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