Friday, December 27, 2013

Ephemeralist's 2013 Highlights


The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Praised to the hilt already, but I'll keep recommending this funny, lighthearted, insightful novel about an abolitionist's ward until you read it. One book I'm looking forward to re-reading.

The Dog Star by Peter Heller

Another gem in a year of good books. Stands out for its humanity, and affection for dogs, in a people-less world.


Matt Harvey, New York Mets

Oh Matt, you bright, shining, fallen, but hopefully once more shining shooting star, you... at least Mets fans had a few weeks of joy and a taste of victory.

America's Cup

Technology arising from the desire to win may lead us to a better world. Imagine such leaps of imagination applied to energy conservation or humanitarian causes. Plus, catamarans flying over the water at 70 mph.

Chris Froome, Team Sky, winner of the 2013 Tour de France
Nothing against 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, but Froome's 2013 victory pushed the thought of Wiggins sitting waggishly in that throne out of mind for at least a bit.


James Turrell, Aten, Guggenheim

Transported viewers briefly to an alien morphing color-saturated, egg-shaped world. Slick, for sure, but worked for me.

Stanley Whitney, Team Gallery

Speaking of saturated colors and geometry, such a brilliant surprise from an underrated painter. At once firmly rooted in the history of abstraction, and completely fresh.


ABT, Koch Theater, Met Opera House
No denying it... a huge event in the world of ballet: Ratmansky' Shostakovich Trilogy. ABT's fall rep season at the Koch featured the company in choreography by major playas: Tharp, Ratmansky, Morris. Seeing fresh faces—Joseph Gorak, James Whiteside—gain confidence and roles is always rewarding, alongside company stalwarts Marcelo Gomes and Gillian Murphy. But I missed David Hallberg's presence immensely; at least he's slated for several Met season ballets this summer.

Dance Theater of Harlem, Rose Theater

Showing great talent and promise, far more than could reasonably be expected after a total reboot.

Rashaun Mitchell's Interface, with Silas Riener, Baryshnikov Arts Center

Another pair of artists who have great skills, a sense of adventure and curiosity, and the ability and resources to make things happen. The site-specific visual environment, by Davison Scandrett, made magic use of a difficult windowed corner theater. They also performed the overstuffed Way In at Danspace—less successful, but which raised yet more questions.

Paul Taylor's Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), Koch Theater
So much invention and astonishing technical demands in this naif-style caper.

New York City Ballet, Koch Theater

Justin Peck's emergence as a choreographer. Anthony Huxley (and here) in Mozartiana. And, as always, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Robert Fairchild, and Tyler Angle in anything.

Troy Schumacher/Satellite Ballet, Joyce Theater

Among many chamber ballet troupes, Schumacher's stood out. The premise of a true collaboration between choreographer, visual artist, poet, and composer seems trite, but Schumacher did seem to infuse the dances, performed by an all-star cast, with some internal structure or narrative. 

San Francisco Ballet's season, Koch Theater
When a major ballet company from outside the Gotham comes a-knockin' with rep by Ratmansky, Morris and others, it's a rare treat.


A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre for a New Audience
What a way to inaugurate Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Center in Fort Greene. Julie Taymor thinks vividly in three dimensions. And sure the new theater has lots of technical merits, but most of her magic is done with simple devices. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ailey—Celebrating Matthew Rushing, and 3 Premieres

Aszure Barton's LIFT. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Ailey is like a big ocean liner, steaming along, impervious to swells, waves, sharks, and other crazy things in the water. Likewise, it's so big that it's not easy for one person to change its course, even if that person is Artistic Director Robert Battle. But the effects of his hand on the wheel can finally be felt after a couple of years. The Dec 22 evening program featured three new works, and not a revelation to be had (repertory-wise, that is). It included Wayne McGregor's Chroma, Aszure Barton's LIFT, and a classic from Bill T. Jones, an excerpt from D-Man in the Water.

LIFT checks off pretty much every item on a theoretical "Ailey commission wish list." Dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (by Burke Brown). Rhythmic drumming akin at times to a pulse (by Curtis Macdonald). Shirtless men whose muscles gleam in the (see #1). Women dressed in beautiful halter dresses with rippling fringed skirts (by Fritz Masten). Everyone in gold chokers. Large group sections of hopping, like a show of strength in a celebratory tribe, a refrain of which ends the piece. Various sections of shifting tempo and dynamics, from [previous item] to a unusual deliberate duet by Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts in which they cross the stage while continuously touching. While Barton doesn't create many connected dance sentences, she has a good sense for what provides maximum dramatic effect. Add to this the stunning visual impact that this beautiful company possesses, and the result is affecting and powerful.
Home, by Rennie Harris. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Chroma, originally done in 2006 but new to Ailey, is quite a contrast. McGregor's style—rippling torsos, thwacked splits, everything pushed—adds a new note to the Ailey canon. It  fit the more balletic dancers best, such as Sarah Daley. The music by Jack White and Jody Talbot ranges from visceral rock to more tempered violin + piano. It's rare to see such a completely overhauled set at Ailey: John Pawson designed a white box with curved seams to eliminate sharp corners, and a punched-out rectangle to provide most entrances and exits. Lucy Carter's lighting design shows just how far white can be pushed, from subtle warm gradations to eerie ice blue. The multi-hued unisex camisole and trunk costumes by Moritz Junge worked better for the women; the spaghetti straps looked too delicate on the men.

Bill T. Jones' D-Man premiered on his own company in 1989, but this tribute to then-company member Demian Acquavella, who died of AIDS, has retained as much vibrance and freshness as its Mendelssohn score. The cast showcased the high energy Kanji Segawa, who I hadn't yet seen so prominently featured. The only drawback is that Jones' own company remounted the piece recently at the Joyce, diluting the impact of its remounting after so many years.

On December 17, company veteran Matthew Rushing was celebrated in two of the company's keystones, Grace and Revelations, plus a medley of excerpts from Pas de Duke, Love Songs (both choreographed by Ailey), and Home. We were assured in a pre-show speech (by either Judith Jamison or Robert Battle—were two speakers necessary?) that Rushing isn't retiring, that he's simply being honored. And deservedly. No one has a finer internal acceleromater, which leads to a great economy of movement, nor greater precision, nor inner drive. Even what might be construed as a flaw—not "selling it" to the audience by smiling or making constant eye contact—comes across as humility. With this in mind, Rushing looks least natural in Pas de Duke, with its Vegas showboating and shiny costumes, and most comfortable outwardly expressing inner emotion in Love Songs to Donny Hathaway's gorgeous rendition of "A Song For You." 

As one of many men in Ron Brown's Grace, he looked like a man setting to some serious work, and along the way discovering wonder and moments of, well, grace. In Rennie Harris' Home, Rushing read as the 16-year-old he was when he started with Ailey, skipping and strutting in circles around the cast. A lovely bonus came in Revelations—the recently retired Renee Robinson guest cameo'd as the woman with parasol. It was one instance during the evening when spontaneous applause wasn't directed at Rushing, and proved the loyal Ailey audiences take pride in treating the dancers like family.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Juilliard's New Dances Plus: A Pina Bausch Revival and Three New Dances

Wind von West, by Pina Bausch
Juilliard's New Dances series showcases the school's accomplished dance students by class year. But it has also become a major commissioning entity for burgeoning choreographers; last week's production included world premieres by Brian Brooks, Takehiro Ueyama, and Darrell Grand Moultrie, plus the grand bonus of a reconstructed work by Pina Bausch, Wind von West. The three new dances, by nature, share a certain sameness; they all involve moving around a couple dozen good dancers for 20 minutes or so. Invariably, there are pull-out virtuosic solos and small group sections interspersed with stretches of sheer traffic control often involving running or matrices. 

The remounting of Wind von West (1975) is a major collaboration between Pina's alma mater, Juilliard, and the Pina Bausch Foundation, charged with overseeing her life's work. The significance of this project is as much about the future of Bausch's work as this one piece's artistic import. It's primarily a mix of her fluid, organic, somber style that is most memorable from her last solo at BAM (alongside an image of a fish), in Danzón, and still poses or arrested movements. 

The stage is segmented by gauze partitions into four receding chambers that were never utilized to maximum dramatic or metaphorical effect. A white-sheeted bedalso lightly used—loomed on one side. The celadon gowns and long hair were elements that would carry through her life's work. On the whole, it felt like an impressionistic scan of her signature voice, devoid of humor and text, yet perhaps more coherent than the pieces that would comprise the bulk of her oeuvre. But the mere fact of its existence holds great promise for future remountings, even if they lack her final stamp. 

Wind von West
Brooks' work tends to combine OCD tendencies in addition to his signature slithering arm and upper body action. He imbued his dance, Torrent, with extra finesse, no easy task for such a large cast. The class of 2016 formed a self-perpetuating cross-stage line one by one, falling gently but precisely into place. Sometimes the line would process clockwise, breaking apart and reforming seamlessly to release and absorb a soloist. The class moved as one organism.

In Nakamuraya, Take Ueyama dedicated his dance to the Kabuki great Nakamura Kanzaburo—a nice conceit, but the paean was unclear in the dance itself, which included some too-cute miming to start, a romantic duet to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," and the requisite high velocity group segments. Moultrie's Seeds of Endurance revisited some of these adrenalized pack movements; his dancers shed their long, flounced gowns to reveal flesh-toned briefs and camisoles that evoked our natural state. Both contained exhilarating moments, but the structural demands of the exercise perhaps dictated too-similar scripts.

That said, the Juilliard New Dances series is unsurpassed in showcasing the maximum number of excellent dancers in new, commissioned choreography, and in rare remountings. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Chéri—A Romance in Dance

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Chéri, based on the novella by Colette, continues Martha Clarke's unique hybrid genre of theater, utilizing movement to advance the story. Clarke—who conceived, choreographed, and directed this Signature Theater production, which runs through December—had the foresight and fortune to engage ABT principal Herman Cornejo and ex-principal Alessandra Ferri as the leads. He is the eponymous Chéri, son of Charlotte (Amy Irving), and lover of his mother's best friend, Lea (Ferri), nearly twice his age. Chéri is a charming, spoiled man who can't resist a glimpse in the mirror, a habit that eventually comes back to haunt him. His mother has put up with the affair for six years, and finally arranges for Chéri to marry a wealthy young woman his age.

We learn fragments about everyone's disparate states of mind in Irving's four brief monologues (by Tina Howe). Irving imbues them with enough salt and snap so that we feel her own vanity, and the guilt in her complicity in the awkward relationship. The two dancers never speak, but they spend a great deal of time embracing, un/dressing, and twirling and spinning in multitudinous ways, often with Ferri's legs and feet as punctuation. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Glorious Notorious, A Chronicle of Dance Artists

Cristina Moura (2007)
Peggy Jarrell Kaplan's exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho, Glorious Notorious (through Dec 21) chronicles the choreographers and performers who have defined our near-past and current cultural lives. Rather than focus on the body in motion, instead the 50 photographic portraits peer into the artists' psychological states as seen through their piercing gazes, or playfully posed with a prop or in a gesture or movement. A densely packed corner installation features artists shot in South Africa earlier this year. Several videos play, including of Trajal Harrell and Daniel Linehan, bright stars in the current dance galaxy.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

L'Allegro—Will there ever be another?

Spencer Ramirez, right. Photo: Kevin Yatarola
Can a dance like Mark Morris' L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato ever be made again? 

It seems unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. In 1988, Morris was a young artist-in-residence at La Monnaie in Belgium when he made it. He was bursting with ideas, entrusted with the necessary resources including, most importantly, time, space, and dancers, but also musicians and production staff. It took the providential merging of talent and resources to allow L'Allegro's creation. It might even have helped that Morris was not welcomed warmly in Belgium during his three-year stint, persuading him to focus on his work. 

There are still companies in residence at opera and theater houses in Europe, where it's possible to develop full-length, opera house scale work. Ex-pat William Forsythe, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and Sasha Waltz have attained such positions, and places such as Sadler's Wells (London) offer strong support. But who knows when another American-based choreographer with Morris' potential will be given the keys to the castle? Even if the talent exists in the US, which it certainly must, the way choreographers make it here (if they do) is full of obstacles. The ones that have survived long enough to decide to make it an occupation receive very little support, both financially and institutionally. It's a tired old story with no happy ending in sight. 

Notes on the Nov 21 performance at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center's White Light Festival:

Photo: Kevin Yatarola
  • The choice of music was mad ambition and pure inspiration; the libretto's varying moods guide the dance's dynamics
  • Morris' dance invention—about 100 minutes worth—remains fresh after repeated viewings of L'Allegro (separated by a number of years), which made its US premiere at BAM in 1990. 
  • His grounded dancers seem to be inflated with helium in leaps and relevés. 
  • Slaps to the face become yet another step; such humorous scenes also serve to break up the sheer beauty of the dance.
  • Example: the picture above, when lifted dancers look like they're flying. The lifters repeat the movement without their cargo, to brilliant and emotional effect.
  • He manages and arranges traffic superbly. Rounds, lines, Greek keys, looping arcs. And always entrances and exits.
  • In one lovely scene, two dancers mirror movements, separated by a scrim. Streams of dancers walk, pulsing to the beat, one hand parallel to the ground leading the way, like water flowing over a rock.
  • His depictions of nature delight—dancers become trees, shrubs, dogs, horses. 
  • His no-nonsense ways of moving people and how they relate to one another have both broad appeal and ingenuity. 
  • Grace is in the details and humor. 
  • Performances by Sam Black, Maile Okamura, Dallas McMurray, Michelle Yard, Noah Vinson, and Spencer Ramirez particularly resonate.
  • Handel's ebullient music, with libretto by Charles Jennens and James Harris after poems by Milton, was performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble, conducted with crystalline clarity by Nicholas McGegan, with lovely solos by Dominique Labelle, Yulia Van Doren, John McVeigh and Douglas Williams. Musicians performed in the pit, while the entire stage is occupied by the dance.
  • The set design, by Adrianne Lobel, uses horizontal and vertical panels that expand or contract the space in countless ways. Graphic elements suggest urbanity.
  • James Ingalls' aromatic lighting augments each scene's mood.
  • The graceful costumes, by Christine van Loon, shift from mineral to floral hues between the first and second acts.
As the years pass and few dances match L'Allegro's achievements, and we see that even remounting it takes great resources, it's all the more important to appreciate it when it comes around, as we were able to this past week.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Rec: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I was just sitting down to put fingers to keys about James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, took a moment to read the newspaper, and saw that he won the National Book Award for it. Hallelujah! A well-deserved award for a captivating historical novel about the abolitionist John Brown as witnessed through the eyes of a young man impersonating a female who gains the nickname Little Onion (referred to humorously as "the Onion").

The Good Lord Bird, named for the near-extinct woodpecker so beautiful that a sighting elicits, "Good Lord!," not only recounts the historical events of Brown's Sisyphean battle, a white man trying to "hive the bees," or rally blacks to overturn slavery when even they weren't so inclined.

Every page contains McBride's whimsical and hilarious observations on human nature and physical impressions. Calm as an egg or a blade of grass. Cool as smoke and all business. Endless ways of describing insanity, such as: his cheese finally slid off his biscuit. Sheer joy in juggling words: fluffling, trickeration, sirring and missying one another.

Even if you think reading about abolition doesn't sound like much fun (although it most definitely is), read The Good Lord Bird for its sheer linguistic pleasures. You'll be swept up in the fascinating (award-winning!) story as well.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Everybody Dance Now! Or just stand there.

Earth to Annique (in Gatekeepers): you can come down now! Photo: David Andrako
This fall, two organizations have opened within one block near the BAM Harvey Theater, BRIC House and Theater for a New Audience. BRIC's new headquarters is on the location where it was previously based along with Urban Glass (which also has new digs in the complex) and is an impressively varied multi-use space, including "the stoop"—an amphitheater like open atrium with step seating, a gallery space, a tv studio, a rehearsal space, a cafe area, and a 250-seat flexible theater.
Ron Brown shows the way to his company and community dancers
 in On Earth Together. Photo: David Andrako

The good news is that the mood was celebratory at one of Evidence's first week of performances (and the first ever dance in the theater). The theater was pretty full, and the audience eager to embrace the company. It presented an older work, Gatekeepers (1999), to music by Wunmi (who also designed the costumes), and the latest version of a growing Stevie Wonder tribute, On Earth Together, begun in 2011 and now nearly an evening-length work in itself. The twist this time around: dancers from the community were smoothly incorporated into several of the numbers. Their ages ranged wildly, from elementary school-aged to grandparent-aged, but all danced enthusiastically and with composure. Some looked nearly ready to substitute for one of Brown's excellent regular company dancers, including the ever-magnetic and silky Annique Roberts, who became Brown's partner in the final movements. She clearly inspires him, as she does us. 

The bad news? The sight lines are wanting in the chosen bleacher-style setup, at least for dance. Seated behind an average height person, I had to lean forward to glimpse the dancers' feet. Hopefully, the arrangement can be tweaked to fix this drawback, but it wasn't enough to dampen the crowd's exuberance. And the stage is perhaps half the size of the just-big-enough Joyce, where Evidence often performs. The run continues this week with Torch (2013) and On Earth Together with a different group of community members. 

Huggin' it out in Way In. Photo: Ian Douglas
Way In, at Danspace Project, by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, also included non-professional performers. It they wanted to—not that they do—this pair will never be able to shake the fact that they were stellar dancers with Merce Cunningham. Fortunately, the skills they honed with Merce are now like a superpower, summoned at will to astound us mortals. Technique aside, they have an intellectual and conceptual curiosity that is catalyzing some fascinating and varied work (Interface and Nox). Here, they chose to work with lighting and set designer Davison Scandrett and writer and ex-dance reviewer for the NY Times, Claudia La Rocco. (Question: Why did they collaborate with La Rocco? Answer: So she couldn't review the show! *rimshot*). Jokes aside, La Rocco has always been unsparingly honest with her opinion in reviews, and here she takes a risk in exposing herself physically to what is most likely an audience very familiar with her point of view. 

The piece begins somewhat tediously, with Scandrett lying on a dolly, awkwardly wheeling hand-written signs (turn off phones, emergency exits, etc) to La Rocco, who coyly holds them up like a boxing ring "girl," and exaggeratedly imitates a bored airline attendant. The set, by Mitchell, Riener, and Scandrett, played a major role—pink lace fabric formed a false ceiling over the stage, and walled off the altar area. It created a perfumy bordello feel, and the resulting compartments were lit to delineate on and offstage. Light was shone through the lace to capture its textural pattern in shadow. 

The work is so stuffed that those who crave technique are rewarded, as are those who care more about ideas. Riener and Mitchell's focus, flexibility, and control are peerless; in one section, Riener relevés on his incredibly articulated metatarsals and ever so slowly rotates 270º, tracking Mitchell as he slinks around the perimeter, close to viewers. You can hardly see Riener moving, so great is his finesse, and even though his laser gaze directs you to watch Mitchell, it's impossible to stop watching Riener. Backgrounding the first half, over Muzak-style early music (Rameau and Lully) we hear a monologue (spoken by La Rocco) shifting between descriptive and postulative: what do we expect to see? How important is technique? After awhile, the verbiage devolves into noise, but the mere juxtaposition of the two "teams" and their respective activities calls into question many tenets of performance that have been raised since there was dance, and more frequently since the Judson movement.
The Way Out of Way In. Photo: Ian Douglas

The non-dancers were both ungraceful enough in contrast to the Riener & Mitchell that it was hard to resist feeling resentful toward their presence onstage, presumably intentionally. (I should add that nearly anyone would be ungraceful compared to those two.) This particularly held true toward the end, when Riener & Mitchell moved behind the scrim to change from their sleek black unitards and rehearsal clothes that they'd layered on, into silver, dollar-print trunks and pink lace jumpsuits. Onstage, the other two played catch-the-rolling-gumball for a long time. A dialogue between them played, and again became noise. (They also lay like odalisques, drank tea, and ate cake.) No doubt it was intended to ask what kind of movement constitutes performance, because the gumballers clearly were "performing." 

But we were given plenty of virtuosic dance by the trained ones, who had a sort of throw-down. They repeatedly ran at one another from opposite ends of the sanctuary, clashing like elegant wrestlers, lifting each other with effort. They circled the stage, doing bold assemblé jumps. Mitchell promenaded in arabesque led by Riener's hand in his mouth. Down to their trunks, they moved like powerful boa constrictors, sliding their legs up the columns into splits, bending and twisting in yoga poses, slipping into mid-stage splits done as close as shadows. They danced as one at times, their shared histories and understanding becoming rich fuel to add to their Cunningham superpowers. 

In the finale, Scandrett moved a bunch of spotlights into place around a mic. La Rocco changed from her jeans into a long taffeta skirt, untied her voluminous hair, pulled white tulle netting over her head, and began intoning into the mic like a priestess. "Why did you come here tonight? What did you expect?" Her speech echoed increasingly until it was unintelligible. Riener and Mitchell, sweaty, by now had squidged their way across the sanctuary, up the steps, and were posed fawningly at her feet, like sweet putti, before standing at attention. It seemed like they might be married, but perhaps it was more marking the union of collaborators, of ideas. But it was an odd, kitschy ritual capping a show that did indeed pose a boatload of questions—many old, some new—about a way in. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

ABT in Repertory—Hitting the Sweet Spot

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in Bach Partita. Photo: Gene Schiavone
ABT's fall rep season is brief, about a week and half this year. The upside is that it leaves us wanting to see more of the company's shorter form repertory, though they've been including one or two such slates in their two-month Met Opera House runs. Would they consider more? Highlights from week two at the Koch Theater, a wonderful venue for the company:

Bach Partita (1983), by Twyla Tharp
  • To Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin, played vibrantly by Charles Yang
  • Three main couples feature in five parts
  • In the opening section, four dancers interweave quickly, setting a motif of roiling, ceaseless movement
  • Whiteside pairs with Polina Semionova—these two leggy dancers are deservedly getting a lot of work these days in a company vastly different in personnel than even a few years ago
  • Marcelo Gomes and Gillian Murphy—a magnetic and peerless duo; Murphy's usual unerring sense of center apparent in triple and quadruple pirouettes; when Gomes does the simplest gesture—placing his hand on her shoulder—it becomes a significant dramatic event
  • Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III—a fresh and appealing combo; Royal, a tall, warm presence, also seeing a number of high profile roles this season; good to see Abrera dancing with crisp confidence
  • Santo Loquasto designed cute shorts for the guys, and white or flesh hued dresses of short and midi length for the gals
  • Tharp plays with the ballet form, oscillating arms in high fifth during chainés, or making ronds de jambe en l'air a kind of lighthearted flourish rather than a demonstration of subtle control
  • Tharp and Mark Morris are masters at moving on and offstage large groups of dancers and varying dynamic and atmosphere
Mark Morris' Gong. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Gong (2001), by Mark Morris
  • To Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936) by Colin McPhee, with western and Balinese percussion instruments
  • Dazzling rainbow palette costumes for the 15 dancers by Isaac Mizrahi, with gold anklets for the women
  • Morris quotes Balinese traditions—gestures (prayer hands, deep second grand pliés), flexed feet, shadow silhouettes—without appropriating it
  • Moments of stillness alternate with big split leaps in second
  • Humor in a passage when the ensemble hops to beats of a gong to form a column
  • James Whiteside (a new principal) held the eye with great authority
  • Gillian Murphy and Sascha Radetsky danced as two parts forming one; she convincingly free falls, and he catches her at the last moment
  • Nice to see Misty Copeland in good form, and Grant De Long performing capably in place of Gomes

Les Sylphides (1908), by Michel Fokine, to Chopin
  • Such a treat to see Joseph Gorak, rising star in the corps, as the sole male dancing with Isabella Boylston (her grand jetés are breathtaking), the ever-charming Sarah Lane, and Hee Seo (whose arms float into place), plus 16 supporting women. As I've mentioned before, his physique reminds me of David Hallberg—not just his high-instep feet, but his regal épaulement.
  • This chestnut epitomizes the romantic period, but sometimes drifts into a precious Degas still life.

Cory Stearns & Veronika Part in The Moor's Pavane. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Moor's Pavane (1949), by José Limón

  • This proscenium theater is somewhat too large in scale for this quartet, which, while grand in diagram, still relies strongly on facial expressions
  • Roman Zhurbin, as the Moor, is among the company's finest character dancers
  • Seo, his wife, physically exemplifies the innocent purity required of her role
  • Cory Stearns, the friend, puts his feline stealth to good use, preening and slinking about  
  • Veronika Part, his wife, manages to project well as a sly conspirator
Next up for ABT: Ratmansky's The Nutcracker at BAM in December.

Monday, November 4, 2013

ABT premieres Ratmansky's The Tempest

Marcelo Gomes holding Daniil Simkin in The Tempest. Photo: Marty Sohl
Another major story ballet makes its New York premiere, the third in quick succession—this time, Alex Ratmansky's The Tempest for ABT, this fall at the spacious Koch Theater. The choreographer seems equally comfortable in both plotless and story forms, and here takes on the latter, which is framed in the program as "a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare's play." The 40-minute ballet is set to selections from Sibelius' sometimes spare, often enchanting music from 1925-26, played live in the pit, with assists from the New York Choral Society and mezzo Shirin Eskandadi. 

The ballet is ideal for lead-casting many of ABT's charismatic men (and one! woman): Gomes as the conflicted Prospero, Herman Cornejo as Caliban, Daniil Simkin as the flighty Ariel, and Sarah Lane (Prospero's daughter) and Joseph Gorak as the young lovers. The latter three have the richest dance passages. In the prologue, Gomes partners Simkin, who is spun so quickly that his legs fly out parallel to the ground; in one scene, he enters with a chain of very high jetés with his legs at a narrow angle, another clever solution by Ratmansky to show off Simkin's buoyancy without having him eat up the stage. We are familiar with Lane's delicacy and precision; Gorak, a more recent, burgeoning revelation, is astonishingly crisp in line and attack, and fills out each movement impressively. They ballotté (a sort of skip and foot brush) in a circle to a particularly sweet musical passage. When Prospero tries to separate them, the three weave through an intense, intricate, curlicue section.

and Joseph Gorak holds Sarah Lane. Photo: Marty Sohl
Gomes' physical and dramatic power is muffled under a scraggly wig and a drab everyman outfit of a fraying, unbuttoned shirt and khaki clamdiggers. But the predominantly slow, grave movements he is given (often to a harp theme) feel subtly revolutionary: they come across as a language of their own, familiar ballet shapes imbued with meaning but not, per se, descriptive. He repeats a pirouette and a slow leg extension into an arabesque, deepening it to its zenith; relevés in basic positions are held for long moments; he inflates his arms into luminous curves. All of these moves convey control and stability in the face of a shipwreck and power-grabbing by his brother (Sascha Radetsky). Certainly this has been done in previous ballets, but it feels different here; it helps that Gomes has until now typically danced the virile princely role, and not a solemn, more elderly role. 

Santo Loquasto's ornate sets and costumes lend a cursory Disney theme park feel. A fragment of the wrecked ship's prow is the primary set piece, but its zig zag stairs prove awkward for the dancers to navigate gracefully. Caliban's cave is an odd pile of dark stuff that is wheeled around. Four trees reverse to show some, um… sea critters? I'm really not sure, and it didn't help that one nearly tipped over. A set of horizontal silken, wash-painted drops, and a glittery black one lower down, shift vertically to evoke a stormy sky or an angry sea. There is a lot going on, and the dancers do not look all that comfortable. It's so easy to second guess, but a simplified design approach might have benefited this jam-packed production.

Daniil Simkin, in white unitard and a flame-like wig, standing precariously atop the all-purpose edifice, gets to wave large, fluttering red sails like demonic wings. He fares much better than Cornejo, scruffy and maned, keeping low to the ground like the shunned creature that he is. (He would fit easily into the role of Ariel, which would show off his gifts; maybe next time around.) The two most comedically gifted company members, Julio Bragado-Young and Craig Salstein, play amusing servants, freed from decorum. The corps members, elaborately costumed in blue, form and reform as water elements, effectively swirling and arcing. 

Filling out the program: 

  • Balanchine's Theme and Variations, to Tchaikovsky, led by Polina Semionova and Cory Stearns.
  • From 1947, a prime example of Mr. B's classical oeuvre, with the infectious musicality of its opening section
  • New warm-hued costumes by Zack Brown in yellows and apricots
  • Semionova's archetypal ballerina physique—very long limbs and high-arched feet—serve the line brilliantly
  • Stearns could use more polish and crispness in this very technical ballet, as well as more accentuated rhythm in his turns

  • Stanton Welch's Clear (2001) to Bach
  • Sascha Radetsky, brandishing his tattooed torso, finds an ideal role in the sharp, rhythmic opening 
  • The six additional men showed the depth of ABT's soloists and corps
  • Paloma Herrera, the sole woman, is always fun to watch in contemporary stuff 
  • This fun ballet is an example of why Welch drew many commissions around then

The season runs through this week with works by Tharp, Limon, Morris, Ratmansky, and more.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Making Old Ballets New: Puppets, Vampires, and Fates

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand
Why do we need story ballets, if we do? If Tchaikovsky/Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, now over a century old, is about the life of ballet itself, how does that speak to ballet and stories today? Why do we return to this tale, and to other "princess" ballets, including Cinderella, both in New York this fall?

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, at City Center through November 3, makes a strong case for modern relevance. So much of the original's magic has been stated simply as givens: Carabosse's overreaction at being overlooked on a party invitation list, future telling, and a variety of spells. Now, we in the 21st century know that's all a bunch of hooey, am I right? But vampires! That's something we can all get behind and believe without impunity.

Of course, there are still spells and magic in Bourne's version, which seems to exists more or less owing to the enduring strength of Tchaikovsky's score. But the added twist of vampires and their knack for eternal life certainly simplifies some plot gaps. Bourne is not alone in being frustrated that Aurora has not traditionally met her prince until the last half of the ballet, even if it did distinguish Aurora as among the most challenging and independent roles for a ballerina. Here, she meets her guy Leo (the Royal Gamekeeper, complete with a pair of coneys) early on, setting up a relationship for which she can yearn. Bourne neatly gives Leo a fighting chance with a little eternity on his side. As Aurora, Ashley Shaw is impetuous and charming, and Dominic North, as Leo, lanky and wide-eyed.

Does the vampire angle make it relevant? The same as hoodies and selfies, also prominent in Bourne's version, to an extent, as pop culture timestamps. No doubt the fanged legend is having a moment, despite being centuries old. Most importantly, aside from the score, Lez Brotherston's fantastic sets and costumes bring this ballet to vivid life. This longtime collaborator of Bourne's transforms the somewhat limited City Center stage into an enchanting diorama. Sumptuous bronze curtains drape over the primary opening—Aurora's bedroom window—which offers both entrance and escape. Another terrific idea was to make baby Aurora a puppet, letting her terrorize her guardians and react to the action, rather than lie in a bassinet like a loaf of bread.

Dancers ride on conveyer belts upstage (a trick that begs, why has no one done that before?). Leafless birch trees peppered with lanterns evoke a spartan wilderness. A gigantic full moon shadows Aurora like a guardian spirit. An Edwardian tea party feels straight out of Seurat's atelier. A modern-day nightclub lit by stingingly bright cobalt and red lighting is convincingly claustrophobic and sweat-inducing. Brotherston's fantastic feather-skirted costumes flow and flounce whimsically. And Bourne's bold movement is a latter-day relative of ballet, done in soft or street shoes, or even barefoot. It's accessible, yet still respectful of its source. Of all choreographers working today, Bourne has most successfully built a bridge between the classics and what the public wants. Don't be surprised if this turns up on Broadway.

Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella, with her back-up boys, the Fates. Photo: Erik Tomasson
Meanwhile, Christopher Wheeldon's version of Cinderella was at the Koch Theater, winding up San Francisco Ballet's two-week run. Besides his own reliable facility with the ballet idiom and an accomplished company, Wheeldon has the ace cards of the Prokofiev score, which has moments of brilliance amid spans of melodic milquetoast, and the talents of the trickster puppeteer Basil Twist, who crafted the two most memorable scenes. In one, dancers twirl what appear to be parasols, others wear horse heads, and Cinderella first appears in her signature golden ball gown, which sports a parachute train. In a brief, magical moment, they all assemble to form her pumpkin carriage, train billowing like a sail. In the second, a huge tree's bowers waft up and down, and receive projections of rippling, somewhat sinister leaves, or transform hues to mark the seasons.

Like Bourne, Wheeldon tweaked the original story, morphing the fairy godmother into four male Fates, giving the prince a best friend who conspires with him on pranks, and making Cinderella an orphan taken in by a family, including one sympathetic daughter who is bullied by her older sister. I saw Francine Chung and Carlos Quenedit in the lead roles, both perfectly capable in several romantic duets, if lacking in the intangibles that can transport such characters beyond us mortals. Chung has a sweet presence that connotes humility as well as a burgeoning confidence, and Quenedit a rakish flair.

The four Fates are Cinderella's regular companions and protectors; one lifts her in a draping arch as another then secures her by a leg, like a flag on a pole; she repeatedly rises and falls thusly. It's a comforting device, even if it softens the idea that Cinderella is completely alone in the world before meeting her prince. Wheeldon has a way with creating fluid, undulating, horizontal movements, and crafting subtly inventive partnering maneuvers. Another twist is the presence of several Spirits, essentially the seasons given metaphorical traits: Lightness, Generosity, Mystery, Fluidity. It's a lot to package neatly, and despite the garishness of many of Julian Crouch's costumes, and the relative flatness of many of the sets, leaves some lasting impressions.

It seems as though these particular story ballets persist in no small part because of their scores, even if both are not either composers' best. One modern tack is to string together bits of classical music, or perhaps pop standards, most likely destined for Broadway. But at a time when there's a scarcity of support for new symphonic music, let alone commissions for full-length ballet productions, choreographers are revisiting the romantic scores again and again, looking for ways to make them relevant. The puppetry in both supplies moments of magic, and Bourne comes closest.

Monday, October 21, 2013

San Francisco Ballet at Lincoln Center

In Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands, Sofiane Sylve gets some helping hands. Photo: Erik Tomasson
When a fine company like San Francisco Ballet comes to New York's Koch Theater for a major two-week run of five programs, we New York dance narcissists can see not only what's happening in the genre on the other coast, but we can also use it as a lens through which to view our own microcosm of ballet—in this case, work by two "local" renowned choreographers, Mark Morris and Alex Ratmansky.

General observations on the overly-stuffed repertory program C (Oct 18):
  • SFB's dancers looks terrific, including a couple favorites who left NYC (Sofiane Sylve and Simone Messmer)
  • The repertory by NY regulars Ratmansky and Morris felt less satisfying than their usual work
  • The ballet by SFB's resident choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, was more in tune with the dancers, no doubt owing to mutual familiarity and the rehearsal time
  • Edwaard Liang's offering was far too long for this program
  • All four dances used music that, despite avoiding clichéd choices, were somewhat difficult

Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands
  • Music by 19th-century composer Moritz Moszkowki—rhythmic, marchy
  • Costumes—lovely knee-length, varied hue tulle skirts that looked to be composed of layered handkerchiefs
  • Structure—six sections named for nationalities, though few ethnic influences could be read
  • Standout section—ex-ABT soloist Simone Messmer was ported, held aloft, cosseted, tossed between men in clever ways; gold-hued outfits complemented the warm tone of devotion (Sylve is pictured in this section, above)
  • A new-old move, something Ratmansky is so good at—piqué turns from walking on pointe. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but I've never seen it before. Several such moves compound, by degrees, to turn Ratmansky into an innovator.
  • I missed his signature stroke of humor and everyman flavor in this fairly earnest, if lively, dance

Benjamin Stewart & Pascal Molat in Beaux. Photo: Erik Tomasson
Mark Morris' Beaux
  • The nine men wear Isaac Mizrahi's day-glo camouflage print unitards to match the set, strongly evoking Stephen Sprouse's Andy Warhol printed camo fabric
  • To music by Bohuslav Martinu, including prickly harpsichord passages, and a gripping interplay between harpsichord and piano
  • The movement slides indecisively between ballet and Morris' pedestrian best
  • In my head, I could hear Morris shouting "just walk" to these highly trained ballet dancers, but the need to shift between formal and relaxed made these moments feel perhaps more forced
  • Not a "manly man" or "drinking scene" mens' dance (the kind where tomfoolery borders on fighting), but there were repeated spread-eagle jumps, bold geometric formations, and teams "flying" a plane-shaped man onstage  
  • Facing upstage in a line, arms and legs spread, the men stand adjacent, with one facing front—Morris is either bold enough to quote Paul Taylor's Arden Court without shame, or has never seen that modern dance staple
  • I felt that the dancers lacked the confidence in the movement to really own it—a bit of a surprise in a Morris dance, when typically attitude is a major characteristic. Then again, perhaps it was the longer viewing distance or the distracting overall busyness of the dance.
Hansuke Yamamoto & Maria Kochetkova in Classical Symphony. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Yuri Possokhov's Classical Symphony
  • To Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, with an odd dollop of Romeo & Juliet
  • Seems that the resident choreographer's familiarity with the dancers' strengths and personalities allowed him to wring the best from them. They danced with conviction, precision, and charisma
  • A mens' section was nearly all grand jetés—striking, but I can imagine their shins were aching
  • Great velocity and technical challenges expressed in rapid spins and fouettés with the front leg in a low attitude; other handsome shapes included wide fourth position on pointe, upper body torqued in opposition  
  • Mustard disc tutus by Sandra Woodall lent a contemporary flair

Edwaard Liang's Symphonic Dances
  • Like the Possokhov, this dance simply takes the music's bland title (here, Rachmaninov)
  • Three couples are featured, and more prominently the women in each duo:
  • The elegant Yuan Yuan Tan, who elongates every line to the max
  • Sofiane Sylve, whose plushness and verve are still missed at NYCB (to me, she filled the role taken up after her departure by Sara Mearns—a larger woman with a slightly dangerous, magnetic presence)
  • Maria Kochetkova, a detailed, compact dancer with great charm
  • While the women wore flattering Juliet-length dresses, the men were dressed in unitards with strange yoke placement and short-cut trunk legs (by Mark Zappone)
  • At 40 minutes, it felt twice as long as it needed to be, other than to fit the music, and some of the partnering felt overworked
The run continues through next weekend, and includes Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella.

Monday, October 14, 2013

October Culture Notebook

Here, culture highlights of the first part of a (good) crazy October in NYC.

From the last couple of Fall For Dance programs:
Dorrance Dance
  • Dorrance Dance is an alpine gust of fresh air, not just in tap, but in the dance world. Choreographer/performer Michelle Dorrance pulls out individuals for solos, but in a diminution of the ego (the dominance of which can be alternately very appealing and a bore in many tap shows) can selectively highlight just the lower legs and feet a whole line of dancers. She places tap in more of a concert dance framework than the typical jam session throwdown. Women take the lead, rather than being marginalized. She has the potential to appeal to entire new segments of audience members.
Kyle Marshall in Mo(or)town/Redux
  • Doug Elkins' adapted Mo(or)town/Redux, on the same program, made for an interesting contrast with the previous FFD's inclusion of ABT dancing The Moor's Pavane, by Jose Limon. Both have strong appeal: Limon's highly geometric, repeating quadrants underscore the rigidity of the court and the drastic consequences of broaching those constraints. Elkins lures us deeper from the outset with the music, Motown inspired tunes that immediately push emotional buttons. His Othello and Iago are far closer to guys we might know, and the movement is plush, powerful, dotted with hip-hop jargon, dynamic moves and lifts, and everyday noodling. The sheer pleasure and invention were reminders of Elkins' singular gifts in a city full of talent.
  • Not entirely unrelated style-wise, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, performed by the Royal Ballet's Rupert Pennefather and Zenaida Yanowsky, features the Belgian choreographer's snaky, rubbery, sometimes street-dancey vocabulary. But once the novelty of his unique movement wears off, it feels repetitive and somewhat limited. Perhaps it was the narrow emotional spectrum of this familiar romance. I wanted to  feel a bit more from these impressive dancers.   
The Rite of Spring by Martha Graham
  • Just when you thought all the centenary-celebrating Rites of Spring were over, yet another one re-emerges: Martha Graham's, from 1984. Graham's vocabulary and theatrical emphasis are as appropriate to this Stravinsky score as you could hope for. The company members, in excellent fettle (10 women and nine men, whose challenging ensemble section showed their collective technical prowess), strode, jumped, and contracted their way through the iconic music. Xiaochuan Xie danced the Chosen One, achieving great pathos, youthful vulnerability, and strength, in contrast to the oak-solid shaman, played by Ben Schultz. The womens' wonderful costumes, by Pilar Limosner after Graham and Halston's originals, flattered as always. 
Suzanne McClelland, Internal Sensations (Rub), 2013 dry pigment, gesso, polymer and oil paint on linen, 49" x 59" 

And elsewhere:
  • Suzanne McClelland at Team Gallery. Hurrah for Team Gallery, now representing Suzanne McClelland. The paintings in this show, titled Every Inch of My Love and up through Nov 17, may begin with words or stated concepts—symbols or representations of sensations, or objects (such as "ideal" men's measurements), or math. These letters or numbers can also detach from meaning to become marks on a canvas, interlopers in an abstract world of fascinating discrepancies, in which paint can drip sideways, down, or up. In a way, the works can sum up being human—with the gifts of cognition and speech—and the ability to abandon those brain activities in favor of a sumptuous visual experience.
  • New York City Ballet's Contemporary Choreographers program. Alex Ratmansky's Namouna has memorable moments abound: smoking ballerinas, unfortunate bathing caps that render the dancers anonymous, the sprightly petite trio, Robert Fairchild's lost boy-becomes-man, and most of all, Sara Mearns' thunderous, daredevil solo. Rebecca Krohn danced the woman in white who captures Fairchild's heart. The slender Krohn is all line; with her cool demeanor, she sometimes coming across as an abstraction, even in Ratmansky's witty, often humorous ballet. Perhaps with time, this new principal will find the confidence to open her heart.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chris Burden: Extreme Measures

Mad stacks: Tower of Power, 1985. Photo of New Museum installation by Benoit Pailley.
Chris Burden has finally received a retrospective of his major works, at the New Museum through January 12, titled Chris Burden: Extreme Measures. He became known in the 1970s for his conceptual performances, many with a survivalist or crazy bent, depending on your perspective: White Light/White Heat, when he lived hidden away on a shelf in the Feldman Gallery for three weeks; being nailed to a VW Beetle (Trans-fixed, 1974); having himself shot in the arm (Shoot, 1971); crawling nearly naked across an expanse of broken glass (Through the Night Softly, 1973). 

The Big Wheel (1979) indicated his affinity for machinery and cause and effect; a motorcycle powers a large flywheel, which continues to spin long after the bike detaches. His radical and self-endangering approach further shifted in the 80s and 90s to large-scale installations that sometimes entailed tallying, obsessiveness, and doom-casting. The Reason for the Neutron Bomb comprised 50,000 nickels topped with wooden matches in a mesmerizing mind-bogglingly large grid, representing the estimated number of Soviet tanks behind the Iron Curtain. 

Burden has managed to balance big geopolitical concepts with the love of toys and machinery, a sort of evolved version of kids playing with toy soldiers, and then growing up and going to battle. Tale of Two Cities, a sprawling work using such small-scale cityscapes and small-town stuff, alludes to the rise of rogue states (binoculars are supplied to zoom into the many tiny scenes, standing in for media). All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) comprises 625 small cardboard subs hung in an artful cluster. 
1 Ton Crane Truck, 2009. Photo courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
The most infamous sculpture in the show is Tower of Power (1985), a pyramid of 100 one-kilo gold bars surrounded by cheering matchstick people; the value was $1 million on its creation, and it's far more now. The New Museum has several guards on duty for this piece, located in the niche gallery between floors; you have to stow your stuff in a gym locker and wait in a queue to see it, which invariably becomes the performance element of the piece. It perfectly symbolizes, and actually represents, the allure of power—dense, glittering mad stacks indeed.

Two more recent works play with scale, balance, and function. Porsche with Meteorite (2013) is just that; the two objects balance like scales, the car among the cheapest produced by Porsche in collaboration with VW, and the meteorite, a dense chunk of mineral matter that originates from who-knows-where, both with the ability to hurtle along speedily, and the one potential base material for the other. 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009), installed in the ground floor rear gallery, involves a 5,000 lb. truck hoisting a one-ton weight. It looks like a scaled-up toy, the truck and the weight painted a playful orange. It also epitomizes the artist's blammo visual punchline that is the result of painstaking planning and procedure.

New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Two works that refer to New York disasters—Hurricane Sandy and 9/11—are installed on the museum's exterior. The Ghost Ship (2005) sits a bit awkwardly—well, like a ship out of water—pinned like a corsage on the façade. The 30' vessel can be sailed unmanned, remotely, like a drone, to resupply ports in need; it successfully navigated a 400-mile trip in Scotland. Atop the museum is Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers (2013), two mock skyscrapers, a spartan salute to the fallen World Trade Towers. Though perhaps meant as tributes, these two works feel a bit like an afterthought, and somewhat peripheral to the main show.

Several of Burden's small-scale bridges are on view, two succinctly described by title: Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale (2013), Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge (2013), plus Mexican Bridge (1998), with very tall piers. The latter two are made of Mecano and Erector set pieces, and a "bridge kit" is also on view—an old-fashioned wooden bureau of drawers that holds everything needed to put together a small Tyne Bridge. While these appeal as grown-up toys, their conceptual meatiness is less resonant than much of the artist's oeuvre. But after a career of grueling work and endangerment by performance or sheer physical danger, why not build some bridges?