Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ailey—A Different Kind of Revelation

ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson
If there's one person within the Ailey company who represents its soul, it might be Matthew Rushing, who has been with the troupe for 22 years and is now rehearsal director and a guest artist. As a dancer, he is noted for his humility, speed, accuracy, and the gift of parsimonious but deeply meaningful expression. When some dancers try to go big and spin off energy, Rushing seems to focus his energy like a laser beam and direct it precisely where it counts. As a choreographer, he is just beginning; he has made three works for Ailey, and ODETTA—which premiered this season—shows he has a very promising future making dances.

This tribute to the folk singer (embodied in the dance with great strength and nobility by Akua Noni Parker) naturally uses a selection of her songs interspersed with spoken and projected quotations affirming human rights and self-respect. Each song carries a different message, which Rushing elaborates upon. Some of the sections are earnest and forthright, others—"A Hole in the Bucket," in which Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun act out the silly lyrics—exaggerated to the point of slapstick. The men go to war, and put on helmets, to underscore the action. Travis George's flexible set, of a series of lightweight benches with geometric cutouts, is arranged in a number of inventive ways. But on the whole, it's Rushing's choreographic style that propels the work, at times thrillingly. He parlays what would seem right on his own body into a vocabulary for the whole group—fluid phrases with precise gestures that connect directly with what Ailey produced, particularly in Revelations

The penultimate section that takes place downstage shows great skill. Initiated by a soldier going to war under a giant American flag, the dancers enter from the side in a line, holding hands, and shift through compact moves, pulsing and morphing; the group halves and the two parts alternate directions. It's almost as if the tightened spatial parameters were conducive to more creativity. (Earlier, we'd seen iterations of the forward-advancing line—in Hofesh Shechter's Uprising, which begins as the men stride to the apron and hit a passé, which they hold for a good long minute, and in Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women, when 15 women rustle their voluminous skirts as they advance downstage.) Rushing takes the subject matter to heart, and the song's messages resonate anew.
ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson

I recall Uprising (2006) differently from the company's 2008 Fall for Dance appearance, but perhaps it is simply Shechter's volatile, athletic language on Ailey's men instead of his own company. It shows how the Batsheva alum uses darkness and light to control the stage space and the level of drama. Stillness alternates with speed; gravity remains in control, as when the men motor about on all fours. The tongue-in-cheek Misérables finale—a red flag held aloft a pile of men, accompanied by a cheesy smile—put an odd exclamation point on an otherwise serious dance, as if to say, "just kidding!". 

As a bookend, the company's women (and four men) danced Suspended Women (2000). The lavish, Victorian-style dresses (by Christina Giannini) evoke both hyper femininity and its flip side, entrapment. Lines of dancers ebb and flow; there is much darting, skipping, and management of flouncy skirts and hoops. The men enter late in the work to lift and lug the women, doff their jackets to reveal bare chests, and disappear again. Daniel Bernard Roumain's score, using primarily violin and piano, grates at times. And at moments, especially toward the end, Martha Graham's influence can be felt in the urgent stage crossings. Yet the company felt truly at home in Rushing's work. It was an evening without Revelations per se, but with some promising revelations of its own. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ephemeralist's 2014 List


Leonid Sarafanov/Mikhailovsky Ballet, The Flames of Paris
Finding new treasures in the elegant, lithe Sarafanov, who performed in much of the Mikhailovsky's rep, including the Soviet-era spectacle Flames of Paris

Melissa Toogood (Petronio, Sally Silvers, Pam Tanowitz)

This all-purpose excellent Merce alum popped up, delightfully, everywhere.

Met Museum Presents
TwinnedJohn Heginbotham/Alarm Will Sound and El Greco/Cappella de Ministrers
One of the world's great museum's finds strong traction and modern relevance in its performing program. 

Kyle Abraham/Glenn Ligon's Watershed at NYLA
A harmonic partnership of movement and visuals.

What's It All About: Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop
Connecting pop music of yore to musical theater of today.


Chris Ofili, New Museum
A stunning exhibition, mounted beautifully.

Lee Krasner/Norman Lewis, Jewish Museum

Two overlooked expressionist greats given some overdue attention.


The Foundling Boy, Michel Leon

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Mad and the Bad, Jean-Patrick Manchette (this is old, but new to me)

Collected Short Stories, Lydia Davis

One More Thing, BJ Novak

The Miniaturist, Jessie Norton

Overhyped books:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Goodbyes, or at least for now:

Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue

Wendy Whelan at New York City Ballet

Looking ahead... 

Sports—Signs of Life after dismal seasons:

Jacob de Grom, Mets

Odell Beckham Jr., NY Giants

Modern Dance's Future Pivots:

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance
The repertory floodgates open to other choreographers' work. First up: Doris Humphrey's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor danced by the Limon Company, and Shen Wei's Rite of Spring danced by his own company (seven times!). The selection of Shen Wei is, artistically, somewhat mystifying, although the two companies share deep roots at ADF. 

Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines Project
A five-year project to revive modern masterpieces to which Petronio connects, just as the companies of some of modern's greats are shutting down. First up: Cunningham's RainForest. How handy that Toogood (see above) has been guesting with the company lately. The following year brings Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy. Can't wait.

Hello again:

Whitney Museum near the Highline

Wendy Whelan doing other stuff

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Nut to Squirrel Away

Anastasia Barsukova. Photo: Igor Siggul
Around the year-end holidays, we tend to settle into traditions and habits, and dance's one uncrackable tradition is The Nutcracker. The big two, at least through this year, are Balanchine's at New York City Ballet, and Alex Ratmansky's at BAM, which moves to California next year. A number of smaller companies mount productions, and Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's has risen surprisingly quickly as an alternative to the biggies. (She established her Tribeca-based school just four years ago and in recent years has mounted three or so ambitious annual productions.)

This production, choreographed primarily by Michael Chernov after Vasali Vainonen, takes few shortcuts other than using recorded music. The steps for the group scenes are smartly kept simple, garnering the basic desired effects. The costumes (also by Chernov) look of high quality, even from the close distance afforded by the wide house at Pace's Schimmel Center. With its shallow stage, there is nowhere to hide at such a proximity; jitters, sweat, and cheap fabrics could be easily detected by viewers, and the costumes fared well in this test (as did the jitters and sweat).
Chinese Ambassadors. Photo: Igor Siggul

At the Saturday matinee, Anastasia Barsukova danced the role of Marie, in this case both as a child and an adult (and shown above as a Flute from another cast). She impressed with her strong basics—balances, extensions, pirouettes—as well as in the fine tuning of her head positions and delicate hand gestures. A radiant Anderson Souza played her Nutcracker Prince, commendable for his partnering and the athletic sweep of his grand jétés. Of the many secondary roles, of special note were Katia Raj and Shelby Chaney as the Arabian Ambassadors, both long of limb and emanating a magnetic intensity, and an energetic Galen Bolard and Souza again, as the Russian dolls. 

The large group scenes felt well populated—no scrimping on the personnel—including the party scene, which the tiny Charles Klepner stole with his adorableness; the mouse/soldier battle, the snowflake dance, the angel scene, and the "Prince's Kingdom: The Theater of Life" scene with international dances. Chernov incorporated the dancers into the stage set by artfully arranging them in an upstage niche during the final scene. It's just one more indication of making the most of the company's assets, its dancers. Even the "that's theater" moments—seeing a stagehand haul the rope that moved the streetlamp, hearing the mesh-mounted Christmas tree unfold with a thud—had their charms, given the context.

With tickets ranging from $39—59, it's not the cheapest (ABT's tickets began at $20, but again, that's not an option starting next winter), but nowhere near the gulp-inducing range at the Koch Theater for NYCB's: $71—260. But it's the best production if you want your children to connect with the dancers; proximity and overcoming human vulnerability are its strengths. Kudos to Kirkland and company for making a real go at enriching ballet life in New York City. In May, the company takes on no less than a full-length Don Quixote.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Greco—Contextual Immersion

El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo courtesy of Met Museum Presents.

The Park Avenue Armory may have a lock on presenting some of the city's biggest cross-genre spectacles, but the Met Museum Presents boasts a vast choice of rooms, and thereby time and culture capsules, in which to host a variety of events. Some are tied to current exhibitions. This past weekend, Capella de Ministrers gave a series of concerts linked to the exhibition El Greco's Toledo, in the Velèz Blanco Patio, from Renaissance-era Spain. When combined with a tour of the El Greco show, it felt like a micro vacation, or being in a  snow globe within a larger snowglobe (the vast cultural riches of the Met) within the city.

Capella de Minstrers comprises five members: soprano Elisa Franzetti, and four on period instruments: director Carles Magraner (viol), David Antich (flutes), Sara Àgueda (double harp), and Pau Ballester (percussion). Franzetti's rich, focused voice permeated the small hall, moving between dancey, playful lines and the haunting lilt of more somber songs. Magraner, on viol, most often provided the steady pulse; the percussion, by contrast, was more embellishment, and Ballester deployed a wide array of small instruments in addition to a handheld, platter-sized drum. Antich's flutes at times engaged with the vocal line, or trailed it, while the harp contributed a delicate wash of notes, at times even taking the lead.

The song selection ranged from a Greek instrumental, with a nod to El Greco's hometown of Crete, to the Italian and Spanish Renaissance period, with longer selections of work by Ceari Negri and Fabrizio Caroso. In "Romerico Florido" by Mateo Romero, Franzetti sang with attack and felicitousness, boldly engaging while spinning a story. In the encore, "La Muerte de Absolan," a Sephardic lamentation, she strolled about while briskly regaling us in song.

The Blanco Patio, just off of the grand lobby, was a nearly ideal setting other than some ambient chatter from passersby and some echoing footsteps from above. The concert demanded a re-viewing of the El Greco in New York show—now degrees richer, armed with a greater context. 

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608—14, oil on canvas, 87.5"x76"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956
The show, up through Feb 1, is a gathering of the painter's works from the Hispanic Society of America and the Met. It is surprisingly compact, filling one relatively small gallery. It includes two of the artist's best-known paintings: View of Toledo, in which every object and surface shimmers with electricity, and The Vision of St. John, whose modernist tendencies purportedly influenced Picasso's composition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. One of the earliest paintings on view, Christ Healing the Blind (1570), with its clinical approach to perspective, is a reminder of just how radical El Greco's subsequent work was, with its unfettered, supernaturally expressionistic brushwork and flattened planes.

The show contains several portraits: of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, with his searing and judgmental gaze; Saint Jerome as both a scholar and a penitent, his elongated features compounding his otherworldliness; and a tiny cameo cut from a larger canvas, painted with Holbein's exactitude. The collective experience of the art and the music— artifacts five centuries old, yet very much alive with us today—is a surprising gift amid the holiday clamor. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

MoMA—Forever Now, or at least until April 5

Kerstin Brätsch, Sigi's Erben (Agate Psychics) (2012) at left; Matt Connors, Variable Foot (2014), at right. Photo: Susan Yung

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is the kind of show you'd expect MoMA to do more frequently—a compact survey of young painters expanding the genre, curated by Laura Hoptman, like a biennial (and including a number of artists that were in the last Whitney Biennial). In press materials, the obtusely titled show is parsed into four loose categories: reanimation, reenactment, sampling, and the archetype, which provides intellectual crunchiness if you prefer to go deeper than "I know what I like."

Some highlights:
Dianna Molzan, Untitled, 2012. Photo: Susan Yung

Kerstin Brätsch—some of Brätsch's "Blocked Radiant" paintings sit outside the gallery, like either greeters or warnings; frittery shapes surround fuzzy orbs. The large installation inside, Sigi's Erbe (Agate Psychics) (2012) is composed of a metal framework off of which hang panels made of glass or aluminum with imaergy, or of agate segments arranged into compositions, all meant to be seen from both sides. 

Mark Grotjahn—his carefully arranged psychedelic compositions of layered arcs, such as Untitled (Circus No. 6 Face 44.22) (2013) could be biological snapshots, or dense jungle. They are hermetic new worlds.

Julie Mehretu—she has relaxed somewhat from her hypothetical utopias that approach architectural renderings into scribbled graphite-hued fog banks that will be unavoidably compared to Cy Twombly, such as Heavier than Air (written form) (2014).

(Here, take note of the penchant for parenthetical titles. What gives?)

Amy Sillman, Untitled (Head), 2014. Photo: Susan Yung
Dianna Molzan—what she does—playing with the traditional format of painting—may not be entirely revolutionary, but it is entertaining and beautifully done. In the example pictured here, she has painted on sheer silk, which is then stretched onto bars so that both the canvas and stretchers are visible. In others, she slices the canvas, or reduces it to a net, whose strings receive the paint.

Amy Sillman—among the more traditional-seeming painters, which is perhaps the most ambitious. Her still lives and portraits resonate for their reductive shapes and gorgeous palettes.

Oscar Murillo—his extensive representation within the show is enough to make a statement. He pieces together canvases, using primarily dark hues with looping scrawls and dense occlusions.

The exhibition, through April 5, is on the sixth floor, next to the Matisse Cut-Outs. Catching both might give you a sense of the ongoing continuity within art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Maliphant—Sculpting with Humans

Carys Staton and Adam Kirkham. Photo: Warren Du Preez & Nick Thor
Russell Maliphant's Joyce Theater programStill Current, features his strong, fluid dancers solo or in small groups, moving in a fairly limited spatial range, in lighting (by Michael Hulls) restricted to geometric shapes, otherwise surrounded by utter darkness. In some ways, it banks on certain aspects of his last Joyce presentation, The Rodin Project, but it's unencumbered by the dubious, if elegiac, allusions to the sculptor's work. Still Current presents in abstract terms the beauty of the human form, but without the pretensions. In some cases, movement is limited to just the upper body, or a repeated set of phrases performed with great precision.

It's impressive how focused this program is, despite Maliphant being injured, causing a rejiggering of pieces. A men's duet, Critical Mass (featuring Thomasin Gulgec and Dickson Mbi) feels grounded and muscular as the pair fit their bodies together, or narrowly miss one another. Clothed in chambray shirts and pants, they appear as regular people. Two, a solo for Carys Staton, similar to the duet Two x Two seen in the recent Fall for Dance, confined her to a square, whose lit border she swiped with her feet and hands. Her folded arms became shapes bereft of function. In Still, Mbi's sculpted torso flickers under banded lighting; he is joined by Staton in a contrasting pale blue gown. In Afterlight, Gulgec appears alien, with a beanie covering his head, a white orb floating above a red warmup jacket. (The costumes, by Stevie Stewart, are for the most part casual tops and pants.) 

In Still Current, Marlon Dino danced in place of Maliphant with Staton. Until this piece, most of the partnering was atypical—same gender, or not load-bearing in the male/female tradition. But Dino repeatedly slung Staton over his shoulders, her legs maintaining a parallel, spear-like aspect, sliding her around his torso. It closed a tightly curated evening, mercifully trimmed of artifice and extraneous set pieces.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marooned in Manhattan

It's an unlikely time of year for the Park Avenue Armory to mount tears become... streams become..., given that its premise is to flood the Armory's vast hall along artist Douglas Gordon's specifications, and have pianist Hélène Grimaud give a concert of water-themed piano pieces (or at alternate times, have a player piano operating). Especially during weather like this week, when rain drenches the cold air. But the Armory has not shied from ambitious projects that few other presenting institutions in their right minds would undertake. 

The logistics of the project alone are breathtaking. 
At a press preview, as Grimaud sat on her piano island (there are so many metaphors to this image alone) surrounded by mostly dry black material, water began to seep up through the seams, nearly silent except for a stray burble or bloop. In a matter of minutes—under 10—the Drill Hall was a glassy pond. Grimaud played Fauré's Barcarolle No. 5 in F# minor, Op. 66, and Berio's Wasserklavier. While the acoustics are challenging, the effect of one brilliantly played piano floating on a glassy lake was transporting. Gordon sat beside her, giving lighting cues; after she was done, they walked through (on?) the pond to the dry deck, sloshing and looking like beached shipwreck survivors. Grimaud wore a sporty white track suit designed by Agnès B.

The most surprising and powerful aspect is how the hall's ceiling and roof trusses were illuminated by the choreographed lighting cues. From engulfing darkness, the east/west spine at the apex of the hall's ceiling was lit gradually. Then the "ribs" of the ceiling's armature were emphasized, and it appeared—seated at the very center to capture the symmetry of the ceiling in the reflecting water—as if we were in a giant whale's ribcage. Spots hit Grimaud's piano, and then the idle player piano. This tranquil yet humbling image will likely never be replicated in the middle of New York City... one more singularly memorable experience in a one-of-a-kind space, provided by the Park Avenue Armory.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Varone—Hitting Reset

Xan Burley in Dome. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
After 28 years of running a highly respected company, Doug Varone has done the unexpected. He has departed, if by degrees, from his signature style of modern dance, which is a fluid, looping, channelling of energy that looks organic but which is carefully constructed and practiced expertly by his trained dancers. In a new group work, Dome, and a solo for himself, he has created stuttering, angular phrases separated by long moments of stillness. In a sense, he has hit the reset button.

The Joyce program leads off with Castles (2004), representative of Varone's essential style. It's marked by a matrix of pin spotlights (by Jane Cox and Joshua Epstein), at times reduced to light just the stage's perimeter. The lively, danceable music, Prokofiev's Waltz Suite, Opus 110, coaxes the mood from carnivalesque to martial to grandiose. The 3/4 tempo accommodates Varone's affinity for dropping weight into the ground. Xan Burley is particularly effective in this dance—lush, boneless, muscular.

Doug Varone in The Fabulist. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Varone then performed a new solo, The Fabulist, to "Death Speaks" by David Lang, presumably sung by an uncredited Shara Worden, whose lilting voice imbues a folk music touch. The lighting, by Ben Stanton, plays an important part, as it does in most of Varone's repertory. Just Varone's head and shoulders are lit at the start; he is bathed in a cone of light and moves almost begrudgingly, primarily using his arms and upper body. As the lights pull apart to rake him from both sides, he expands his range, stutter-stepping, hunching, and walking awkwardly, almost as if relearning his first steps. He plops down and with some effort pushes a stray leg into position with his hands. He eventually gains power over his environs, batting away a spotlight, and finally snapping his fingers to extinguish the light. It's atypical of his extravagantly graceful movement, and an overt reckoning of his own role as a choreographer/creator. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung's gray silk suit with sheer sleeves and pant hems seem overly fussy for Varone, who generally comes across as the super graceful pugilist-next-door.

Dome, the group premiere, builds on the angular, fitful phrasing. To Christopher Rouse's strange, at times cyclonic Trombone Concerto, it feels emotionally dark (despite Jane Cox's golden lighting) and vaguely post-disaster. The dancers read as detached from one another, in contrast to their usual cohesiveness; they move robotically, bursting into a phrase, or freezing in arabesques or beaching themselves on the floor apathetically. Hsiao-Jou Tang captures the sense of resigned doom in her elegant, economical phrasing. In a flurry of brass instruments, the eight dancers finally trundle together, each raising an arm. Dome showed some fresh approaches from an established choreographer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mikhailovsky Shows Its Depth

Class Concert. Angelina Vorontsova and Leonid Sarafanov. Photo by Stas Levshin
The Mikhailovsky's mixed bill offered us a snapshot of how the company envisions itself in the historic past, present, and recent past. It's a bit confusing, chronology-wise, but it is revealing.

Le Halte de Cavalerie (1896, company premiere: 1975) is ancient history, relatively speaking. With a libretto and choreography by Petipa, it is old enough to embrace slapstick chauvinism and broad caricature. In a way, this permits the dancers to sink deeply into their cartoonish characters, and simply have fun. Two young women pursue a local lad (Leonid Sarafanov, who was, delightfully, omnipresent in the programs I'd chosen); they in turn are wooed by officers in a military platoon. There's a lot of ogling and flirtation and silly walks, all in outdated fun. One of the women even gives the men some comeuppance by imitating their foolish mannerisms. 
Class Concert. Ekaterina Borchenko.
Photo by Stas Levshin

Class Concert is familiar in form—the re-enactment of a ballet class starting with the little sprouts (area ballet students), up through company principals. It displays the structure and rigor of the art form, which can evoke fond reminiscences from those of us who studied ballet. The performers are all excellent and clearly chosen for their physical gifts, even if the strenuous effort to raise their legs the highest shows. As the exercises build in amplitude, we are reminded that the classroom is a crucible of pressure—Natalia Osipova, the company's biggest star, landed on her fanny after a line of grand jetés. No risk, no reward. (Another dancer fell shortly thereafter.) Ivan Vasiliev, another of the troupe's stars, showed why he's the dancer some love to hate and hate to love, with his wrestler's build, ballon, speed, and deliberate lack of art. Principal dancer Ekaterina Borchenko danced the most sections, showing her pristine line and textbook placement.

Duato stuffed a lot into the subtext of Prelude, a one-act ballet; unpacking it was not an easy task. All but a few of the pointe shoe-clad women wore soft slippers; the ensemble women wore floor-length tulle skirts (Duato also designed these and the sets). All the men wore slick black separates except Sarafanov, in gold. The long skirts alluded to Wilis and swans and Romantic ballets, as did the painted backdrop that resembled so many artificial riverine realms familiar to the story ballet. But creeping under that backdrop were two dancers—modern allegories—who soon took over the stage lit by a chandelier and blue beams; a shimmering bronze drape now covered the cyc. I got the feeling that it was a loose parable for Duato's desire to bring the company into the contemporary era. That said, while he's still affiliated with the company on paper, he is now at the Staatsballett Berlin (read about the company in Marina Harss' NY Times profile). His style is well presented by the Mikhailovsky—Sarafanov is in some ways a prototypical Duato dancer, lean and all line—but the fit has always seemed odd.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Evidence and Mikhailovsky Ballet—Surprising Similarities

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Flames of Paris. Photo: Costas
Ronald Brown's Evidence: A Dance Company, from Brooklyn, and the Mikhailovsky Ballet, from St. Petersburg, Russia, couldn't be more different. Or could they? Both have had recent/current runs in New York. And both, in their own ways and on vastly different scales, told stories of the past with unique communicative genres of dance. 

The Mikhailovsky performed Giselle and Flames of Paris in its first week at the Koch. Its production of Giselle feels familiar to the production performed by ABT. The backdrops are painted a little more realistically, and the foliage rises and falls, revealing and hiding Myrta and Giselle, and also alluding to the supernatural setting of the woods. (The elegant Borzois seem to be the same pair, however.) Natalia Osipova is the epitome of a Giselle, radiating innocence and sweetness at the beginning, and descending into a catatonic state of madness. Famous for her ballon, she appears weightless in jumps and when lifted by Leonid Sarafanov (the Count), who spears the air like an arrow when he leaps. 

Flames of Paris (1932) is an oddity—to Americans, in any case. It was commissioned to mark the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Set in 1792, in a suburb of Marseilles, and in Paris, it's a simplistic account of the clash between classes. It switches locales from a marquis' ballroom to the streets of Paris, and from swanning bourgeoisie in velvet to peasants in clogs bearing the tricolor. One problem with the concept of the revolution is that it's supposed to be about the people, so pulling out principals to perform impressive solos and duets goes against principle. And yet, Angelina Vorontsova and Ivan Zaytsev led the cast with, respectively, delicate pizzicato steps and flying, muscular leaps. The peasant crowd scenes were the most energetic, with rousing folk dances (including an adorable little girl who kept up with the steps) and representatives from different ethnic segments of the country. The ballet will most likely not be adopted by non-Russian companies, so its rarity gave a viewing all the more urgency.

One Shot. Photo: David Andrako

Turning to Evidence, in residence at BRIC in Brooklyn, on the surface, the company and its repertory is the polar opposite of ballet, right? But it has a good deal in common. Brown's choreography, an inventive amalgam of African and all manner of modern dance, is a constant stream of communication to the audience. There are several kinds of steps in his vocabulary, which he combines and mixes to create continuously fascinating dance: 

* The emphatic statement, which can be a phrase that includes some gesture to convey specific concepts. In One Shot, one example was two hands clawing the air plus a fishing rod gesture.
* The bass line, when the lower body marks the rhythm while the upper does its own thing
* Traveling moves, which get the dancers from one place to another; these can feel ceremonial or just fun. 
* Marking time, providing a breather in action while reinforcing the music's pulse.

Broadly, ballet is not all that different. Mime and gesture play a big part and are used to denote a specific action. Waltz steps can behave in a similar way to the bass line, following the music while the upper body has its own set of complementary moves. There are many traveling steps in ballet, some small, like bourées; others big, like grand jétés. 

Brown's One Shot (2007) is an homage to Charles Teenie Harris, who documented life in Pittsburgh. It includes many of his photos of his projected behind the dancers. We get a glimpse of prosperous folks in the mid-20th century—beautifully dressed, and sometimes downright glamorous. Most of the subjects are black, although there are several group shots that include whites as well. There's a feeling of elegance and conviviality. Evidence's dancers are dressed in an approximation of the photographs' feel. They showboat, flirt, social dance, enter the military, and return. To Lena Horne singing, Coral Dolphin has a lovely solo, showing her silky style and a burning intensity the radiates through her cucumber-cool exterior. Annique Roberts, as always, rewards viewers with a boneless, impressively economical way of dancing. The company, clad in denim, led off with Come Ye: Amen (2002), an energetic work to the music of Fela Kuti.

Brown's choreography is wondrously consistent in connecting with the audience and conveying a constant stream of storytelling. The grand spectacles of the Mikhailovsky (which continue through this week) similarly grasp viewers' attention, with the help of lavish sets and dozens of dancers. Both in one week is a major gift for dance fans. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Takashi Murakami at Gagosian; Albert York at Matthew Marks

Bakuramon. Photo: Susan Yung
Takashi Murakami is known for his Superflat style—anime and cartoon-like imagery composed using oval or circular forms, giving them a cuddly affect. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade boasts a float of his design, and Louis Vuitton has embellished handbags with LV logos in his rainbow palette. In his new show, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea through January 17, he  draws on sources from Japanese history, but taps into a dark figurative array. It also reveals the breadth of his thematic and technical ambition concerning subjects no less than life, death, the depiction of religion, and creativity.

The behemoth of the exhibition is Bakuramon, a life-sized installation after the gate Rashomon, in Japan, modeled after a Chinese Tang Dynasty piece. Murakami packs a lot into this symbol: cultural appropriation and loss of original meaning, a mistaken religious icon, and a gateway between in/out, life/death, and the act of artistic interpretation. Funny thing though: the gate building itself comes across not as a work of art, but a stage set. 
Detail: A Picture of the Blessed Lion Who Nestles with the Secrets of Death and the Universe. Photo: Susan Yung
Some of his paintings appear to be battlegrounds for a standoff between a staid icon (a temple) and a platoon of horrifying, zombie-like dudes with multiple eyes and snaggly teeth. (His notes on the painting refer to a WWII-era painter, Arnold Bocklin, who became suddenly popular and thereafter painted the same subject again and again.) In another series, he has graffitied DEATH HATE I (to be read in reverse) and HOLLOW over a field of small cartoon figures. These read as public exhumations of internal conflict about the nature and purpose of art, an odd kind of self-loathing and intentional sabotage of otherwise happy paintings.

A series of round paintings are minimalist compositions of pretty elements. Another series, the Arhat paintings, are no less than what Murakami thinks "a contemporary Japanese belief system might look like." Perhaps not coincidentally, these essentially abstract works, each focused around a mesmerizing multi-layered circle, seem to tap into strands of modern art movements. His "Lion" paintings are at once irresistibly opulent and plasticky—gold and platinum leaf over relief painting form backgrounds—with motifs of lions on bridges of skulls and lion cubs (death and rebirth).

Albert York, Pink and White Flowers in a Glass
, 1965
Photo: Susan Yung
Albert York, Landscape with Trees and Snake, 1980
Photo: Susan Yung

A giant mural, from which the exhibition takes its name, is so long, it's best to read it as you walk from end to end (it's 25,000 mm long, whatever that is. Long.). Skulls, ships, elephants, fish, and a million other elements populate this composition, similar in form to multi-paneled ancient screens. He also includes several sculptures that range from your basic manga-like demons to The Birth Cry of a Universe, a garishly opulent gold-leafed totem that represents a ferocious natural force, but not a physical imitation of one.

It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer ambition and scale of this exhibition, but then go and see Matthew Marks' quiet, beautiful show of paintings by Albert York, also on 24th St., through December 20. This show of 37 paintings done between 1963 and 1992 are primarily of the landscape and still-life mode, mostly around 12" square or a bit smaller. A cheery floral bouquet is dimmed slightly by some murk in his palette. A snake slithers across the bottom of a field of grass, and a gator inexplicably hovers at the side of another. He worked primarily from his home in East Hampton, but for all the touches of goth, he could've been in the tangled swamps of the South. Without illustrating life vs. death, he implicates the everyday world in just that battle.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sally Silvers' Actual Size—A Study in Noir

Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood in rehearsal. Photo: Karen Robbins
After decades of creating dance, how does one find inspiration? Postmodern veteran Sally Silvers looked to film noir, and specifically Hitchcock, in Actual Size, performed at Roulette. The results were pleasingly robust, danced by a superb cast of Melissa Toogood, Alicia Ohs, Luke Miller, Carolyn Hall, and Dylan Crossman, plus the choreographer. 

In elegantly wrapped and fitted skirts and separates by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, the dancers moved confidently and eloquently. But rather than an absence of facial expression, as is so common in modern dance, they wore expressions similar to actors' in suspense films—suspicion, fear, hauteur, wistfulness. The movement contrasted to what I've seen from Silvers in the past, as seen in an early solo by the choreographer: a looser adherence to classical technique, a more personal interpretation. It may have been in part because Silvers' dancers for this project are among the most accomplished in the genre; Toogood and Crossman danced with Cunningham, the others are widely experienced and mature in their artistry and to a person spellbinding. 

Michael Schumacher's textured and varied sound score was consistently interesting, if vexing, to listen to and included text snippets, slinky trombone lines, and cartoon-music quotes. Ursula Scherrer designed the austere set and the video projections, geometric forms and black and white found footage and clips of the dancers off stage. It felt like Silvers has newfound vigor for the art which she has created for nigh on three decades.

Monday, November 3, 2014

ABT's Fall Season Wrap-Up

Marcelo Gomes, Cory Stearsn, and Herman Cornejo in Fancy Free. Photo: Marty Sohl
ABT's two-week fall rep season at the Koch included a production premiere of Raymonda Divertissements, choreographed by Petipa with staging by Irina Kolpakova and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. Hee Seo and James Whiteside danced the leads, interesting complements of cool and hot, both with crisp, taut lines. The duo of Misty Copeland and Sarah Lane were warmly energetic and well-matched. Corps member Skylar Brandt danced a solo with lucidity, and soloist Christine Shevchenko once again demonstrated her burnished technique that has garnered her more and more roles. 

One thing that struck me immediately was how big the larger group of four corps men looked on the Koch stage (as exemplified by Alex Hammoudi); this is New York City Ballet's house, and the men are generally smaller in stature. Although ABT's ensemble men looked as if they could use another week of rehearsal, all nine couples performed shoulder lifts smoothly. The ballet is a reliable, classical confection and repertory staple, if a tad dry, to hummable music by Glazounov, costumed in hues of vanilla cream frosting by Barbara Matera.

How is it possible to distinguish Fancy Free, that 1944 Jerome Robbins staple to Leonard Bernstein (here staged by NYCB's Jean-Pierre Frohlich), performed with clockwork regularity in New York? How about Cornejo's triple tours en l'air into splits, and Marcelo Gomes' unfettered goofiness? Add in an aw-shucks sweetness by Cory Stearns, and welcome appearances by Stella Abrera and Gillian Murphy, and you have a rejuvenated vehicle with sparkle and pyrotechnics.  

James Whiteside and Misty Copeland in With a Chance of Rain. Photo: Marty Sohl
Frederick Ashton's Jardin aux Lilas was staged for the company by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner. In the ballet's few years' absence from the rep, I'd forgotten how succinct and probing Ashton's choreography can be. Simple head turns, body direction changes, and lifted hands speak volumes about the players' psychological states. Two couples in love with the others' partners arrange furtive trysts in the sylvan moonlight, wary of being caught. Its simplicity and humanity makes you yearn for more Ashton. Chris Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions (2011), to Britten, is a handsome, elegant dance for 24. Bob Crowley's silver and black costumes, and Brad Field's at times retina-searing lighting, underscore the ambition of the dance. But it hints at a weakness for the ubiquitous Wheeldon, in that apart from narrative ballets and icons such as After the Rain, he creates lovely, flowing dances that can be indistinguishable. However, it did match Boylston with Stearns, another unexpected, satisfying pairing.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

BalletCollective—A True Collaboration Evolves

Troy Schumacher and Ashley Laracey in Dear and BlackbirdsPhoto: Matthew Murphy
Collaboration is frequently used to describe the performance creation process, even if it's simply the gathering of disciplines in a studio or theater. But BalletCollective, under Troy Schumacher's direction, employs the sharing process from the genesis of a dance. Taking a poem or artwork as a source, the composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone writes music, and then Schumacher choreographs. (For more, read Marina Harss' recent NYT article on the process.) They riff on evocations or inspiration, and not literal interpretations. The underlying structure supports the piece, giving it an inner vitality that sets it apart from many of the handsome, but essentially formalist, ballets that have been made lately. (I should add that it's possible such sources have been used to create those ballets, but they are not presented as prominently as this.) 

The company, comprising New York City Ballet dancers, premiered All That We See at the Skirball this past week. Ludwig-Leone and Schumacher worked with artist David Salle, who showed fragments of a larger painting to the pair, waiting until the piece had been completed to reveal the whole picture, which we never see (although the beautiful poster/program shows the details from which they worked, including a pot of coffee and a bitten ice cream bar). The music and dance took form in response to "structure, line, and emotional response" rather than image or narrative. This process is fascinating to learn about, but not essential to viewing. The work's multi-sections shift in tone and dynamic, from Taylor Stanley's taut, snapping lines, to Meagan Mann's lushness, to Claire Kretzschmar's angular elegance. Ludwig-Leone's music, played live by the ensemble Hotel Elefant, ranges from energetic to jazzy to contemplative.

There's always a sense of community in the company's works, akin to many of Jerome Robbins' dances; the simple act of placing one dancer near another instigates an emotional relationship. In a larger group—five in this dance—that can mean that Stanley and David Prottas partner Lauren King at the same time, or one another. The chemistry blends, clashes, flows, but rarely simply paints a pretty picture.
Claire Kretzschmar in All That We Seer.
Photo: Matthew Murphy

The relationship is more straightforward in Dear and Blackbirds, a duet choreographed for Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll (as seen in this video), who unfortunately was injured and, fortunately, replaced by Schumacher in the performances (he and Laracey are married). He pursues her, she resists, succumbs, and has to coax him back after spurning him. It's sweet, playful, and conveys the boundless joy, and vexing melodrama, of young romance. One of them performs a ballet phrase, then stops to react or gesture. The varying expressiveness of the vocabulary is bound into the narrative.

The Impulse Wants Company (2013, performed at the Joyce last year) led off the bill, another dance using poetry by Cynthia Zarin as a source of inspiration. The seven dancers cross the stage, often facing into the wings, pushing the airs as if doing the breaststroke in water, playing off one another. Ludwig-Leone's violin line skitters, a piano thrills through arpeggios. Kretzschmar, now solo, shows us her expansiveness that brings to mind Wendy Whelan's modernity. Stanley, always exciting to watch, steals on, lunges deeply, and leaps, striking like a cobra. The dancers bounce in quick jumps to the tumultuous music.The vocabulary of ballet ties it all together, but we only rarely miss its full, connected phrases. This collective is coaxing it toward a new direction of their own device. Schumacher recently debuted as a choreographer at New York City Ballet; no doubt this boosted his own company's endeavors, and rightly so. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chris Ofili at the New Museum—Embracing the Dark

Chris Ofili: Night and Day. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York / London. Photo: Maris Hutchinson. All works © Chris Ofili 
Go see Chris Ofili: Night and Day at the New Museum as soon as you can, because it will give you ample time to revisit the stunning show before it closes on January 25. You are probably familiar with his "elephant dung" series largely from the late '90s—full of delight, trippy patterns, and cartoon-like figures. One of them—The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)—was made a martyr-icon by Mayor Giuliani in one of the great culture war episodes of recent years (the events are retold in the companion catalogue). A strong selection of this period occupies the second floor of the exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton. The candy-colored series bursts with life, flesh, and adolescent star doodles; dung balls serve as pedestal feet and sculptural nodes. The Afro series, from the early 2000s, are painted in red, green, and black, and are suffused with mysterious romance and vitality.
Chris Ofili, Ovid-Desire, 2011–12.
 Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/
London, and Victoria Miro, London. 
© Chris Ofili

On the fourth floor is an intoxicating installation 
of wildly colorful canvases hung on a lavender floral  background. Many of these paintings (primarily in classic rectangular proportions of approximately 120" x 80") are from the Ovid series, painted around 2010 while he was working on a two-year commission from London's National Gallery in response to Titian's Metamorphosis series, inspired by the Ovid poem. Many titles are hyphenates—Ovid-Destiny, -Desire, -Actaeon. Even without the references, these paintings, of effusive yellows, violets, and greens deserve to be carefully looked at. 

Several evoke the interior compositions of Matisse, with tension strung between foreground and background. The verticality of the canvases is underscored by depicting one or two figures, a geological cleave, or splitting the rectangle with the floor taking half, and the wall the rest, as in Ovid-Desire (2011—12). Ofili applies layer upon layer, so that even fields that seem solid can, upon further examination, reveal subtleties of shadowy patterns. He frequently adds elements of relief, be they blobs or dung balls or simply bulked up sheafs of paint.
Untitled (Afromuse), 1995—2005. Courtesy the
artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. © Chris Ofili 

As you enter the main third floor gallery, you encounter what seems to be a group of black paintings. After you've allowed your eyes to adjust, you notice subtle variations in what are really inky blues. Some appear reddish, some violet, some have a sheen. Shapes emerge—figures, animals, foliage. It evokes being outside in the dark, with no artificial lights on. Everything takes on a sinister feel, especially when a lynched man becomes clear. Ofili has a home in Trinidad, and he noted in a fascinating New Yorker profile: “I had found that if you put silver underneath blue, the blue sits back, like night, or glows like moonlight.” He uses ultramarine, Prussian, and cobalt blues that read like feelings as much as hues. The dark, foreboding gallery becomes, in the passage of a short amount of time, a place you want to linger in to absorb the depth and intricacies of the work.

Several sculptures are on view, as well as suites of drawings—the Afro Margin series of abstract, black and white drawings, and Afro Muses, an engaging group of cameo watercolor portraits with washy gem tone clothes. The exhibition fills the New Museum to bursting, perhaps the best use of its new building since it opened. And Ofili's oeuvre connects the present with the history of art, infusing it with a life we had perhaps forgotten.    

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall for Dance—Maturing, But Still Sweet

Vuyani Dance Theatre's Keaoleboga Seodigeng and Gladwell Rakoma. Photo: John Hogg
Fall for Dance has continued to evolve over the years. Less prominent are the super young crowds, the spontaneous whoops and hollers, and the programming that targeted these. The fare has become moderately more ambitious, less blatantly accessible, and the programs edited to run two hours or less (in early seasons, they were jam packed and exhausting in length). While the zazz and hysteria are gone, the festival is still a terrific sampling of dance from all over, at a reasonable ticket price. I caught three programs.

Black Grace, a troupe from New Zealand, performed two works choreographed by Neil Ieremia, displaying strength, precise timing, vocalization, and body percussion. The men, bare chested and muscular in Minoi (1999), embodied the fearsomeness that would surely rank them as dominant among humans. The women, wearing flowing slip dresses, moved more fluidly in the New York premiere of Pati Pati (2009); all joined in the ending. 

San Francisco Ballet's Variations for Two Couples (2012), by Hans van Manen, included Sofiane Sylve, in a welcome return to New York (in her prior time with NYCB, she exuded the glamour and fervor comparable to current company diva Sara Mearns), with Luke Ingham, Vanessa Zahorian, and Carlos Quenedit. The dance appealed in its simplicity and calm pacing to a varied and atmospheric medley of music by Britten, Piazzolla, and others. A simple straightening of a curved port de bras spoke volumes.

Two stars—Fang-Yi Sheu, lately pursuing independent projects, and Yuan Yuan Tan (a principal with San Francisco Ballet) performed Russell Maliphant's Two x Two (2009). A bit of an oddity well-suited to mature dancers looking for divergent dance vehicles, it was all about Michael Hulls' lighting—two distant boxes, with increasingly bright borders which illuminated slashing feet and hands. The women moved their arms and torsos fluently, writhed, and extended their legs on occasion, but with such eloquent dancers, it was a disappointment not to see more of their artistry.

It was kind of a big deal that Mark Morris' Words (to Mendelssohn performed live) premiered
Mark Morris Dance Group, Words. Photo: Ani Collier
at Fall for Dance, which primarily showcases tried and true works. It was the eve of the company's diverging tours to Europe and Asia. Morris explores the simplest of human moves in this work, punctuated by a silk drop carried cross stage to hide dancers' comings and goings. They wear multi-hued, unisex surplice tank tops and bermuda shorts (designed by Maile Okamura, a company member sadly absent from the stage for this performance), flattering to no one but satisfyingly functional. 

Morris' movement of course emphasizes the rhythms within the score, sometimes obviously, at other times playfully. Two men gesture conversationally; a pair of dancers take turns curving themselves in attitudes with arched backs around the other. Skipping and spinning looked novel and fun, as if we all might be able to hop onstage and join in, although Morris' dancers are experts at making it look easy. The dancers trudged and leaned on one another, exhausted children, or wound and rapidly unwound their legs, fluttering their hands. They swung invisible baseball bats, and formed lines and then rings of three, tossing their heads gleefully from side to side. Words will be performed by eight dancers on tour; 16 danced here, providing 16 interpretations of innocent pleasures.  

The third  program was all over the place, mixing genres, but feeling jagged and heavy in the process, in part due to the works chosen. South Africa's Vuyani Dance Theatre opened with Umnikelo (2011), choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya. This admirable troupe spares no effort toward gender equality, which is so far from classical dance's norm. The same shiny white tunics and pants are worn by all members, who have shaved or closely-cropped heads. When the company is not moving in unison, women partner men, lifting and suspending them in the air. The lead drummer is female, extremely unusual. The movement is an amalgam of modern, African, and martial arts, and one or more of the dancers at a given moment join in the vocalizing. While overly long for this program, the group was met with raucous applause in its choreographed ovation.

Sarasota Ballet's Nicole Padilla & Kate Honea in Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo Gene Schiavone
If there could be a more jarring juxtaposition than shifting to Sara Mearns & Co. in Stairway to Paradise, I can't think of it. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (agh, Smash, you were too something for this world) this MGM number, with its nine Fosse-esque men giving us their best forced smiles and biggest jumps, features the uber ballerina—well, mainly her nonpareil gams, well-displayed in her tiny black costume with fringe and rhinestones, and capped by sparkly character shoes—stepping on the mens' hands, or being vaulted precariously in the air to be caught in various louche positions. Apart from looking fabulous, Mearns did appear self-consciously showy, which is not typical for her—or at least in this "please love me" manner. 

Trisha Brown's Son of Gone Fishin' was a tough piece to include in FFD; even for Brown fans, it's among her grittier works. Performed by her company, in a state of transition and uncertainty in the wake of her absence, it felt all the more urgent to appreciate its fleeting moments. But this piece in particular takes a certain state of mind, with its structure: A-B-C-center-C-B-A, and its fractured and at times irritating sound track. It left me impatient while trying to soak it in fully. It was another display of gender neutrality, which Brown has always put forth.
Peony Pavilion, by the National Ballet of China, with choreography by Fei Bo was an oddity. This version was adapted for the City Center stage, and focused on the lavish costumes—embroidered silk robes in jewel tones, or modernized interpretations—sheer silk with silver embellishments, and clean black and white costumes. I suppose it was gratifying to get a taste of the company, which hasn't been in New York in years. A glimpse is better than nothing, but it did seem a minor waste to see just 20 minutes of this work.

National Ballet of China_Zhu Yan and Zhang Jian_Photo by Liu Yang and Si Tinghong

The final program of FFD was another ambitious mix. Wayne McGregor|Random Dance's Far started it off with real drama—four women held flaming torches to light a couple's first several minutes of dance, exiting one by one as the stage lights warmed. To a soprano aria, it felt intoxicatingly romantic. The work extended into several more sections of groups and pairs, lit inventively in a matrix of light squares, or a wash of silvery light. McGregor pushes and tweaks the classical language expressionistically, pushing arches and developpés ever deeper, sending waves through torsos. The music (by Ben Frost) grows snarling and harsh, with wild animals tearing through now and again. I can't decide if it's a utopian or dystopian vision of future ballet.

Pontus Lidberg was commissioned by FFD to create This Was Written on Water, a duet for two of ABT's newer principals, Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, to music by Stefan Levin for a live string trio, and will become a part of Lidberg's upcoming film. Dance is but one creative element for Lidberg, who designed the falling-leaves decor. Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme, who just performed with Lar Lubovitch last week, created the costumes, which included an elegant jade dress that fits Boylston like a glove. The movement was fluid and pretty, particularly on these two clean-lined dancers, but apart from a flexed foot or half cartwheel, felt fairly unremarkable, and more generic than Lidberg's ground-hugging passages seen in Within.

Aakash Odedra supplied the requisite indigenous dance on the bill. A variation on Kathak, Nritta was distinguished by rapid spins, loud stomps, rising on his bare toe tips, and space-eating stage crossings. But the main attraction, and festival closer, was the Sarasota Ballet in Les Patineurs (1937) by Frederick Ashton to music by Giacomo Meyerbeer. It's been awhile since this ballet has been seen in New York. The clever adaptation of skating moves—chassées, spins, backward chugs, even humorous falls—to ballet remains irresistible and innovative. The sets and costumes, by William Chappell, add confectionary appeal, and the young, fresh-faced dancers performed sparklingly. It was a delectable and memorable close to yet another Fall for Dance.