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.