Sunday, May 27, 2012

ABT's Inspired Casting Draws from Home and Afar

Alina Cojocaru & Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Gene Schiavone
ABT's casting for the May 24th performance of La Bayadère argues strongly for both home-grown talent, and for featuring guest principals. On behalf of the latter, Alina Cojocaru of London's Royal Ballet danced with Ivan Vasiliev, late of the Bolshoi and now with the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. This pairing as Nikiya and Solor is the ballet equivalent of a fantasy baseball team, possible in theory and only on paper. And yet there they were onstage together, in the flesh. At least, in Vasiliev's case, in the gigantic bullfrog quadriceps; with Cojocaru, lean muscles on a tiny frame. 

Vasiliev is not the most subtle dancer. One explosive leap in, you realize exactly what he's famous for. Ballon for him includes a little turbo boost at the acme of his grand jetés, after hanging in space for a millisecond. He does what we all hope to: defeat gravity, at least temporarily. Yet even compact of stature, he is surprisingly expressive, for example, in a posé—a full extension of his line, from pointed tendu through an attenuated, arched back, through the electricity that seems to shoot from his fingertips. Cojocaru is full of radiant pathos, legible in her expressions and her perfectly placed extremities. Vasiliev hits your gut, and Cojocaru your heart.

Misty Copeland as GAMzatti. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
And then there's Misty Copeland as Gamzatti, who joined ABT's corps in 2001. Basically a home-grown star, she's quickly distinguished by her curvy, yet athletic, shape, her muscular legs' slightly hyperextended knees accentuating these fluid lines. She is familiar as a warm presence, so her strong portrayal of this rather devious woman is admirable and pleasantly surprising. You can't help but cheer for her success, which seems so inevitable, and yet in the growing model of casting international guest principals, also unattainable. And yet we should treasure the appearances of these remarkable stars as well, cheering them equally loudly if for different reasons. Copeland will be dancing the title role in Ratmansky's new Firebird in June. Catch her if you can. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Balanchine's Swinging '60s Hits

Jared Angle and Wendy Whelan in Liebeslieder Walzer. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Balanchine's Liebeslieder Walzer is back in New York City Ballet's repertory after several years on the shelf, 51 years old and 51 patiently-paced minutes long. It captures the polished surfaces and clandestine romantic intrigue of the ballroom salon, with live onstage singing by a quartet. Satin full-length ballgowns, tails, low-heeled shoes rather than pointe shoes, and white gloves, designed by Karinska, set a formal tone, while Brahms' lieder lent a poignant intimacy. 

The casting structure features four couples, yet there is no supporting corps. Balanchine avoided the predictable turn-taking formula, at times focusing on two couples alternating dances in sequence. 
In the May 22 performance, Ashley Bouder and Tyler Angle made a somewhat surprising pairing, his inherent cool elegance sanding the sometimes abrasive edges of her hypercompetence. Jared Angle attentively and briskly partnered an evanescent Wendy Whelan, running in tight circles to support her. Jonathan Stafford swept Maria Kowroski in extended-leg lifts, and Janie Taylor and Sebastian Marcovici produced the occasional spark. 

The singers' prominent downstage right positioning distracted, although having the dancers continually observe and react to the singers logically supported the ballet's premise. (Clotilde Otranto conducted from the pit.) The extreme vibrato of the singing style, particularly with soprano Caroline Worra, holds little appeal for me, hiding the note rather than leading with it. But the overall intimacy and special occasion feel was mildly intoxicating.

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (choreographed by Balanchine in 1966) featured two newly-appointed principals: Rebecca Krohn and Ana Sophia Scheller. (Hmm, both were recently featured in marketing materials—any relation there? Like the reverse of the Sports Illustrated curse, I guess.) Krohn, somewhat reserved, danced with Chase Finlay, eager and devoted. The warm, if underutilized Gonzalo Garcia paired with Scheller, crisp and dutiful. We trust that these two newest principals bring fresh gifts to the company, as have so many of its current stars; they're not precisely clear just yet.

Tiler Peck, perhaps the most all-around skilled, versatile female principal at the moment, danced with the muscular Justin Peck, and cool customer Teresa Reichlen (subbing for the injured Sara Mearns), balanced the Broadway pizzazz of Amar Ramasar in the final movement.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cultural debrief—May 20

What's a blog for if not to empty one's head? This week's stuff, unpacked...

David sporting a Ducks hockey jersey.
If you were batting .409, you could
pull this off too.
David Wright and the Mets
David Wright is leading the MLB with a batting average of .411. Only a fool would believe he could sustain this pace through the entire season, so let's appreciate it while we can. And his dugout contretemps with manager Terry Collins the other night may have aired internal dirty laundry, but it was by no means a bad thing, showing the spine that Wright has but hides behind his puppy-like persona. (After the Mets pitcher hit the Brewers' star, Collins pulled Wright to avoid retaliation, as Wright suffered a concussion last year and still has a broken finger.) His usual public face is so affable and conciliatory that we rarely see that fire, but there it was. And the Mets are fun to watch now, with small ball, one sizzling hitter in Wright and another in Murphy, and RA Dickey -- Renaissance pitcher and wiffle ball enthusiast (watch him learning a few things from the kids here) who climbed Mt. Everest and listens to Chopin's nocturnes on his drive home. Whee.

Coda: as of May 20, the Mets have lost 4 of their last 5 games, tied for third in the division. Wright was rested yesterday and is still batting .409.

David Hallberg & Natalia Osipova in Giselle
ABT's overabundant casting

Gomes or Hallberg? Osipova or Vishneva? Everyone should have such problems. With the many international guest dancers that ABT features in addition to its abundant "home grown" ranks, picking which shows to see is a sport. I saw Giselle with Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes last Tuesday. Kent (born in 1969) is still physically lithe enough, but she's never struck me as impetuous enough to be the rebellious teen called for. Yet she and Gomes have danced together so much that they are perfectly harmonious as partners. Of course the dancers are portraying characters, so the semblance of reality is moot, but some dancers are naturally better suited to roles. Not so Giselle for Kent, I'm afraid. And yet Gomes is the complete dancer now—technically fine and regally handsome, but it is his acting and partnering that vault him above all others.

Natalia Osipova, however, is a natural Giselle—gamine-like, strong-willed, with an inner spark and a preternatural ballon (although her act 2 tutu was about 4" too long). She was paired with David Hallberg at Saturday's matinee for a sublime, possibly perfect performance. Both soar like gazelles, and their chemistry is wonderful—poetic and heartachingly sublime. That Hallberg joined the Bolshoi, in part to dance with Osipiva, just as she left the company only adds to the poignancy.  

Ernesto Neto, photo courtesy Tonya Bonakdar and the artist.
Chelsea Galleries—caught a few interesting ones with some high school pals:

Ernesto Neto (Tanya Bonakdar, ends May 25) is known for his goofy, likable amoebas-in-pantyhose sculptures; here he enlarges the scale of the mesh to fishing net-sized, the sand is now rubber balls, and you can tunnel into them like cocoons.

Tauba Auerbach (Paula Cooper, ends June 9) weaves canvas strips to create subtly textured, variegated surfaces, and paints crinkled, unfolded fabric as subject matter.

Anish Kapoor (Barbara Gladstone, ends June 9) is showing a giant, iron diving bell-like sculpture. You can stand in its hollow and hear your voice ricocheting off its sides; it's impressive for its immensity and weathered, steampunky appearance. At Gladstone's other gallery (which I did not see), in a departure, he has a series of lumpen, dripped, unpainted concrete sculptures that resemble stalagmites.

Richard Avedon (Gagosian, 21st St, ends July 6) took portraits of countless throngs, but this exhibition focuses on four groups of subjects around 1970, including Warhol's Factory klatch and Abbie Hoffman's extended family. Cleverly designed partitions isolate each mural-sized photo, pinned behind huge panes of glass like dead butterflies.

Cindy Sherman
(Metro Pictures, ends June 9) shot Icelandic landscapes around the time of the recent volcanic eruptions, herself in vintage Chanel outfits, and Photoshopped the results—bizarre, jarring juxtapositions.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cedar Lake's Ever-Growing Repertory

Violet Kid by Hofesh Schechter. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Quietly, season by season, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is building a sizable repertory with a distinct point of view, shaped by artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer. There really aren't many other companies of this scale and level of talent commissioning work by a range of choreographers; most contemporary companies are founded and run by one artist. Morphoses was founded as a sort of "solar system" revolving around, but not exclusive to, Chris Wheeldon's choreography, with other dance makers contributing to a lesser extent. (Of course that has changed completely with his departure, moving to focus on one annually revolving choreographer; the exit of executive director Lourdes Lopez for Miami City Ballet yet again tosses it all up in the air.) But CLCB was founded strictly as a rep company, including occasional contributions and "installations" by Pouffer, who in any case is smart enough to defer to coveted choreographers, unlike, say, Peter Martins at NYCB.

This season, the company returns to the Joyce with two programs. The first featured new dances by Hofesh Schechter and Crystal Pite, two hot, internationally-respected names, and Annonciation (1995) by Angelin Preljocaj. As it happens with commissions, it's difficult to know what you're getting until it's done. And by coincidence, Schechter and Pite's works have enough in common that they would've been better served being on different programs. (The second features premieres by Regina van Berkel, Alexander Ekman, and Jo Stromgren.) 

In fact, their juxtaposition makes it nearly impossible to discuss either on its own. Both tap a mood of post-industrial desperation; dramatic, dark lighting; muscular, grounded movement that punches and bullies its way across the stage, primarily in groups. In Violet Kid, Schechter's appealing vocabulary roils around the torso (his Gaga roots tangible), the dancers pugilists, scooting, bobbing, hunched over like gorillas, moving in makeshift tribes. The dancers wear everyday clothes (by Schechter and Junghyun Georgia Lee), making them relatable. Polymath Schechter also created the music which featured a string trio floating upstage, with recorded sections—at times anarchic, ominous, with a steady throbbing percussion line evocative of a heartbeat.

Grace Engine by Crystal Pite. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Both he and Pite line the dancers along the stage's edge. In Pite's Grace Engine, to a score by Owen Belton, Nancy Haeyung Bae clothes the dancers in gunmetal suits and white shirts, reminiscent of assassins or CIA agents. The dancers coil and lash out their legs, martial arts-style, whirling and drawing back, awkwardly hopping on a fist and a knee, hunching over. Mime screaming and ripple effect actions with linked arms skewed toward the cliche, but if I hadn't seen Violet Kid first, it might've felt completely fresh. Jon Bond stood out for his snaky fluidity among a company of gorgeous dancers.

Annonciation featured Harumi Terayama and Acacia Schachte. Preljocaj also designed the L-shaped bench where Schachte cradled Terayama, coaxing her to her feet, where they moved in tandem through elegant, sculpted shapes. This tender duet, set to music by Stephane Roy and Antonio Vivaldi, with important lighting by Jacques Chatelet, served as a needed buffer on the program. Despite the aesthetic coincidences, kudos to Cedar Lake for consistently delivering new work.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nox—Epitaph for a Restless Soul

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: Robbie Campbell
After Merce Cunningham company disbanded on New Year's Day, we were all so busy mourning and feeling sorry for ourselves that we didn't necessarily notice his dancers moving on with things. In the wake of Rashaun Mitchell's Nox, a collaboration with fellow alum Silas Riener, at Danspace Project last week, it seems now like a revelation: that dancers with immense skills, at once specific and broadly applicable, are now free to forge new artistic paths.

This epiphany was manifested in a meditation about writer Anne Carson's brother dying and being remembered in an accordion book epitaph and translated poem by Catullus; the performance "is a replica of it, as close as we could get," according to Carson. Riener seemed to embody the spirit of the lost soul, appearing in blindingly lit doorways and sprinting across the balcony and stage in abject recklessness. He tried to meld with the church walls, pushing on the immobile plaster pillars like Sisyphus in an absurdly unwinnable battle. His shadow drifted eerily past externally-lit stained glass windows. Riener tumbled down the sanctuary risers, or crawled down them arachnid-style on his elbows and knees. He seemed to be trying to cleave his body from his spirit, and very nearly achieved it, from what I could tell. During these exorcismic attempts, Mitchell largely observed him at a short distance. "I prowl my brother," intoned Carson, precisely.

Mitchell began the piece by entering, circling the stage periphery, and sitting on the the floor just in front of us, back to us, his bearing quietly powerful. He perhaps represented the family, or the rest of us—helpless voyeurs; catching Riener's falling body (and vice versa), interacting with him for spans and yet never completely connecting. Riener was fully present and yet in another psychic universe. He has that alchemical balance of being in complete control of his impressively skilled movements, and yet on the very edge of abandon. A memory of him similarly tearing up the stage in Merce's Split Sides last winter at BAM is forever branded in my brain.

Davison Scandrett designed the lighting, which with the inside-out staging, pushed into all corners and garretts of the church. Carson and artist Robert Currie scrawled magic marker drawings on two overhead projects, reminiscent of elementary school. They drew images of Mitchell and Riener, pinned to the wall where the projectors shone, in some futile attempt to capture them. Chunks of text were spoken, layered with Benjamin Miller's haunting sound score, mixed live. Carson's visible presence as an "artist" was conceptually at odds with her recorded/live readings. Her role as a big catalyst for literary/choreographic collaboration in recent years should be noted, particularly in light of her program bio, which says this well-known writer "teaches ancient Greek for a living."

In the searing, chaotic finale, Mitchell gave Riener "CPR," essentially dribbling his ribcage off the floor repeatedly. Riener folded into himself, grabbing his legs like alien objects. He rolled over the tops of his toes, arching into a backbend supported on the other end by his face, spirit nearly anarchically liberated. Mitchell could only watch, riveted as we were, and comfort him in his torturous transition.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

NYCB's Gala—Hearts and Birds Aflutter

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Two Hearts. Photo: Paul Kolnick
There's a general sense of boundaries blurring between cultural genres in the city these days.  All that dance in museums. Film and new classical music in festivals like Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. And fashion everywhere, from Schiap/Prada at the Met, to Prada for Pina Bausch, to Rodarte and Gilles Mendel at New York City Ballet's spring gala last Tuesday. Combining things in different ways, after all, can result in alchemy, or merely frosting.

Kate & Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte's black and white geometric costumes for Benjamin Millepied's NYCB premiere of Two Hearts felt fresh and crisp. Millepied recently retired from the stage to heed his busy choreographic slate. While he's already suffering from a bit of  overexposure, he does have a way with ballet's vocabulary; he speaks it fluently and can write paragraphs with it. He can craft ambitious, devilish phrases, or make soft, flowing combinations that show off the essential expressiveness and beauty of ballet, which is the general tone of Two Hearts.

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, the leads, suit one another particularly well. Angle's growing strength and partnering ability often land him too-tall female counterparts, but Peck is a good fit. He is a poet—a plush mover, with an innate sense of epaulement. She is one of the company's best musical dancers, and has the absolute control needed to express that ear. She can dance sharply and wittily, or dial the steps to the right emotion.

Millepied shifts mood and dynamic with each part, returning repeatedly to the central pair, augmented by 12 corps members. In one section, several men caught Peck frozen in various positions in midair. She and Angle shed, respectively, skirt and shell prior to their long final duet to a plangent folk ballad sung by Dawn Landes. Nico Muhly wrote the commissioned  score, which in an early section sounded like an instrumental conversation—the flute bleating words between pauses, and at other times, coursing like rapids in a river. Near the end of their romantic duet, Angle floats Peck parallel to his supine body, making this feat look easy. The curtain closes on the two lounging casually, as if posing for Manet.

Peter Martins continues to feel impelled to create new work for his company, which already has reams of the stuff in its rep. The inspiration for Mes Oiseaux, his premiere to music by Marc-André Dalbavie, was presumably the cast, all fleet of foot, "oiseaux," you might say, in Apollo's ratio: Taylor Stanley, Lauren Lovette, Ashly Isaacs, and Claire Kretzschmar. Stanley's movement is elfin, flitting, otherworldly, bold, and all three women vividly attack movement. Predictably, he partners each woman in the same or similar phrases, cradling their legs, dragging them into attenuated poses in turn. (In one near situation, Kretzschmar's back-leaning weight almost toppled her and Stanley, who had to grab her pelvis rather brusquely to correct things.)

Martins favors an extruding style (and its antithesis) that Balanchine used liberally—splayed hands crossing the body, pushing into space, legs collapsing in parallel. These signatures that once marked a ballet as modern now look faded and coy in new choreography. Gilles Mendel provided the costumes; the womens' unremarkable, if flattering, variants on skating dresses with curlicue cutouts.

The costumes for Balanchine's Symphony in C (1947) are newly redone by Marc Happel. I can't say they changed this brilliant repertory standard much, which is passive praise. The piece is a showcase for company standouts. Megan Fairchild presents the choreography in a textbook way, giving it a clear reading but not much character. Sara Mearns, on the other hand, shapes the choreography with emotion and danger. At times she is in complete control of it, and sometimes she seems in its thrall, like a scene from The Red Shoes. I'd want Fairchild to teach it to me, but I'd buy a ticket to see Mearns. Their two partners, Jared Angle and Jonathan Stafford, are strong, reliable partners, both perhaps a bit bound by a traditional stoicism. Though I have seen Angle smile, an unexpected bit of sunshine peeking through clouds.

Joaquin de Luz, in contrast, lands on the bravura end of things. He exudes joy and reflects his partners emotions as well. In the exuberant third movement he partnered Ashley Bouder, ever confident and strident and on top of the music, to her detriment. In the finale, when all four women dance in unison downstage, backed by the entire corps, she seemed a full beat ahead of Mearns, her musical opposite. And finally, Tiler Peck, luminous and playful, danced the brief fourth movement with Adrian Danchig-Waring, a rewarding bit of casting for this talented dancer. Let's see if he can transform the effort he invests in each movement into confidence to unleash even more expressiveness.

Despite featuring two premieres and an iconic ballet, this gala program felt somewhat apologetic. Martins didn't do the standard speech/toast. The season on the whole is rather quiet and pro forma. But if every season can't feature a leviathan Ocean Kingdom, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Waist Up/Waist Down gallery, featuring jackets by Schiaparelli and skirts by Prada. courtesy Met Museum
Whether the clothing is art in the Met Museum's Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibition is itself fodder for the dramatized dialogue in filmed scenes by director Baz Luhrman (Schiaparelli is played with spark by Judy Davis) that are strategically projected behind the mannequins. But what can be said is that the Costume Institute takes its big annual exhibition very seriously (recall the Alexander McQueen exhibition, which broke all records), realizing such high-concept formulas and drawing together somewhat loose commonalities between designers in order to create debate and discussion.

Prada, 2005. Photo: Toby McFarlan Pond,
courtesy Met Mus
The show's organizers (Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton) craftily aligned Elsa Schiaparelli, more of an icon to the industry, with Miuccia Prada, a current household fashion name as famous for her utilitarian nylon backpack as her clothing. Both have tested the concept of femininity in women's fashion, moving away from lurid designs toward more modest, elegant, yet still indulgent creations. That said, each has created fantastical whimsies: headgear by Schiaparelli, and shoes by Prada including some with Cadillac tailfin heels, on ample display.

Schiaparelli specialized in the evening jacket, something that seems ripe for re-emergence. (Why shouldn't women be warm in cold weather? Oh, right, that would mean comfortable. Can't have that.) The jackets are usually dark, fitted, with padded shoulders to emphasize the waist, and often decorated with embroidery, elaborate buttons, or appliqued bits of whimsy, relating them conveniently to Prada's own svelte, embellished skirts.

The collection is divided into themes: hard, naif, classical, exotic, surreal. In this latter category, Schiap had the upper hand, actually collaborating with Dali on their famous shoe headpiece. And despite the convenience of having actual Surrealists in her phone book, she made wearable, timeless classics that could still be in production. The way they flatter the female form without being shameless contrasts with Prada's tendency to follow a schoolgirl's uniform's silhouette, with the focal point nearly always a knee-length A-line skirt
which sits atop the hipbone. She pairs these slender lines with clunky loafers for a very different kind of timelessness.

The exhibit culminates in a "hall of mirrors" room with plexiglass display cases, achieving the presumed goals of disorientation and making the space seem larger than it is. Each case holds a pair of outfits, one by each designer, plus a photo of Schiaparelli and a peer's artistic influence. It all combines with the beyond-the-grave dialogue enactments for a carnivalesque setting. And it's somewhat in tension with the clothing designs that are radical for being sumptuous, dignified, and ultimately extremely practical in a field that prides itself on objectifying and hobbling women in the name of freedom of choice. Now that's revolutionary.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Baldwin and Obarzanek's Human Connection

Ambient Cowboy. Photo: Aram Jibilian
Two intimate shows this past week were reminders of how essential the human connection is in dance. New York Live Arts presented Ivy Baldwin's new work, Ambient Cowboy, a work for four dancers. And Chunky Move scaled way down at the Joyce Soho, where outgoing artistic director and company founder Gideon Obarzanek went solo in a personal piece on the expectations of being a choreographer.

Baldwin took a more minimal approach than in recent works, which had more formal costumes and sets. The company (Baldwin, Lawrence Cassella, Molly Poerstel-Taylor, and Eleanor Smith) is credited for Cowboy's elegant draped sheer black tunics and trunks. Anna Schuleit designed the ingenious, digitally projected scribbled-light "set," in one instance pinning Eleanor Smith to the floor with a net of light, like a space-age Gulliver. Justin Jones created the sketchy, fleeting sound.

Baldwin's work contains very human aspects, such as endearing, sometimes awkward interactions, and a sense of lightheartedness. The work begins with Cassella exaggeratedly breathing, the most basic human function. All four cluster and create a shifting tableau around one of the women in a cat pose, with another dancer's arm filling in for a wagging tail. The choreography can look deceptively easy. A repeated phrase involves balancing on one foot and very slowly passing the free leg from a front extension to the back. The feeling of randomness is quickly subverted when the dancers move together in formation, or suddenly resemble a Rodin sculpture. The piece is quietly moving without any overt narrative.

On the other hand, Obarzanek is all about narrative in Faker, a twist on Krapp's Last Tape, with the desk and spotlight. With a laptop instead of a tape recorder, he reads an email from someone who commissioned him to choreograph a work for her. We hear of her disappointment or failed expectations, broken up by sections of movement varying from silly (mumbling unknown words to a pop song) to lushly muscular. A confessional valedictory performance, much was forgiven knowing Obarzanek's usual penchant for experimentation within the form, and for his solid, satisfying choreography. No doubt we will see him down the road officially untethered from his company, trying out new things.