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?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Geometry and Strange Fish at the Drawing Center

Sean Scully, Untitled, 1975. Acrylic & tape on paper, @23x31". Courtesy Neo Neo York, Inc.

The Drawing Center's two exhibitions, through November 3, offer a satisfyingly balance of minimal and baroque. Changes and Horizontals, a series of studies and paintings by Sean Scully features grids of horizontal and vertical stripes. Of particular interest are areas where the stripes overlap, the increasing density of certain quadrants or thirds, the subtle palette consisting primarily of greys and rusts. Some typewriter drawings are also on view, a rare look at Scully, a master of geometry, dabbling in text.  
Alexis Rockman, Study for Tiger Vision (19 TV Bio Fish), 2011, gouache on black paper, 9 x 12"
The rear and lower galleries contain drawings primarily of sea creatures by Alexis Rockman, done for Ang Lee's Oscar winning film The Life of Pi. Rockman's naturalist studies have been a fixture on the art scene for years, but these came as a surprise as I was unaware that he had been involved in the blockbuster. These striking gouaches pop as if lit with black light, featuring critters of neon hues with exotic embellishments. 

Alexis Rockman, Study for Tiger Vision (7 TV), 2011, gouache on black paper, 9 x 12"

A video in the downstairs gallery shows an amazing sequence in which a whale breaks apart into a dozen animals, which swim away. A couple of talks with Rockman about the works are scheduled: The Animal Vision (Oct 17), and Conversation on The Life of Pi (Oct 29).

Thursday, October 3, 2013

September Performance Notebook

High culture season's underway. Notes from recent outings:
Edward Watson and slime, in Metamorphosis
Royal Ballet, Metamorphosis, The Joyce
  • Edward Watson as Gregor is the draw in this clever adaptation of Kafka's classic in which dance replaces music as the muse which draws out the human side of insectoid Gregor.
  • After his evolution from salaryman to creature, he winds and crosses his limbs, propped on a knee and some fingers, to evoke bugness.    
  • Brown sticky stuff—molasses?—that conveyed a complete cleave with humanity really was slippery; the other cast members slipped gingerly over the pools and slicks 
  • Director/choreographer Arthur Pita uses the entire theater, including the narrow cross-theater aisle between the stage and audience, where a coffee/cocktail cart's repeated wheelings help establish the sense of banal routine. Simon Daw is credited for designs.
  • Corey Annand as Grete was convincing as a young girl growing into an accomplished ballet dancer, who acquired by osmosis some of the insectoid behavior of her brother.
  • Without Matthew Bourne, I don't think this type of movement-theater production would exist. Several cast members are vets of his productions as well.
  • The music was composed and performed by Frank Moon, who created all the eerie sounds in addition to playing instruments.
Sara Mearns
New York City Ballet, Swan Lake
  • The two-act Swan Lake, by Peter Martins (retaining of the original Petipa/Ivanov pas de deux, thankfully), is a good excuse to see ballerinas at their zenith. 
  • Mearns so fantastically embodies this dual role, combining the right pathos, beguilement, and technique. 
  • She needs her partner too, unlike many a competent NYCB female principal. In this case, it was Jared Angle, as solid and modest as partners come. G
  • Gripes: the largely hideous decor by Per Kirkeby, especially the hall that looks like a courtroom, the long spans of lazy filler steps, the irritating jester, and the endless foreign dances when I think loningly of ABT's playful Neapolitan duet and Von Rothbart's fancy purple suede boots. 
  • In NYCB's Swan, you are really coerced into focusing on Odette/Odile because the rest of the production is so uninspired. Which is not such a terrible thing when it's Mearns.
  • I caught Sara Mearns twice in one week, first in Swan Lake, then at Fall For Dance in a new duet by Justin Peck. What luck.

Justin Peck's The Bright Motion, Fall For Dance
  • Het Ballet's Casey Herd, who partnered Sara in The Bright Motion, the Peck premiere, is large and confident enough to support her both physically and psychically (see above). Mearns' vulnerability is part of her terrific appeal, and she leaned hard enough on Herd that he had to adjust his stance at one point, but it allowed her to more fully find and expand her beautiful line. 
  • This brief dance was more grown-up feeling than Peck's previous works, which have emphasized youth. It showcased Mearns' sublime, archetypal arabesque, which she assumed in super slow-mo, and a bold fourth position on pointe with her torso twisted in opposition, so architecturally strong. 
  • The white bathing suit leotard added to the sense of her being completely exposed. She came across as somehow both completely empowered and completely vulnerable, like Princess Grace at the beach.
The Devil in the Detail
Richard Alston's The Devil in the Detail, Fall For Dance
  • A suite of dances to Scott Joplin, whose music breeds feelings of both hyper-familiarity on a pop culture level (thanks to The Sting), and unfamiliarity when used in dance; I can only think of Martha Graham's weird Maple Rag.
  • The jaunty, whimsical rhythms give Alston's superb dancers a chance to play around with the phrasing, an intriguing proposition, as they can arrest movements mid-air. 
  • Various combos and pairings to perhaps a half-dozen songs provided a glimpse of the crisp, barefoot style that deserves a better term than contemporary ballet. It relates at moments to Paul Taylor and Mark Morris.  
  • A performance by Alston's London-based company is a rare treat; his last gig in the metro area was at Peak Performances in Montclair.