cespedes after a deal which would've exiled a teary Wilmer Flores fell through, endearing him to anyone with a heart, slotting the Cheshire cat-like Bartolo Colon as the fifth starter. Moving Jeurys Familia into the closer spot after Jenrry Mejia, incredibly, was suspended twice for PEDs. David Wright managing his spinal stenosis after several months off, and returning in time to captain the trophy push. Daniel Murphy summoning some supernatural spirit to hit like a demon in the playoffs. The emergence of youngsters like Michael Conforto and resurgence of vets like Curtis Granderson. It was a dream season that still feels unreal. Adding to the delirium—seeing Wright, De Grom, Harvey and Flores on BAM's stage on Oct 23, after winning the NLCS, during a week-long residency of the Jimmy Kimmel show. 

Gillian Murphy in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone
• Bournonville re-ascendant, danced both by the Royal Danish Ballet and New York City Ballet

• NYCB's Justin Peck premiere of Rodeo stood out, plus new stuff by other choreographers including Kim Brandstrup and Troy Schumacher.

• ABT's new Sleeping Beauty by Alexei Ratmansky, who daringly looked forward while using an ancient idiom. 

• That company's promotions, including Stella Abrera and the ubiquitous Misty Copeland, plus fall season rep gems including a new sweet Mark Morris dance, After You, and a glimpse of Marcelo Gomes' post-dancer future.

• National Ballet of China's The Red Detachment of Women at the Koch, an implausibly likable Socialist ballet where the women dance on pointe, in military formations, with guns. 

National Ballet of China in The Red Detachment of Women. Photo: Stephanie Berger 
• The beginning of Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines project, which revives modern classics (this past season, Cunningham's RainForest.)

• His mentor Trisha Brown's task-based, intimately scaled task-based pieces in situ at the Donald Judd building in Soho. 

• Jose Limon's company finding the energy and resources to organize a festival featuring other companies dancing Limon's work. 

• Twyla Tharp getting a well-deserved, if mixed, evening at the Koch to present new work.

• Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz in Partita 2—first just music, then music + dance, for a contemplative, elegant program.

• Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, a respite among the shrill, saccharine musical theater offerings, and also seeing real ballet dancers—Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope—dazzle the general public.
Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Judd Foundation.
Photo: Susan Yung

• The opening of the new Whitney downtown—providing much excitement and buzz—but also a bit of regret as it's now a tour stop in the overtrekked Meatpacking/Highline district. 

• But the Met's imminent move into the Breuer building offers solace for nostalgics. 

• Another Whitney—Stanley—was finally given his first museum show at the Studio Museum of Harlem.

• Jonathan Franzen's Purity, the first fever-inducing read since Tartt's The Goldfinch

• Other fiction that stuck (okay, many I read later in the year): Mary Gaitskill's The Mare; Patrick deWitt's Under Majordomo; Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno; Joy Williams' The Visiting Privilege.

• Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, for summoning a volatile time in a formally mixed structure. 

• Biographies on Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance) and the Wright Brothers (by David McCullough), both of which are reminders of the potential of human intelligence and perseverance.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ailey Turns to the New (and Taylor)

Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in Open Door. Photo: Paul Kolnik
As the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company enters its fifth year under the leadership of Robert Battle, at least one program in its City Center season showed that the future is now—but with a twist. On Dec 17, a slate of premieres/new productions, the past was represented by a company premiere of Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera (1997). It led a program fleshed out with new work by Ronald K. Brown, Kyle Abraham, and Battle. None of it felt like familiar fare by Ailey, which peppers most other evenings throughout the month-long run. And a subtle link between Battle and Taylor underscored an affinity for dark narrative, and a generational legacy.

Awakening, by Battle, began with a bang: John Mackey's brass instrumentals blasting at air horn-volume, quickly chasing some viewers out of their speaker-adjacent seats. The dancers, in uniform white tunics and pants which could be interpreted as asylum or spaceship gear, darted and pivoted in a V formation, seemingly in hasty desperation. The lights, by Al Crawford, at first lit only their shins; this horizontal motif echoes in a crosswise white slit that cleaves the black cyc in half. There's a general sense of revolution and apocalypse. The group coalesces, gazing in one direction, then splits and careens around the stage once more. Jamar Roberts emerges as the leader, coiling and unfurling amid the turmoil of the crowd. 

Interestingly, for me this work evokes the drama and tumultuous underlying narrative of Paul Taylor's The Word and Speaking in Tongues. This makes sense given Battle's place on the Taylor family tree, beginning as a prominent dancer and choreographer in ex-Taylor dancer David Parsons' company. In Awakening, the group feverishly follows its leader, whether for dogmatic or militaristic reasons. And the rhythmic, staccato phrases remind us of how different Battle's own work is than Ailey's fluid, classical jazz vocabulary.

Jacqueline Green in Untitled America: First Movement. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Piazzolla was set on Ailey by Taylor alum Richard Chen See. In theory, it should be an ideal work for Ailey—sultry, athletic, atmospheric. But from the important opening passage—here danced by Jamar Roberts; for Taylor by Michael Trusnovec—it was clear that Ailey's version would be softer and far less aggressive than the original. Trusnovec dances it with scalpel-like precision, imbuing social dance with a feral menace. Roberts looks terrific but passionless; his performance lacks the necessary darkness. Linda Celeste Sims, in the lead female role, dances with more attack, although as the despondent outcast, she seems more hungry than truly desperate.   

Kyle Abraham choreographed Untitled America (First Movement), a brief trio to a touching song by Laura Mvula. This premiere is about the long-term effects of incarceration, though its unspecific gestures suggest emotional turmoil between closely bonded loved ones. Jacqueline Green's lucid, long lines highlighted this installment of what should be an interesting final serial.

Capping off the evening was Ronald K. Brown's premiere, Open Door, a timely paean to Cuban culture with music by some of its best-known musical sons including Tito Puente and Arturo O'Farrill. Brown can make dances with narrative or historical subject matter, but this dance is simply a full-blown physical celebration. Making it even more joyous are Linda Celeste Sims and Matthew Rushing leading eight dancers in pulsating, rippling vamps that traverse and follow the stage's edges. It's a classic Brown combination of grounded African moves embellished with quirky arm gestures, like brushing something off the shoulder, or arms held at 90º around the face. But never mind the details, what's important is that the company looks absolutely elated during the piece. Rushing can't suppress a huge smile, and Sims beams right back at him. We in turn absorb and reflect all that love back at them, and on and on.

Meanwhile, Ailey's legacy is maintained in repertory, foremost by Revelations, by far his finest dance. But the growing prominence of the school of Paul Taylor, whether through his own work or in Battle's, cannot be overlooked, alongside premieres by some of the bright younger lights of contemporary dance. At the same time, Taylor is welcoming in other modern choreographers' work, both old and new. It's an interesting time for the giants and legatees of modern dance, indeed.