Sunday, March 3, 2024

New York Notebook, Feb 2024

Art—History in Process

Life is history. In the course of life, we accumulate things. Objects and material stuff, but also memories and lived experiences, including physical knowledge, rituals, and patterns. A sampling of culture in New York provided a fascinating survey of how artists gather and translate information into dance and art that, with luck and perseverance, is woven into our collective history.

Leslie Uggams. Photo: Joan Marcus
Encores!—the series title says it all. In February it was Jelly’s Last Jam, with book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. New York City Center carefully selects Broadway shows to remount for brief runs, many of which haven’t been staged in a long time. It unites incredibly talented performers, including Tony winners, here led by Nicholas Christopher as Jelly Roll Morton. With a relatively short rehearsal and performance cycle, and the option to perform with a score, it attracts big name stars between projects. Some of the cast bore the richness of history: the three Hunnies appeared in the original run, the legendary Leslie Uggams—smoldering and lucid in voice—played Gran Mimi, and Billy Porter, entering and exiting with nonpareil swagger, the Chimneyman. Milestones in Broadway’s history are revived in Encores!, performed by new and established talent and appreciated by hungry audiences. Plus, Broadway transfers are possible.

James Greenan in What We Hold. Photo: Nir Arieli

In What We Hold (which I’ll review in longer form for the Brooklyn Rail in April) at the Irish Arts Center, choreographer Jean Butler reframed classical Irish dance with a cast of varying ages and experience in the form. Her baggage is formidable as a one-time star of Riverdance. James Greenan led off with a 10+-minute solo of rapid, athletic tap drills. Spoken memories of going to class are heard in one section, as we were seated below a catwalk stage, staring at the dancers' artfully-placed legs. The passage between rooms (a "promenade performance") and mixing different subgenres of Irish dance, plus the knowledge of Butler’s history, made for an immersive, tantalizing experience.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time, also founded a successful school in Belgium, PARTS. She has earned to right to do whatever she wishes, and recently she choreographed a nearly two-hour solo, The Goldberg Variations: BWV 988 (seen at Skirball as part of Van Cleef & Arpels' Dance Reflections). Watching her work has always demanded focus, from the early themes of boundless repetition, to subtle hand gestures, limb swings, and skipping steps. Pavel Kolesnikov, playing the Variations on stage with his back to us, rendered the iconic score with incredible delicacy and nuance. This immersive mid-career movement compilation, tedious for spans, with several costume changes, was bolstered by the sturdy music. In any case, we witnessed the source—mind and body—of her immense oeuvre at work and play, at times in disparate fragments.

Beatrix Potter, pencil drawing, April 7, 1876. Linder Bequest, Museum no. BP.741.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London/courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

In ways, this sketched overview of her style parallels the exhibition Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, at the Morgan Library. Her great output of children’s books accrued over time, and the show lays out the various interests and threads which Potter wove together in her beloved books (which I loved as a child). Her skill as a technical illustrator allowed her to document her interests—the landscape, and of course animals including rabbits, cats, frogs, and ducks. Her letters are filled with sketches, precursors to her classic books which encapsulated every skill and talent she had honed until then. Walking through the show elicited both strong feelings of nostalgia and a newfound admiration for her craft. 

Mira Nadon, Sara Mearns in Solitude. Photo: Erin Baiano

In Solitude, a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky for New York City Ballet, one horrific image taken from the news prevails—a man (Joseph Gordon) kneeling over his dead son, killed by Russians in the Ukrainian war. As others pass them by—bursting aloft, pulling close, spinning chaotically—the man remains stone-still. He finally dances a solo of grief and intense emotion, representative of millions of Ukrainians and others in recognizing the destruction and futility of a miserable war. Ratmansky has made a snapshot of tragedy plucked from history in the making, creating a vocabulary that evokes the urgency and surrounding emotions of war without tipping into the cliche or maudlin. Mira Nadon and Sara Mearns also led the company in this first premiere by Ratmansky in his new company position, artist in residence.

 Adji Cissoko, Shuaib Elhassan in Deep River. Photo: Richard Termine

The Feb 23 performance of Lines’ Deep River at the Rose Theater is memorable for a different reason—a man yelling disrupted the show halfway through, forcing the curtain to lower for several minutes. It was at odds with the mellifluous, elegant dance onstage, the coursing jazz score by Jason Moran, and the powerful voice of Lisa Fischer. Choreographer Alonzo King is enamored with the elegant lines of ballet and connecting gorgeous poses with fluid phrases, and with his lithe, athletic dancers. At times, it feels like an overabundance, so much beauty blurring together. The interruption felt even more invasive for the idyll it broke. 

So much is happening in New York on any given day; it's perhaps easy to take it for granted. But art will persist after we're gone, and this slice of culture in New York was an testament to its vital importance in recording and making history. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

New York Notebook, Jan/Feb 2024

Timothy Ward and Justin Lynch in De la Lumière, Entre les LampesPhoto: Steven Pisano

Molissa Fenley, Roulette

Molissa Fenley’s program, From the Light, Between the Lamps, at Roulette was most likely not intended as a glowing source of optimism to pull us back from the looming abyss of life, but it wound up working that way on Jan 31. It comprised six dances made or revised very recently—a remarkable output given her incredible decades-long career—one that seemed in doubt after a serious knee injury in 1995. The unfettered joy and experimentation revolving around simply moving the human body felt like a salve and a return to what’s essential, in addition to the ongoing creation of work by a modern pioneer.

Fenley began presenting her work in 1977, drawing attention for her cyclonic, athletic solos and punk aesthetic. She incorporated elements such as percussion and South Asian dance influences that mostly hadn’t been seen together in a New York modern dancer. Flexed feet and hands, the latter to frame the head and upper body, and explosive jumps and spins, marked her fresh style. She made the most of the Covid-imposed rules for dance with her 2020 Joyce run of her virtuosic 1988 solo, State of Darkness, featuring seven powerhouse dancers from top modern and ballet troupes. (Three of them  guested at Roulette on later dates.)

Christiana Axelsen, Molissa Fenley, Timothy Ward in Lava FieldPhoto: Art Davison

In the new program, she showed new or revised work paired with music by thought-provoking composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Perhaps most surprising is that Fenley (born in 1954) performed alongside three outstanding dancers (Christiana Axelsen, Justin Lynch, Timothy Ward). Some of the movement felt softer and more organic than her earlier work. While Fenley's work is not prone to sentimentality, at times the dancers linked hands and passed under these arches, or leaned on one another tenderly. One solo gave way to another, or dancers entered in phases, or danced on three different levels. Some scores were played live, notably the Glass New Chaconne written in 2023. The intimate environs of Roulette (an old auditorium) combined with Fenley’s sui generis modernism to evoke a golden era of dance. And while it might feel halcyon relative to the chaos of today, to remember the horrors of the late 20th-century AIDS crisis might put current mayhem in perspective.

Roman Mejia, Mira Nadon, and Chun Wai Chan in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo: Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet, Koch Theater

The same week, New York City Ballet premiered Tiler Peck’s first work for her native company, where she continues to perform as a beloved principal. She has been choreographing elsewhere for a few years, including for the Vail Festival, which has encouraged young choreographers and collaborations, unlikely as much for the scheduling involved as any artistic barriers.

For the premiere, Peck chose Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (the title for her piece), an exuberant and dramatic composition with highly modulated dynamics and heroic melodies. Her choreography has many of the qualities that distinguish her greatness as a dancer—clarity, musicality, and joy. She gave Roman Mejia a blank canvas on which to display his formidable athleticism in countless spins, jumps, and soaring leaps, at times buddy-battling with Chun Wai Chan. Besides their technical prowess, both have lots of charisma—a welcome asset in a company that can produce skilled but politely distant men. Dancing with both in turn, the e
legant and glamorous Mira Nadon sported a crimson dress (by Zac Posen), which stood out among a sea of blues and browns. A gaggle of men lifted and sailed her about, placing her gently on a row of mens’ backs. India Bradley and Emma Von Enck handled allegro passages with skill and vibrancy.

Emma Von Enck and India Bradley in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Peck is smartly immersed in the working world of the theater. The striking curtain-up moment featured seven pairs of dancers in stark silhouette, performing snappy lifts and spins. Often, a light-hued cyc provides the needed contrast for darkly-lit dancers to highlight their shapes. (This was not the case in the evening’s closer, Odesa by Alexei Ratmansky, where the mens’ black-clad legs were hardly legible against dark backgrounds. On purpose, no doubt, but very hard to see.) The company of a community is important, as are robust solos. And hopefully Peck will have the chance to choreograph more for City Ballet, where she has worked since 2005.

Concerto followed Justin Peck’s Rotunda, created in 2020 to music by Nico Muhly, and Justin’s 19th ballet for the company. He has created dances of differing styles, including elements of street and tap, but he hews to ballet here. Many of the themes that underpin his dances are present—the group, often clustered, facing in, exploding outward to seek individual paths. A childlike playfulness, the joy in moving freely, but also moving precisely.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Odesa.Photo credit: Erin Baiano

richly-hued Odesa, to music by Leonid Desyatnikov, displays the choreographer’s skill at narrative suggestion with the barest of gestures—a woman refuses to take a man’s hand, at once conjuring all sorts of questions about their relationship. A group of men circle the stage in a softly lyrical phrase, which feels refreshingly different from the more strident, powerful vocabulary often given to men. 

In a sense, this choreographic trio of Peck, Peck, and Ratmansky represents the company’s near future, with the two men in formalized positions, and given the success of Concerto for Two Pianos, almost assuredly more to come from Tiler Peck.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

John McDevitt King in Intersections I at Anita Rogers Gallery

Anita Rogers Gallery. Photo: Jon-Paul Rodriguez

Intersections I, a three-person show, is on view at Anita Rogers Gallery in Soho through January 7, featuring Gary Gissler, Barbara Knight, and John McDevitt King. I'm sharing excerpts from a catalogue essay on John's work, published on the occasion of his solo show at MERGE Stone Ridge in 2022.

John McDevitt King, Evening in August, 2023.
Encaustic on wood panel, 60" x 48"

Excerpts from Stealing Light

In the field of gemology, John McDevitt King has evaluated some of the world’s legendary gemstones, including the Hope Diamond. A specialty of his involves noting subtle variations in color, undetectable to most of us, as well as degrees of clarity and other qualities that factor into each stone’s evaluation. But before working with gems, John was a practicing artist. Over decades, as his professional expertise has been honed, his artmaking has evolved in tandem. The two are intertwined, creating an essential, sui generis dialogue that emerges in his artwork.

John perceives the way light is projected, filtered, or reflected, and how it clarifies or obstructs vision; gauges its ephemerality and opacity; and harnesses those perceptions for inspiration. How does he continue to find source material for subject matter? “More often, I start from something observed. That could be a fragment of a photo, something I see around me, direct observation… that goes through transitions as I being to work on it.” He often returns to objects of earlier inspiration, such as a series based on broken plates of glass and the chance patterns therein. At other times, he looks—and then sees. “Some works are reflective of being in my studio and looking at the windows… what I’m seeing on the surface, past the surface, and behind,” similar to the process of looking at a diamond. He nods at Jasper Johns: “You take an object and turn it a different way, or block something out, or twist this, or change the focus of the form—and you see it anew.”

John McDevitt King, Outside In, 2021.
Graphite on paper, 26" x 22.5"

It’s one thing to create subject matter. It’s quite another to render that in a typically two-dimensional work using traditional media. John has been experimenting in recent years with such divergent materials as 3-D printing, video, printmaking, and paper fabrication, but he continually returns to drawing and encaustic painting as the most pure means of expression. “Drawing and encaustic painting somehow embody my personality and the way I put myself in a position to make art.”

John McDevitt King
By Barcelona, 2021
Colored pencil on paper, 15" x 11"
Encaustic involves combining melted beeswax with pigment, which can be layered and textured to create dimension. John notes: “I continually explore ways to handle the paint, move it around, pouring, layering, different strokes.” He most often draws with graphite on white or light paper, but he has also used white pigment on black paper. In any case, he says,”Drawing goes back to childhood. I continue to find that one of the most pleasing forms of interaction that I have in my work.” And his technical methods in grading diamonds have been put to use in painting. In a recent conversation, he noted: “There’s a certain touch that I use in diamond grading that I tend to use also in painting—a movement of the hand focused on attention to detail.”

John finds general inspiration in New York City, whether from cityscapes or simply within his studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; his work expresses “a specific kind of feel, but not a specific place.” One look at his Instagram feed is a glimpse of how a given visual cue can be the impetus for a new composition. Identifiable objects might become the framework for an abstraction; a lightbulb, the pinpoint focus in a drawing; a window, a mysterious portal. For a non-artist, it can help to understand how a simple walk can produce an endless array of inspiration.

Susan Yung, 2022

Anita Rogers Gallery, 494 Greenwich Street, below Spring St., open Tues-Sat, 10 to 6.

New York Notebook, Dec 2023

adaku, part 1: the road opens. Photo: Tony Turner

adaku, part 1: the road opens
BAM Next Wave Festival, BAM Fisher

In murky light, seven clustered women tread a circle, shuffling and hopping, at times chanting, grunting and singing. This begins while the Fisher audience for adaku is seated, and basically continues for 75 minutes, with shifts in step patterns and pull-out dramatic scenes. This continuous human orbit is the work’s backbone—a nod to the endless grind of daily life, the need to keep pushing, even a literal metaphor for the passing of time. The hypnotic repetition mesmerizes, puzzles, and bores, but it rarely flags. At some point, the women punctuate their circles with contractions and shoulder thrusts. Slight variations between each one’s technique provide interest. 

A drama emerges—a carving commissioned on the occasion of her impending second marriage (this time, to a woman) is causing Okwui Okpakwasili nightmares. They begin to come true; children are disappearing. Her daughter witnessed the creation of the carving by Audrey Hailes—poetically enacted by lights swung in arcs, leaving glowing trails. Okpakwasili, the village leader and a powerful presence, in anger threatens Hailes for conjuring evil; her daughter suggest compromising and destroying the cursed carving. While carrying out this task in the wooded edges of town, the daughter disappears, leaving her mother swooning in grief.

Samita Sinha, Okwui Okpokwasili, mayfield brooks. Photo: Tony Turner
The vague story unspools in Okpakwasili’s songs and chant, driven by a constant beat and textured sound by Peter Born. The set, also by Born, comprises two small overhead lamps, a bar of light, and a large, pink, plexi, bisected disc—the sun, or a screen to receive video. There’s friction between the clean, modern set elements and the pre-colonial village setting. Behind the action hangs a crumpled, silver, mylar cyc, which in the finale, the dancers pull downstage and air out in the darkness, creating the convincing sound of a deluge.

adaku engages all the senses to sketch out the elusive narrative. The power of the work lies in the hypnotic physical repetition and endurance for which Okpakwasili is known; the close physical interactions between the women, who move as one much of the time; and evoking a distant era and place while expanding time.

Rite of Spring/common ground(s)
Dance Reflections, Park Avenue Armory

Rite of Spring. Photo: Stephanie Berger

I saw Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring the next night at the Armory, performed by dancers from 14 African nations. Two days before, it might have epitomized works with physically demanding steps utilizing repetition to great effect. After seeing adaku, Rite nearly felt much tamer on the endurance scale. It is danced on plushy-looking dirt (which no doubt is far more difficult than it looks, what with sliding and uneven surfaces and, well, dirt!) by a large company of women and men dancing a breadth of tempos and dynamics in bursts; the ensemble sections thrill. Of course there are spans of convulsions, flinging limbs, jumps, and falls, but they are over quickly.

Rite of Spring. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The identification and sacrifice of the One is predictably dramatic, if no surprise. In the most poignant scene, the women cram together upstage, and each in turn springs from the group, takes the red dress, and walks toward us warily, bearing captivating expressions of fear, curiosity, resignation, etc. The ensemble sections enthrall, with plunging pliés, side-whipping Pina arms, and dirt kicked brusquely. The dancers were assembled for this project, so naturally they don’t have the deep connections of Tanztheater Wuppertal, nor the distinct characters that repeat viewers have adored over the years. The men here are technically excellent—perhaps a little too, mechanically jumping their maximum and hitting the beats early.

But seeing Pina’s work is a rare treat, even if it’s not at BAM, her (nearly) forever New York home until now. Tanztheater Wuppertal performed Rite at BAM in 2017 on a program with Café Müller—a satisfying balance of Bausch’s visceral and socially captivating milieus. At the Armory, Rite was preceded by common ground(s), a duet by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo. Acogny founded Ecole des Sables in Senegal, which worked with the Pina Bausch Foundation and Sadler’s Wells to stage this Rite, part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Dance Reflections festival.

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in common ground(s). Photo: Stephanie Berger

Since Rite is about half an hour long, it should logically be presented with another work to make an evening. Acogny (79) created the work with Airaudo (75), who danced with Pina for many years, along the way performing the role of the One in Rite several times. Unfortunately, the Armory is not the ideal venue for this intimate, subtle work that emphasizes arm work, soft caresses, and contemplation. (Ironically, it would probably look great at the cozy BAM Fisher.) They speak at one point, but it was barely audible without mics. I did hear, “Thinking about Pina,” but I wonder why they bothered with lines if the audience was kept out. There is value in seeing aging dancers move (I mean, Merce!) but this needs some shaping and a better venue. Nonetheless, the pre-Rite buzz and ceremoniousness of the Drill Hall added some ritual excitement that carried through the entire program.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Fallen Trees Find New Life in Art

The final sculpture

My friend Bob Bangiola, an artist in Hudson, asked me to help him construct a sculpture in his back yard, which overlooks a vast, marshy expanse. He uses found wood—tree limbs, branches, and trunks—to connect post-and-lintel frames to make rudimentary edifices. At maybe eight feet tall, this was among the largest Bob has made; other works in his yard are about three feet tall.

The process entailed Bob positioning two primary, pre-constructed frames an appropriate distance apart to eventually form a rough cube. He then hoisted and tilted one upside-down “U” frame perpendicular to the ground. This is where I came in (plus a bit later, two people who were filming the process for a documentary). I stood by one post and helped position it to the point of zero gravity, as Bob checked in with me by voice, look, and balance so that both sides felt weightless. He used the phrase "tuning fork" on occasion, an apt term for the process of refining the work's balance through the most minute adjustments. 
To help keep one of the two main frames in place, Bob used a separate limb with a forked end, like a crutch, to prop it up. To support the other frame, he parked his Jeep against it to take its weight. He then positioned cross bars between the two frames, plus braces to make triangles, and drove in lag bolts to stabilize it.
A crutch-like branch and the Jeep support the frames 

Because of the nature of how trees grow, some of the tree lengths have slight twists and bows, so when they are positioned as crosspieces, they might rock or pivot. The differing density and heft of various woods is surprising. Each piece has its own characteristics that need to be factored in. As the work ages, it will settle.When the framework was stable enough to stand alone, Bob pushed and pulled on various parts to test its strength. He hung from the cross bars and pulled up his weight, bouncing to test its stability.Eventually, the structure will most likely collapse—most of the wood was dead to start with. But the process of decay and dissolution is part of the artwork. The piece evokes many things: shelter, a gate or passageway, a playground or acrobatics apparatus, to name a few—each viewer will form their own associations. For now, these fallen trees live anew.

Photos: Susan Yung

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Sobelle's Enticing, Gluttonous, Enlightening FOOD

Geoff Sobelle, exemplary waiter. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Geoff Sobelle taps into just every imaginable topic surrounding FOOD, the title of his latest theater work. These range from how city dwellers most often encounter it—in a restaurant, accompanied by wine—to its consumption by a gluttonous waiter after his shift, to the origin of wheat crops that have come to signify Big Ag and the ensuing destruction of the American landscape and diet. 

Sobelle is as polite as you’d expect a waiter to be in a fancy establishment, albeit with a 300-square foot table. He enlists those at the table (most of us sat in surrounding seats) to pour wine and read aloud from cues written in menu folios, or answer questions such as “what is your favorite diner food?,” and then magically produces said meal (meatloaf and mashed potatoes). After his shift, he consumes the leftovers and whatever else lies around—apples, raw eggs, tomatoes, salad, a steak, a fish, two bottles of wine, the leftover meatloaf, then cigarettes and money. It’s a pretty convincing act that leaves you wondering what trickery he used, because he simply can't have consumed all that!

Chandelier, recycling bottles and stuff. Photo: Susan Yung

In another trope of magic, he yanks off the enormous tablecloth (it sits beneath an elegant, tiered chandelier made of recycled items), revealing a plain of dirt. Shifting gears, he crawls around the dirt on all fours, plucking adorable little bison out of the dirt, moving them foot-by-foot around the plain in an expanding herd. Following a tiny tractor that self-drives across the field, sheafs of wheat grow. Sobelle plunges his arm deep into the earth and retracts it, covered with oil. Derricks and rigs pop up, model houses are placed willy-nilly by the diners from passed trays, and high-rises with interior lights emerge from the soil. 

Post-shift imbibing. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The bison are returned to the earth, now extinct, and Sobelle himself digs a plot and disappears into the ground—the final feat of magic. We’ve experienced nothing less than the history of America in a physical re-enactment, as well as the endgame of late-stage capitalism and gluttony in its rawest form. FOOD is the third in a trilogy presented at BAM, with previous shows based on hoarding (The Object Lesson) and the complexities of a domicile (HOME). 

It's also the most demanding for Sobelle himself, the key element  powering his entire extremely popular theatrical enterprise. One wonders long he can continue to throw body and soul into his works, but in the meantime, there's no one else like him.

FOOD, BAM Next Wave, BAM Fisher, Nov 2—18, 2023