Monday, December 31, 2012

Tops in 2012

Favorite stuff from 2012. 

Ann Hamilton's The event of a thread at Park Avenue Armory
Sheer exhilaration, from the impressive use of scale to the pure fun of swinging, and if you choose, can be parsed ad infinitum.

Picasso: Black & White at the Guggenheim
Deservingly rehabilitates the long, overly-hyped reputation of an innovative artist in a bracing exhibition.

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Rian
Why didn't this get more attention? A life-affirming evening of music and dance drawing from, but not limited to, Irish folk traditions.

Performer—Silas Riener
His gut-wrenching performances in Rashaun Mitchell's Nox and Tere O'Connor's Poem miraculously elevated his high-wire reputation after his Bessie Award-winning solo in Merce Cunningham Company's BAM send-off, Split Sides.

Choreographers: Pam Tanowitz, Dusan Tynek, Justin Peck
Three talented choreographers who should get more commissions from larger companies so in need of fresh voices and material. All skilled with the nitty-gritty construction of formal work that requires skilled technique. Peck, a corps member with NYCB, will have another premiere soon, and the others should as well.

This Bright River, Patrick Somerville
A novel that drew me, unexpectedly, through a personal story into a breathtaking thriller.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
I know everybody says to read this book, but it may change your life the way Apple has changed your life. An unsparing depiction of a brilliant and ruthless creative genius.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich
Her writing is simple, funny, and earthy. About a crime on or near an Indian reservation that is light, dark, and slyly observes the complexity of the founding of our nation.  

New York Magazine
This magazine is what a weekly cultural, general interest magazine should be, reflecting the best of culture and food, with graphics that can transform ideas into visually stunning images, and at heart, excellent writing.

As opposed to the worst: Time Out New York, which now looks like it doesn't have a designer overseeing it, and features hideous fashion, homes, and lame features that read more like advertorials. On its way to irrelevancy.

Moonlight Kingdom, Wes Anderson
A complete artistic vision, from story to every amazing visual detail. 

I know there are more, but these are what spring to mind. Yours?

Happy new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Softer Side of the Ailey Company

Akua Noni Parker and Antonio Douthit in Jiri Kylian's 
Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Ailey's dancers always look amazing, but it's good to see them flourishing in choreography that emphasizes subtlety and plush muscularity in addition to flash and dazzle, which is understandably what they get when work is made on the company. Because who wouldn't be tempted to push these copiously talented artists to their limit? 

Part of the craft in making this happen is to select existing repertory, such as Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort, alongside commissions by young talent such as Kyle Abraham, as Artistic Director Robert Battle did this year. Petite Mort (1991) engages viewers immediately with its courtly trappings of tamed swords and stand-alone hoop gowns (by Joke Visser) slid over scant camisoles and trunks. Hypnotic, if familiar, Mozart accompanies Kylian's pleasing, classical modern movement, which emphasizes line, detailed extremities, and the handsome formal arrangements.

This dance has also been performed by ABT, which tells you something about the company's direction. Paul Taylor's Arden Court, now Kylian... the presence of both make sense given the technique at hand, even if it will take time for these dances (especially the Taylor) to become second nature. 
Jacqueline Green with cast in Kyle Abraham's Another Night. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Kyle Abraham, on the other hand, is young, on the rise, and suddenly everywhere. His phrases can consist of quick moves punctuated by a suspended balance, darting and stopping like a hummingbird. He weaves many styles into his premiere, Another Night, and in that respect, also puts to good use the typical sets of skills held by Ailey's company. It feels celebratory, in contrast to the psychological and historical weightiness of Kylian's work. If not the most memorable work, the dancers looked elated.

Ditto for Ronald K. Brown's Grace, in a new production, though I'm not sure what was new other than casting choices and some of the lighting scheme. With Revelations, it remains among the finest repertory. It's no coincidence that both dances vary in dynamic between their numerous sections in terms of music and tempo, and acknowledge both earthy vitality and spiritual transcendence. 

With the retirement of the serene Renee Robinson, it was a pleasure to see newcomer Jacqueline Green channeling some of Robinson's elegance and radiance. Another standout was Sean Carmon, all tensile line in Revelations' "Sinner Man." Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts continue to be paragons of grace and power, both possessing superb technique in addition to their natural gifts.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Books—Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and In Shadow

Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and In Shadow is perfect end of the year reading, especially if you have a vacation ahead of you. It's an unfettered ode to New York City—its architecture, its post-WWII freedoms, its dog-eat-dog capitalistic machine, its potential for romance. Unlike so many contemporary novelists, the book is written without a trace of irony or cynicism. At 700+ pages, it's a commitment, but well worth it, with indelible stories and descriptions throughout. 

The novel follows Harry Copeland, fresh from war duty and back running the family leather goods business, as he falls in love again with the city he grew up in, as well as with Catherine, a burgeoning Broadway actress whom he spies on the ferry. What begins as a straight-forward love story blossoms into a thriller, and builds to a daring parallel escapades  orchestrated to regain Harry's and Catherine's honor. He details class differences, focusing mainly on the 1%, and the everlasting bonds forged between soldiers in the trenches. Helprin cunningly adapts many skills honed in military training to life in the big apple, but he also recounts the simple, daily pleasures of that life as well.

Helprin tends to use five words where one would do. If you pulled out the passages that pay homage to New York's architecture and light, and of Catherine's beauty and gifts, you'd have a substantial tome. But his prose is so lush and pictorial that he's forgiven, and if you live in New York, or visit, you'll appreciate it all the more.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Richard Alston—Clarity and Conviction

Roughcut. Photo: Chris Nash
Richard Alston's choreography speaks through its form. His movement is classically informed, but done without shoes, and in relatively androgynous clothing, less to distract from the crisp structures made by the phrases. He favors deep pliés in second; sailing, upright leaps with a bent hind leg and arms in fourth (reminisicent of Merce, with whom he studied; pictured above), partners in artful, tranquil positions; and explosive jetés from a near standstill. Despite the erosion of traditional gender roles, generally the men get the showy moves. 

Alston's choreography is best suited for compact men. The standouts in his current company, seen at Peak Performances in Montclair on Dec 16, are Pierre Tappon and Liam Riddick, of a like size. Both dance with lucidity and purpose, "sticking" the deceptively difficult jeté landings, and hovering for an extra moment in relevés. They are both small enough so that even in their maximum extensions in circling leaps, they manage to stay safely within the bounds of the stage. Taller people might fail at this. Tappon exudes a serenity and intelligence that grounds the dances, while Riddick has a more aggressive, percolating energy.

Liam Riddick in Unfinished Business.
Photo: Chris Nash
The three works on the program were in a contained dynamic and emotional range. Alston knows his strengths and sticks with them, but also matches pieces of music that create hermetic universes to breathe atmosphere into the sere vocabulary. Roughcut was performed to Steve Reich's "counterpoints" for clarinet/guitar, providing a convenient division of parts. Unfinished Business was to Mozart and Busoni, which offered the temptation to wander into the illustrative or picturesque. A Ceremony of Carols incorporated the women of Prima Voce choir upstage in a moving and tender seasonal celebration. A bench standing on its end transformed into a cross for a few minutes, a surprising and moving detail. One drawback—Alston tends to repeat himslef. The first two works both ended with the dancers moving downstage and freezing, first with their arms about their heads, elbows bent, and then raised straight. It felt too similar unless they were two parts to one dance; there were other notable repetitions that felt recycled.

It's somewhat lazy, but it's useful to put things in perspective by comparing Alston's dances to work that you might read in similar ways, such as Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, even a little bit of abstract Paul Taylor. Morris less so, but they have all identified specific vocabularies and stuck with them, built bodies of work on dance's formal aspects, and considered music, or its disregard, to be an important element. Alston, like Cunningham, is on the clinical side of things. The dancers relate lightly, but more in terms of physical proximity than emotionally. There are no stories, no outright scenarios. A world arises from the dancers moving onstage in relation to one another, in that moment, to that music. In that regard, it's twice as difficult to do well without narrative lifelines or simple dramaturgical fallbacks. On the other hand, its contained range at times feels like it's thirsting for these life-affirming totems. Still, Alston's clarity and conviction gratify.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

With Apologies to Rodin

Workin' the toga. Photo: Laurent Phillippe
Choreography by Russell Maliphant inspired by Rodin's sculptures. What could go wrong?

Turns out, pretty much everything. The Rodin Project, at the Joyce through this weekend, is a drawn-out exercise in muscular posing and movement banality. The first of two acts is set in an idealized artist's studio, or possibly a muslin warehouse. The six dancers wear stylized togas; the mens' resemble ill-fitting diapers that serve to show off their sculpted torsos, and the womens', despite a smattering of peekaboo cutouts, are actually rather flattering (designed by Stevie Stewart). 

The claustrophobic set of ramped platforms and stub walls are similarly draped with beige cloth, and lengths of white chiffon hang evenly spaced, like wannabe Greek columns. The dancers take turns posing artfully between very slow moves, sliding down the ramps, and sometimes hopping between daises like sluggish frogs on lilypads. The score, by Alexander Zekke, drones and buzzes. The dancers file off in slow motion, seemingly as trapped as we are in aspic.

A couple of the women are drafted as nude artist models, posing coyly in demi-light. Three dancers wearing shaggy cloaks, a la Burghers of Calais, surround one of them menacingly. 

I imagine a dialogue: "Could one of you warm folks lend a cold lady a cloak?" "Get your own cloak, you lazy, indecent leech!" Times are tough in the arts, clearly. 

The second act features more actual dance performed in casual modern togs. The six dancers—Jennifer White, Carys Staton, Ella Mesma, Dickson Mbi, Thomasin Gülgeç, and Tommy Franzen—are trained in various genres, with an emphasis on hip-hop and commercial dance. The men are given the lion's share to do, muscling through Maliphant's blend of capoeira and stylized hip-hop. A verrrrry long duet, featuring much slow-mo pretend falling and frozen posing, takes place on the wall. The women don't have much to do, sadly, other than look beautiful. Zekke's score by this point does its best imitation of a jack-hammer, although I'd venture to say it's the context more than anything. There is one long intermission, or should I say respite, for a runtime of 90 minutes total.

If nothing else, the evening made me appreciate the mysterious, kinetic life force emanating from Rodin's bronze sculptures—how he created turmoil and movement in such base materials. And how incredible it is that, through no fault of their own, six live humans held no more life than clumps of clay.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ann Hamilton's Thrilling Event of a Thread

Experiencing Ann Hamilton's The Event of a Thread at the Park Avenue Armory is both exhilarating and humbling. Kind of like visiting the vast Armory itself, which makes you simultaneously consider humankind's ambition and peon-like size.

It's exhilarating, because even if you aren't much into audience participation (ahem), you'll probably be giddy with delight (double ahem) when you sit on one of the 42 broad wooden swings and begin to sail back and forth. The sheer joy of this simple action recalls all that is good about being a kid. The swings are suspended from the rafters by 75' chains, which are loosely tethered together near the top and attached to a vast silky cloth that divides the Drill Hall in half, Christo style. The "membrane" billows and shimmers in reaction to, as Hamilton so poetically put it, "the weather" of the installation. 

If you're on a swing, your flight trajectory neatly illuminated by a rectangle, by now you've passed two "readers" (members of SITI Company) who sit at a table stacked with 42 homing pigeons in cages. They read text that follows the graphic structure of a concordance, which essentially organizes variously sourced phrases by common words which align in "spines." This concept of the weaving of fabric permeates the installation; it is found here in the spoken text, which is transmitted to radios in neatly-wrapped paper bags that are scattered throughout the hall and are meant to be carried and passed along to others while feeling the breath—the vibration of the noise—of the speaker. You with me?

On the Lexington end of the hall sits a "writer," who writes with a pencil on a carbonized form in response to the read text and the goings-on in the hall. Nearby is a record lathe which will record a daily song sung by a soloist and chorus, from a balcony, to the fat homing pigeons, which are traditionally used as a means of communication. Recurring instances of action and documentation form a sort of metaphorical dialogue, or weaving, of the duration of the performance and installation. The desk set-ups are reminiscent of previous Hamilton scenarios—repetitive labor and language are trademarks—but the sheer visceral and emotional impact of the large-scale dramas are nothing short of thrilling.

Clearly there are infinite ideas in Hamilton's work, which reaffirms the power and potential of art, but there is also nothing quite like the simple thrill of sailing through the air on a swing. It's on view through January 6 (and free this Saturday, December 8).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Notebook: Tere O'Connor and Henri Matisse

Silas Riener, Michael Ingle, Oisin Monaghan in Poem. Photo: Ian Douglas
Tere O'Connor Dance—Secret Mary and Poem
New York Live Arts, Nov 27—Dec 1
  • Two very different sections to which a third will eventually be added
  • Secret Mary feels more akin to some of Tere's previous work: movement emanating from gestures, shaded with irony or facial expressions
  • Less trained technique that feels accessible
  • The dancers seem as if they have lots of secrets 

  • Poem feels more virtuosically technical in comparison, 40+ minutes of riveting movement, the five dancers doing ensemble variations, or split into 3s and 2s
  • Silas Riener, Cunningham star, dances; his peerless technique frees him to play with any movement, time and space-wise
  • Although all of the other dancers (Oisín Monaghan, Michael Ingle, Heather Olson, and Natalie Green) are superb in individual ways. O'Connor has always employed very talented dancers
  • The costumes defy gender stereotyping, with Riener in a childlike "sunsuit" and Monaghan in a smock
  • A men's trio of Busby Berkeley inspired radial formations shows off the mens' legs in a way more typical for women
  • While O'Connor occasionally quotes from code, like ballet, he primarily invents or discovers vocabulary that's familiar, yet also completely independent
  • I can't wait to see the entire three parts together when it's done.

Interior with Black Fern, 1948, oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm.
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel.
c 2012 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society, NY
Matisse: In Search of True Painting
Metropolitan Museum, Dec 4—Mar 17

  • A stellar assemblage of wonderful Matisse paintings examining the process of painting a subject matter several times, thwarting the idea that Matisse did not carefully plan his compositions
  • Includes series of photographs taken during the stages of creating paintings
  • It also shows how Matisse was influenced by the work of his peers, notably Cézanne and Signac; several canvases show experiments with pointillism and Impressionist techniques
  • There are a couple of paintings that are familiar, but many of these are fresh to New York eyes
  • Matisse assembled compositions as much by blocking with color and pattern as with line
  • The vibrant Interior with Black Fern (1948) and Acanthus (Moroccan Landscape) (1912), among others, shows his brilliance with color
  • Includes loans from a wide range of museums such as Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Kunstmuseum Basel, Centre Pompidou, and from private collections
  • A thorough but not sprawling show of 49 paintings 
  • A shocking reminder that Matisse lived until 1954, really not that long ago!

Le Luxe II, 1907-08, distemper on canvas. 28.5 x 54.75". Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen,
J. Rump Collection. c 2012 Success H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society, NY 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dancing By Not Dancing

Prospero and the replicants. Photo: Jorg Baumann
Several shows being presented in New York this week underscore how important dancers' training is, not in the obvious sense of dance technique, but in other ways of moving and communicating.

The Tempest Replica, by Crystal Pite for her company Kidd Pivot (at the Joyce through Dec 2), is a tautly produced, highly theatrical spectacle that traces the themes of Shakespeare's work. In the first half, Prospero is surrounded by "replicas" of the main characters, automatons clad entirely in white, including fencing-like headgear. Video provides exposition and scene structure, and subtle warm-to-cool shifts in lighting set the mood in the all-white setting. In the second part, the dancers doff their white coverings and dance in street clothes, acquiring humanity and pathos. 

But their effectiveness as automatons was remarkable, robot-walking and gliding effortlessly around the stage. At times, they'd react with emotion in humanesque fashion, as in a brief romance, much to their own surprise. But it showed the power and potential for expression by these highly trained bodies, even devoid of facial expression.

At the BAM Fisher, Lucy Guerin's Untrained matches two trained dancers with two untrained guys in a series of exercises, including dance moves and phrases. Of course it's hilarious to see these endearing "untraineds" fumble through some of the harder stuff. But it's remarkable to realize how essential the function of the brain is in companion with a learned physical intelligence. It's similar to learning an instrument, it just happens to be one you live in.

And over at the Harvey, SITI Company's performing Anne Bogart's production of Trojan Women, which examines the power and powerlessness of the women of Troy. One of the primary subjects of said topic is Helen, played by longtime Martha Graham principal Katherine Crockett. Her statuesque elegance and beauty require no acting, but she also has many lines and interactions with the ensemble, which she handles skillfully. But perhaps the simple acts best express her foundation as a highly-skilled dancer: standing, walking, reclining, turning her head in profile, basically acting regal. After embodying Martha Graham's Clytemnestra, Helen's a piece of cake.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What to Read?

Have trouble figuring out what books to read, or give as gifts? I'll start listing books of note. Feel free to chime in by commenting, or email if you've read something you want to share. 

Here are a handful of new releases that have stuck in my head recently:

This Bright River, Patrick Somerville 
A hybrid personal story + thriller that kept me guessing til the end. A complete surprise as I hadn't heard it hyped. Wanted it to go on and on.

State of WonderAnn Patchett
Another unexpectedly suspenseful, exotically-set tale that raises big questions about womankind and the natural order of things. And anything Patchett writes is worth a read.

Juliet in AugustDiane Warren
Sasketchewan, horses, dust—along the lines of "exotic rural North Americana." Quietly ominous, richly descriptive, very readable. 

Buddhaland BrooklynRichard Morais
Literally about Buddhism finding a home in Bklyn, paralleling a reverend's search for inner peace. Okay, the premise is based on the cliche of "cultures clash, hilarity ensues," but it's a refreshing take on it. Plus, a slender, quick read.

From a bit earlier:

Monsters of TempletonLauren Groff
A lake monster, ancestral mysteries, New York State near Cooperstown. What's not to like? 

Open CityTeju Cole
A non-native wanders thru New York City, Brussels, and his native Nigeria visiting friends and relatives. Beautifully written and dreamlike.

Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
I never thought I could get sucked into a novel about the Vietnam War, but this is totally engrossing and moving in a filmic way. (Remember this when it is eventually made into a film and you think, I wish I'd read the book first.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Dance: As Regular as the Seasons

Tiler Peck in Balanchine's Nutcracker. Photo: Paul Kolnik
This particular moment in the calendar year is, for a dance fan, a comfortable, cinnamon-scented one. Thanksgiving means the next-night opening of New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, by George Balanchine, with its magnificent tree, authentic-looking snow, and richly detailed party scene. It's a chance to see the varied talents and facets of the magnificent company, from Maria Kowroski as Sugarplum Fairy, cooly radiant and controlled; Tiler Peck (Dewdrop), a virtuosic jazz musician on pointe, able to bend time to her will with her crystalline technique and musical ear; Erica Pereira (Marzipan), precise and delicate; Chase Finlay and Georgina Pascoguin (Hot Chocolate) bold and alluring. And of course, the key—all the well-drilled children as party-goers, little trees, angels, and candy canes. With its lavish sets and costumes, and enduringly rich score by Tchaikovsky, it's a well-burnished holiday tradition.

Linda Celeste Sims, Rachel McLaren, and Alicia Graf Mack. Photo: Andrew Eccles
Beginning Nov 28, Alvin Ailey takes up residence at City Center for the month of December, as usual—always a joyful, invigorating thought. It seems as woven into the fabric of the city's holiday calendar as NYCB's Nut, and now ABT's Nutcracker by Ratmansky at BAM. This year at AAADT, the repertory consists of, appropriately, ever more dances by Artistic Director Robert Battle (four) including a new production of Strange Humors, and what feels like an organic winnowing of dances by Mr. Ailey, including Memoria, Night Creature, Streams, the iron-clad Revelations, plus excerpt medleys of his works called Ailey Classics

Other highlights include a world premiere by Kyle Abraham, who blends styles to make his own voice; Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort; From Before by Garth Fagan; and a new production of Ronald Brown's Grace, which remains one of the gems of Ailey's rep. Speaking of: the inimitable, elegant Renee Robinson, who created the central role in Grace, is retiring after a remarkable career, and will be celebrated on Dec 9 at 7:30, as well as by leading all performances of Revelations for the first two weeks of the season. Another retirement of note: Executive Director Sharon Gersten Luckman retires after this season and will be feted on Dec 4; that program includes Ohad Naharin's Minus 16. As long-time Ailey faces move on, the company's performance schedule remains steadfast. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Beatrix Potter at the Morgan

Letter to Eric Moore, August 12, 1892
Beatrix Potter's books are so ubiquitous that they were simply part of growing up, alongside Dr. Seuss, at least for me. But there was something precious about my Potter books—their small size, textured dark blue covers, etching-like text imprinted on the covers. (That said, this is what I remember, not necessarily how they actually were. But it's the impression I'm talking about here!) They felt like little heirlooms, versus the cheap, glossy Seuss books with their bright colors, cheap paper, and bizarre characters.

Oh hai. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
The Morgan's show, Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters, on view through January 27, details how Potter developed her now-canonical tales in letters to the children of her former governess—she didn't know what to say to the kids, so she told stories. The show supports my recollections about the illustrations being finely detailed, accurate renditions of animal rather than cartoonish or anthropomorphic interpretations. Okay, so they wore little jackets and bonnets and stuff... but even those didn't look entirely comfortable, instead recalling toddlers dressed up for church in their stiff Sunday best. (There is one slightly disturbing divergence: the bunnies' leather shoe-shod feet are tiny.) But Potter was a bit of a pioneer, working primarily in the late 19th century and early 20th. She produced "merch," like greeting cards, early in her career, and pursued her uncompromising vision with focus that could not have been simple for a woman then.

She could paint plants, too. And kitties. Fawe Park
The Morgan show highlights her illustrated letters, beautiful artifacts that showed how integrated art and text were to Potter. The delicacy, and verismo, of her renditions of animals laced throughout missives to, in particular, children she knew. How lucky they were to be acquainted with Potter, and to receive such gem-like gifts that for her were merely her means of expression, like talking is for most. The Morgan revives such revered childhood companions as Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, and Jeremy Fisher. You might be surprised at how evocative these drawings and artifacts are, as was I.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Giving Thanks—Sports Edition

Before all the year-end lists start popping up, here are some notes on 2012 in sports thus far.

The Mets
Dickey, scaling great heights of all kinds.

  • RA Dickey won the 2012 Cy Young! An epic year for an everyman, climbing Kilimanjaro, publishing a well-written and honest memoir, and being the highlight of a drab Mets' second half after a promising first half of the season.
  • The Mets finished ahead of the Marlins. Like I said, ain't much to brag about Mets-wise, but seeing José Reyes bid farewell to Queens and head for the bright, shiny carnivalesque Marlins Stadium with freakin' FISH TANKS as backstops was sad, not gonna lie. No one more fun to watch play, and his spirit is so winning. But the Marlins imploded, far more quickly than I could have expected, and the team was hastily disassembled via a big trade with Toronto. Now Reyes will be in a different dome, in a cold climate, with turf, and far away from his native tongue. Still, some sadistically pleasant Schadenfreude in all that, even if I do wish happiness for Reyes.
  • David Wright managed to hit .306, five points above his career average, after decimating the first half of the season despite a broken finger. He remains the backbone of the team, its veritable captain.
  • The commentating team of Gary, Keith, Ron, and Kevin. Gary's got a cello of a voice, is incredibly smart and level headed, and he's a huge fan. Keith, among my all-time favorite players, speaks from authority, and is hilarious and frank, especially about his eating habits.

The New York Giants

  • Current swoon aside, they unexpectedly won the Superbowl and started off this season impressively. Good thing they piled up a good record because they're gonna need it.
  • They're becoming known for making kings of prior plebes, like Victor Cruz and Andre Brown. 
  • They tend to keep their mouths shut and keep their egos tamped down, although the Jets make this look like a snap. Thanks, Jets.


  • Ugh, do I have to talk about it? The upside of monumental sports icon Lance Armstrong getting taken down is that some serious soul-searching is underway in this sport that demands superhuman performances. The tumbling house of cards also shows how pervasive doping has been, putting Armstrong's travesties in perspective. Still, it hurts.
  • One of the most un-steroidal looking riders, Bradley Wiggins, won the Tour de France this year. Literally a stick figure, with a Monty Pythonesque head, he brought some groundedness back to this beautiful, sometimes terrible sport.
  • The emergence of a new generation, including Yanks Teejay Van Garderen and Tyler Farrar, and Slovakian Peter Sagan, respectively sunny, unlucky, and terrifying.

Formula One
The podium at Austin. Yeehaw!

  • The new Austin, TX race was a huge success, and the championship will be decided at the season finale next weekend in Brazil. Plus, Texas does have a sense of humor: the podium hats were ten-gallon Stetsons. The downside: Rick Perry is still governor there.
  • Ferrari did not suck this season! Alonso drove the bejeezus out of his car (he's currently 2nd in the championship race with a chance to win) which actually turned out better than forecast at the season's start. And Massa keeps his job, despite being consistently behind Alonso, although he improved as the races accrued.
  • Lewis Hamilton never looked happier than on the top step of the podium at Austin, winning perhaps his final race with McLaren before moving on to Mercedes next season. Not an easy guy to like, snapping at his team over the radio, but seriously talented. And his teammate Jenson Button was competitive all year in his super smooth, charming way.
  • Mark Webber kept up with his jackrabbit teammate and championship leader, Sebastian Vettel. One of the veterans of the sport, Weber has been emerging as a strong voice and conscience of the sport.
  • The rebirth of Kimi Raikonnen, whose churlishness on his radio only seems to make people like him more, in contrast to Hammie. His motto, "Leave me alone, I know what I'm doing" was imprinted on t-shirts. Awesome. Plus, he actually contended, and won a race. Unbelievable, given Lotus' situation.
  • I have to admit, I'm not a big NBA fan, but the sheer energy and buzz around the Nets' relocation to the BK (my place of work) is pretty exciting. Now if I could just figure out who Deron and Brook are...
  • And yet, the ancient, currently despicable Knicks (if only for not resigning Jeremy Lin) are atop the league. Sports: ya never know.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saltimbanques Inspire Picasso and Lubovitch

Picasso's Les Saltimbanques, 1905
What inspires an artist to create a new work, especially after 44 years of making dances? Lar Lubovitch found inspiration in Picasso's painting of a circus troupe, Les Saltimbanques, paired with Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor performed live by the Bryant Park Quartet. The result—Transparent Things, which premiered in the company's run at Florence Gould Hall on November 14—fits snugly within Lubovitch's oeuvre of lushly romantic, lyrical dances. Also on the gala bill were his sharper, frenetic 2011 work, Crisis Variations, featuring the dynamic Katarzyna Skarpetowska, and the aromatic Little Rhapsodies, a virtuosic 2007 male trio.

Leg lines a-resonating. Photo: Rose Eichenbaum
Attila Joey Csiki, as the lead tumbler in Transparent Things, wears the money-shot costume—a pastel hued, diamond-print, well-fitting tunic, created by Reed Barthelme. Portrayed as a bit of an outsider, Csiki gamboled with the ensemble and then danced alone in a melancholic funk. The troupe included two couples: Skarpetowska with Reed Luplau, and Clifton Brown with Laura Rutledge, along with Brian McGinnis. Lubovitch works with a complete stage picture in mind—curving legs aloft resonate between pairs, or the group snaps, seemingly spontaneously, into one of his signature tableaux.

Attila Joey Csiki wearing The Costume. Photo: Steven Schreiber
The costumes were obviously key, patterned directly after the color schemes laid out by Picasso. But the gap between the resulting designs for the men and the women were like day and night. It seems that all of Barthelme's energy went toward the mens' tunics (other than Brown's white leotard and high-waisted grey pants that were somehow unflattering to this most Apollonian of dancers). The women, Rutledge in particular, looked like someone had grabbed the lost and found box and pulled out whatever would remotely fit, at least within Picasso's palette.

It's not news, but Lubovitch attracts first-rate dancers. Brown, long a star with Ailey, here favors the subdued facet of his onstage persona and melts into the ensemble even as he inevitably does a lion's share of lifting and guy stuff. Luplau's dancing, particularly his allegro passages in Rhapsodies, reminds me a little of the effervescence and precision of Sean Curran in his prime, no small task. And Skarpetowska, against the odds in this troupe of male peacocks (that's a compliment), has become a  locus, with her completely fearless approach, both emotionally and physically.

Toward the end, the dancers crawled among the string quartets' legs and instruments, underscoring the pleasures of having live music (although some technical problems with mic noise were a distraction). It felt like the end but wasn't. That came when the troupe formed a line, arms linked behind backs, and collectively descended into splits, a final reminder of the nature of these troubadors.

Music—a cool stream of water amid hermetic dioramas

The Hilliard Ensemble, showing versatility as movers. Photo: Mario Del Curto
In I went to the house but did not enter, Heiner Goebbel's music-theater work in the White Light Festival, originally produced by Théâtre Vidy de Lausanne, the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble appear trapped—nearly static figures frozen in three hermetically sealed diorama-like settings. In the first act, to a faint dripping sound, the members of the renowned Hilliard Ensemble—David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones—are dressed in trench coats. They pack up the furnishings of a stuffy parlor, dismantling the curtains and vacuuming the rug before rolling it up, in advance of singing Goebbel's musical setting of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. They then do it all in reverse, replacing the furnishings at a glacial pace. The vocal section evokes liturgical songs—repeating tones in close intervals, with one line shifting a half-step. It's glorious sound amid mundanity, tedium, and the implications of a life-changing event, whether it be simply changing locations or the possibility of death—or the reverse. 

The changes of the elaborate sets in the Rose Theater proved to be the most action-packed sequences, performed by the stagehands in near darkness with the curtain raised. The second setting is the front of a house, complete with clay tiled roof, gutters, a dumpster out back, and venetian or vertical blinds that open to reveal the house's occupants in three apartments, plus a workshop hidden behind a garage door. The men alternate sung lines by Maurice Blanchot about life and death as birds chirp and airplanes and police sirens pass by. A stark, leafless tree's shadow is cast on the house. Again, the banal is elevated to the universal through song.

Before the next set change, the singers gather around a bicycle like spies exchanging information and sing a lovely song setting of Kafka text, with the refrain of "I don't know" in close, shaded harmonies, ending with a big verbal wink: "It's a wonder we don't burst into song." Touché.

The third set seems to be one corner of a rose-wallpapered hotel room, complete with an oversized bed, a thermostat, and a cheap tv. Beckett is the source for the text, phrases like pretzel nuggets popped into one's mouth—salty, crunchy, nearly meaningless. The men wander in the room; one turns on the thermostat, which hums. They gaze out the tall windows which let sharp light into the dark room. They set up a slide projector and screen, showing nostalgic images of family vacations. The final image gives hope: instead of a still image, it is a film of a stream which burbles and glitters—like music, a source of life amid the stasis of a man-made world.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Notebook Roundup: Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Drawing Center

Fabulous Beast. Clockwise from top left: Eithne Ní Chatháin, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Emmanual Obeya, Ino Riga. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
  • From Ireland, NY debut in Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, performance at Lynch Theater (John Jay College), seen on Nov 10
  • Directed and choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan who also just directed/choreographed Julius Caesar for English National Opera
  • Title means "to trace or etch," after music director Liam Ó Maonlaí's album from 2005 (he is also a member of the band Hothouse Flowers)
  • Eight dancers, half women, of widely varying nationality; all dance very differently
  • Standouts: Louise Mochia, velvety and fluid; Emmanual Obeya, irrepressibly exuberant
  • Four musicians playing an array of traditional instruments including uilleann pipes (like bagpipes) and a small harp
  • Folk music and dance performance made up of a string of traditional songs ranging from melancholic instrumental, a cappella ballads, to rousing ensemble numbers, most featuring Ó Maonlaí, who demonstrated his certified rock-star cred 
  • Akin structurally to the format of a flamenco performance, where the dance and music are equally important and either can take center stage
  • Usually, the music would begin and the dancers filter on one by one to join in
  • The repeating refrains in the music paralleled in the dancers' simple, repeating phrases done barefoot or in street shoes
  • Movement is unmannered, not based on any sort of classical vocabulary; not ballet nor traditional Irish step dancing
  • At times feels more related to some African forms that emanate from the torso, firmly grounded feet, with lyrical movement pulling the extremities diametrically
  • The costumes—unique green patterned dresses and white shirts, trousers and suspenders—were held hostage in a container during Hurricane Sandy, released in time only for the last couple shows
  • A wonderful performance that connected the performers and audience in a festive communal celebration

Guillermo Kuitca, Diario (3 Dec 2007-1 July 2008). Mixed media on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York
  • Reopened after renovation doubling exhibition space
  • Main gallery: Guillermo Kuitca: Diarios—a series of canvases that the Argentinian stretched on a table and marked on over time
    • The results are more time-based than formal, echoing journal-keeping
    • Some compositions cohere better than others, at least in the context of a pristine gallery setting
  • Back gallery: José Antonio Suárez Londoño's The Yearbooks, notebooks he has drawn in daily since 1997, resonates perfectly with Kuitca's "exploded journals"
    • Fascinating minutiae and pockets of thought recorded
  • New "Lab" exhibition space downstairs, connected by two different, nifty staircases
    • Compact show of a variety of certificates of authenticity, a necessary evil in the art world
    • Humorous, wry, ironic, or simply serious
  • These shows run through Dec 9 at 35 Wooster St

Friday, November 9, 2012

Morphoses—Pontus Lidberg Glides from Stage to Screen

Jens Weber, Pontus Lidberg, Gabrielle Lamb, and Wendy Whelan (in film). Photo by Christopher Duggan
Morphoses* is at the Joyce performing Within (Labyrinth Within) through Nov 11. The hour-long work is half live performance, half film, with connecting sequences in both realms. These segues sometimes show the live dancers reflected in an on-screen mirror, and other times as echoed images—a bit confusing, conceptually, but visually captivating. And that becomes a minor problem, the domination of the filmed image projected on a large screen. It unintentionally diminishes the live performance, not terribly unlike how screens of all sizes—from tiny phones to big flatscreen tvs—relentlessly demand our attention. All of it is done to David Lang's darkly flavored, sub rosa score.

The dancers (on Nov 7, Gabrielle Lamb, Laura Mead, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Jens Weber, and Lidberg) are all superb. They skillfully interpret Lidberg's style, which favors floor work and a muscular taming of gravity. In an opening live solo that repeats in a sequence filmed in the woods, Lidberg freezes in a plank position, then flips instantly onto his back, going from complete control to helplessness. Legs plant firmly while the upper body releases lyrically. It's grounded in balletic structure but, in socks or bare feet, more fluid and organic. 

Pontus Lidberg in the film, Labyrinth Within. Photo: Martin Nisser
Several engaging duets lead up to the main feature, the film from 2010, Labyrinth Within, featuring a romantic triangle between Wendy Whelan, Giovanni Bucchieri as her husband, and her paramour Lidberg, who directed and choreographed. Martin Nisser directed the photography, with art direction by Magdalena Walz, both of which are first-rate.  The settings alternate between the woods, a beach, the husband's office, the couple's house (a stripped-down, wooden facsimile of Versailles, near Stockholm), and the connecting streets. The pale, silvery Northern European light evokes the that in the films of Lidberg's fellow Swede, Ingmar Bergman. 

Whelan's very different relationships with her tightly wound husband and Lidberg are told only through movement. These passages blend seamlessly with functional actions to create a unique form of storytelling devoid of language. It is somewhat reminiscent of the structure of Matthew Bourne's work, particularly Play Without Words, which hews more along the basic form of a musical theater performance, in part because he creates full-length works. But Lidberg has an appealing signature choreographic style, a sharp eye, and the skills for working in different media—all reasons to keep watching him closely.

* My original opening follows, but its mere existence prompted me to move it to footnote status. Next time, maybe it will disappear: 
It may never be possible to mention Morphoses without recounting its initially triumphant, often frenetic  history. To summarize: founded by Christopher Wheeldon as a vehicle for his and other choreographers' repertory, which it performed for a couple seasons before Wheeldon departed. ED Lourdes Lopez established the position of resident artistic director—first Luca Vegetti, then Pontus Lidberg. Now that Lopez has become artistic director of Miami City Ballet, Morphoses, such as it is, has followed her there. As she said recently, it may become the experimental arm of MCB. There are worse fates for such an initially ambitious collective and who knows—maybe it will finally get the institutional support that has been so elusive. But it won't be a revolutionary major independent ballet company. 
In many ways it fulfills some of the mandates that many new companies promise, and perhaps these innovations could only have been possible given the company's brief, tortured history. Wipe clean the slate and start again, especially if the results are as intriguing as Within.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A little closer to The Day After Tomorrow

Not just yet, but The Day After Tomorrow. 20th Century Fox.
Superstorm Sandy provided an unexpected respite from culture, and a stark reminder of the ever-worsening consequences of global warming. For years, New York City has been one of Hollywood's favorite disaster targets, with its signature Statue of Liberty providing a concise visual and sociological metaphor for aspirational America, and its skyscrapers a symbol of the capitalist firmament, either economically competitive or demonic.

BK/Battery Tunnel this past week. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty
Though it wasn't quite as bad as as the scary scenes from The Day After Tomorrow (with Jake Gyllenhaal) in which the main branch of the New York Public Library is flooded and a cruise ship navigates by on a flooded Fifth Avenue, some of the shots of Battery Park City and the new South Street subway entrance completely inundated show that that end-of-the-world scenario is actually terrifyingly imaginable.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox.
Of course the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty is from Planet of the Apes, where Lady Liberty stands as a proud, defiant symbol of the US/humankind's resilience. (Or, if you're a half-empty kinda person, the demise.)

Storm Sandy was one time when Manhattan actually was not physically connected with the rest of the country, even if culturally it often isn't. Floods took care of the tunnels, and hurricane winds meant the only remaining route—the bridges—were off limits. Long Island, also disconnected; Staten Island too. Not as final as the outcome of Will Smith's I Am Legend, but at least for a few days, the same effect.

Will Smith is Legend, but not in the BK. Still, his office has a great view. Warner Bros.
And despite the many powerless days in lower Manhattan, where at night Broadway was so dark you couldn't see the potholes you were about to step into, there was little crime, due to the constant police presence, and probably also because it was so difficult to get around, so no need for a companion German Shepherd for protection.

I have no doubt that in the future, filmmakers will be inspired to use Barclays Center as a new NY icon, hopefully involving ETs and mothership landing sites. It will also be ripe with potential for mocking Brooklyn as the epicenter of all that is hip, and the inherent halflife of trends—rising and waning.

After nearly a week, we have power back, but still no subway trains rumble directly under lower Broadway, although they're gradually returning to cross-river service. It's been a harsh warning of things to come, things that filmmakers have long imagined on our behalf. If only we—they—used their  resources and brainpower to be proactive about innovations related to our built world, rather than tearing it down, since politicians are ignoring it.

How about it, filmmakers?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ephemera—Performance Notebook, Hurricane Sandy edition

Hurricane Sandy is on the way. City's shut down, and one of the odd benefits of the subway being halted is that the near-constant subterranean rumbling is also temporarily stopped. 

Georgina Pascoguin kicking out the jambs in Bachground with Ballet Next. Photos: Paul B. Goode

Ballet Next at the Joyce

  • The post-big company phase in the careers of ex-principals Michele Wiles (ABT) and Charles Askegard (NYCB)
  • Caught one of two bills
  • A duet (Stravinsky Divertimento) by NYCB soloist Georgina Pascoguin and Askegard, who choreographed it. He partners well; she excels in character roles for NYCB, but here, with no specific narrative, looked mainly fierce
  • Brian Reeder's Picnic for six dancers is based on a film about some girls who go missing
  • Victorian style cotton frocks and black tights/toe shoes an effective metaphor for a stifling era, but they also disguise the body and its lines
  • Michele Wiles the mysterious central figure, proving she has lost none of her pinpoint balance or turning ability
  • Mauro Bigonzetti's BachGround (ouch) shows his effective dramatic lighting and flair for visually bold imagery
  • The six dancers, wearing black skirt-backed shorts, sit on chairs upstage and frantically pivot them 180º to demarcate solos and duets
  • Muscular movements with Bigonzetti's trademark neurotic gesture arms/hands
  • Live music in the Askegard and Bigonzetti a nice touch
  • This ambitious week run that showed some range could have benefitted from more rehearsal

Pina Bausch's "...como el musguito..." at BAM

  • Her continuous involvement of viewers through the dancers' entering and exiting via the side stage-house steps, and up the side aisles, is overlooked as a means of establishing audience connections. 
  • The dancers can appear larger-than-life onstage—glamorous, handsome, beautiful, hair silken or musculature perfect, but when they move among us, they become one of us. 
  • Come to think of it, nearly every time it was a woman using this pathway
  • The women reminded me of the Wilis from Giselle (or a similar massing of forlorn women, from Swan Lake or La Bayadere, etc.) as they drifted onstage in their evening gowns, heads hanging down, barefoot, like some sort of sorority of sad souls
  • It became perhaps a bit too easy to see everything through the filter that Pina was ill while creating this, even if she was unaware of the illness  

Ensemble Basiani of Tblisi, Georgia at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

  • Transcending Time all-traditional program part of the White Light Festival
  • Traditional folk songs and hymns, all-male, a cappella, choir of the Georgian patriarchate from Tblisi
  • Powerfully visceral experience as a viewer
  • Ranged from fog-horn like, loud, demonstrative singing to soft, delicate lullaby volume
  • Georgian-style yodeling ("krimanchuli") hit some high notes, but otherwise the range seemed to be contained to a middle octave
  • They wore knee-length, military-feel navy blue coats with pewter decorations and black boots
  • There's no subsititute for the authenticity of a choir like this, singing traditional songs in their native tongue
Stay safe and dry. See you on the other side of the hurricane, when the trains resume their rumbling.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos—Unpacking the Mind-Attic

Vtirines. Photo: Benoit Pailley
The experience of walking through Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos, at the New Museum feels like I'd imagine it would be to walk through the artist's studio or attic. Her own work is interspersed with that of artists who influenced her, or that she admires, with a surprising emphasis on highly academic naturalists' rendering of flora and fauna, some dating back to 1705. This supporting work in a way tells us more about Trockel than her own artwork, which can be opaque and mysterious. The sum effect of the collection and the installation is haunting and provocative.

Some Trockel knitted pieces sous crab. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Trockel's yarn works in this exhibition are fastidious. Yarns of different colors are stretched horizontally or vertically—wooly-textured minimalist abstractions. There are several stunning, large-scale knit pieces of dark blues, their purl sides showing rebelliously. A stack of knitted samples with graphic designs (interestingly, not represented in the show otherwise) sits in a plexi cube with a giant crab on top. It is outdone by a giant (once 27.5 pound) lobster carapace that sits near a painted triptych by the orangutan Tilda, arranged by Trockel as Less sauvage than others. A corner room, tiled in bathroom white, contains an inverted fake palm tree and a delightful sculpture —a birdcage containing fake birds that move unexpectedly via hidden mechanisms.

As neat and tidy as the yarn pieces are, her sculptures are generally rough, often indiscernible, glazed cast shapes evoking chunks of meat or architectural elements, or Fluxus-style agglomerations of objects into other objects. Some large plexi vitrines, resembling natural museum dioramas, contain assemblages of her sculptures and other objects that look randomly trapped. Some of Morton Bartlett's ballerina sculptures from the 1950s are included. The methodology seems to be the beacon of her curious taste. 

Curating is fun... in a Trockel vitrine. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Tiny, pastel-hued glass impressions of sea creatures by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka from the 1800s are among the treasures by the supporting cast of artists, as are botanical paintings by an anonymous artist on a Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada around the turn of the 18th century—sharply elegant renderings of plants against typographical-looking vertical lines. Found object bird sculptures by James Castle and a collection of densely scribed, handmade books by Manuel Montalvo are fascinating inclusions. And a group of Judith Scott's densely layered or biomorphic yarn sculptures from the 80s/90s parallel Trockel's own favored media.

Organized by Trockel and Lynne Cook for the Reina Sofia, it's a rewarding look at this German artist who has received little exposure in the US, but whose fascinating, jammed-attic mind is unpacked a bit in this exhibition, which runs through January 20, 2013.