Friday, January 31, 2014

Ferran Adrià—Revolutionary Alchemist

Ferran Adrià Plating Diagram, ca. 2000-2004. Colored pen on graph paper
Courtesy of elBullifoundation
There's some unavoidable deflation upon entering the Drawing Center's Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity exhibition, because after all, reading about food can't compare with eating it, even if you're talking about some of the most conceptual edibles ever made. But once you get past that, there's much to glean from this show of notes and sketches about the revolutionary Spanish chef's theories and inventions that helped him to create nearly 1900 new dishes. Not only does it draw attention to the food itself, but the craft of plating—combinations of flavors, as well as sculptural and graphic composition.

The works on view, through February 28, range widely: plating diagrams (above), genomic theory diagrams about the history of cuisine, a vitrine of colorful plasticine sculptures showing the shapes of food presentation, tools adapted for elBulli's "molecular gastronomy." Large photographic murals of the kitchen and interior of the now-closed elBulli create an interior room which houses several panels of drawings (the lowest of which are difficult to see unless you're a mouse). If some of the theory seems a bit pretentious, consider what it must have taken to craft "quinoa helada de foie-gras de pato con consomé." And there is little fussiness about many of the drawings, done in a naive style with colored pens, or written in what could've been haste or fervor. 

Ferran Adrià, courtesy elBullifoundation
Supporting the main exhibition, in the downstairs lab, the film 1846 screens, which shows every dish created at elBulli, as well as a film about Adrià's participation in Documenta. There are references to Bullipedia, a nebulous database of practice and theory currently in process. And on the lighter side, in the stairwell hangs a portrait of the chef by Simpson's creator Matt Groening. And if you didn't catch the film documentation of the food, a set of volumes with glamour shots of the restaurant's meals sits in the lobby. After that, you'll surely be primed to wolf down a liquid olive or vegetable foam.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Little Prince—New York Roots

Drawing for The Little Prince. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York
© Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Photo: Graham S. Haber
The Little Prince: A New York Story, at the Morgan Library through April 27, emphasizes the book's New York's roots. Antoine de St. Exupéry (1900—1944), who had left occupied France, lived in an apartment in New York where he drafted much of the book. He made mention of the city and of Long Island, which he summered as well, but those references were cut before the final version.

I recall the book as one of my favorites growing up. And despite a somewhat indistinct memory of the precise plot, the thought of the tri-state area's inclusion would certainly have diluted the exotic Frenchness, and other-worldliness, of it. There is a delicacy and preciousness that has nothing to do with the grit and humility of being in New York.

 Drawing for The Little Prince
 The Morgan Library & Museum, New York
© Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Photo: Graham S. Haber, 2013
The book's theme of utter isolation is the one that resonates strongly in my childhood's eye. The prince standing all alone on his tiny planet, and his run-ins with others on their desolate orbs, more or less encapsulate the solitude of growing up. Childhood can be pretty lonely; in effect, you're on your own little planet until you learn how to play with all the other little (or big) aliens on their planets.

The concept drawings show the yellow-scarfed prince as angrier—eyebrows aslant, face more concerned—than the book, where he appears more placid and happy. This element of tension somehow permeated the settings, even if it was erased from the boy's personage. 

Sadly, St. Exupéry was deployed as The Little Prince was being printed. In 1944, he died on a recon mission in North Africa, shortly before the liberation of Paris. He would not see it printed in his native tongue. 

I like to think he observed the success of his book from the peace of his own little planet.

Friday, January 24, 2014

In the Presence of Two Monuments—Hilliard Ensemble in the Temple of Dendur

The Hilliard Ensemble: Gordon Jones, Steven Harrold, Rogers Covey-Crump, and David James
Forty years is a long duration for any musical group. The Hilliard Ensemble has decided to celebrate that milestone by retiring. One civilization that could dwarf this achievement? Ancient Egypt, represented in New York by the Met's Temple of Dendur, where the ensemble bade farewell to Gotham in a Met Museum Presents concert on January 22, radio-simulcast on Q2. 

Not that the concert was a sure thing. The latest polar-vortexed, foot-dumping snowstorm forced the quartet to jump on a last-ditch flight from North Carolina to Philly, and Amtrak it from there, barely making it to NYC. Then, after John Schaefer introduced the group at the Met Museum, and they took their spots to sing, there was no light on their music. After a few minutes and some ad-libbing (including their woeful tale of travel), lights lit, and they began to sing.

The program blended ancient and contemporary songs, creating a chronological diversity for which the ensemble is known. It began with selections from 13th-century France; the phrasing and seven-syllable rhythms felt as much verse as song. Ah, Gentle Jesu! (Sheryngham, ca. 1500) is structured as a conversation between penitent (two upper voices) and a crucified Christ (two lower voices), a responsorial dialogue that evoked a profoundly human feeling.  

By now, many works have been commissioned and written for the quartet. Aus dem Psalm 69 (2007, Katia Tchemberdji) is interwoven with eerie, darkly shaded chords of closely spaced notes. Alexander Raskatov also wrote Praise for the group in 1998. This work in five parts features imagery ranging from lapping, accreting notes; rippling, echoing sounds; and staccato declamations. 

Selections from Armenia included Sharakans by Komitas, with folk music details, and Lord, who made the Spring Run (Vache Sharafyan), with dirge-like lower vocals supporting a dancing upper vocal line. Arvo Pärt has written works for the ensemble, but here, they sang his Most Holy Mother of God, with its exposed solo phrases underscoring the solitude of man, with haunting, distant pleas of "save us."

The program showed the quartet's sensitivity and internal tuning. The repertory emphasizes group balance and harmonics, and a reining in of individualism. On occasion, David James' lovely countertenor takes wing and soars above the ensemble, but always returns to blend in. Tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold (the "novice" who has been with the group just 15 years)* , plus baritone Gordon Jones, fill out the ensemble, which has also just released Il Cor Tristo (ECM), featuring compositions by Roger Marsh with lyrics from Dante's Inferno.

Hilliard's absence will leave a vacuum. They demonstrated their intrepidness in Heiner Goebbel's fully-staged I went to the house but did not enter (2012 White Light Festival), and their depth in a specialty genre of four-voice compositions at the Temple of Dendur. Two monuments in one vast space.

*Corrected Jan 27

Monday, January 20, 2014

BalletNext—Chamber Ballet Takes a Leap

Katilyn Gilliland and Michele Wiles in Surmisable Units. Photo: Stephanie Berger
There's been a boomlet of chamber ballet companies in the city in recent seasons, particularly those led by members or alumni of the two biggies, ABT and NYCB. No doubt membership in these companies is the dream of any ballet dancer, but once gained, a number of factors might lead to artistic frustration—the lack of lead roles, stalling in rank, falling out of favor, injury, stagnant repertory assignments, and age, among numerous other things. But many dancers who depart the two big companies may still be in the prime of their physical gifts. And so we see new projects being undertaken, such as BalletNext, led by Artistic Director Michele Wiles.

One of the pleasures of this proliferation is to be able to see impeccable dancers such as Wiles, once a principal with ABT, in a more intimate setting. Not every skilled dancer has the ability to project to the rafters, and Wiles, despite her immaculate balance and line, is among the subtler of dramatists. But in a theater the size of New York Live Arts, she connected with the audience in a way she hadn't seemed to in larger theaters. The same can be said of ex-NYCB principal Stephen Hanna, who danced one work on the program; always a solid partner, his pleasing, if unshowy, demeanor could be somewhat lost in the Koch Theater. Additionally, Wiles has rounded out her company with excellent dancers, most notably Kaitlyn Gilliland, another NYCB alum; it's a gift to see this luminous dancer's endless lines and captivating, mysterious gaze in such a context.

The highlight of the all-Brian Reeder choreographed program at NYLA was Surmisable Units, a somewhat technogeek title for an intriguing dance. The anchor was the parlor trick performance by Ben Laude of Steve Reich's Piano Phase (alternating performances, incredibly, with Juan Carlos Fernandez-Nieto—it's difficult to believe that more than one person could pull this off), a work for two pianos. Laude sat between two pianos at right angles, somehow playing both at once. Solos by a revolving cast on stage right, and behind the pianos, repeated slicing arms and upper body movements, as pairs or individuals performed larger-scale passages at stage left. One or two dancers would slide under the pianos (something we saw recently by Justin Peck as well), and continue their arm gestures while lying down. Gilliland and Wiles paired up, partnering one another and holding hands while walking the perimeter. Capezio is credited for the long-sleeved, colored tops and short skirts, somewhat evoking figure skating outfits.

Jens Weber and Michele Wiles in Different Homes. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Different Homes, a NY premiere to Britten's Cello Suite no. 1 (played by Elad Kabilio), featured Wiles with Jens Weber. There's a modernist sensibility to this dance which suits the cool Wiles; she does not cater to the audience to gain its affection. Here, the presentational style is straightforward, showing us form and shape, at times rendered with attack. The pair sways during the breaks in musical movements, maintaining momentum in this engaging duet. Reeder doesn't try to turn ballet on its head, instead tweaking it with the occasional flexed foot coupé, right-angled arms, or by sending rippling energy up the body and arms from relevé-ing feet. 

The company also reprised Picnic (2012), with the fleeting suggestion of a narrative. This Tudoresque mood piece with shifting group dynamics showcased the talented dancers, including Tiffany Mangulabnan (who tossed off some perfect-split grand jetés), Brittany Cioce, and Sarah Atkins. It also demonstrated the dramatic and stylistic range of which BalletNext, and Brian Reeder, are capable. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bronx Gothic—Innocence Lost

Okwui Okpakwasili. Photo: Ian Douglas
If you mention the name Okwui Okpokwasili to NYC dance world familiars, one of the first reactions is invariably, "she's so beautiful." It's not just her lithe, muscular physique; she radiates great dignity, self-possession, and grace. These traits no doubt factored into her being cast as Queen Hippolyta in Julie Taymor's recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Theater for a New Audience, and in her leather cloak, long gown, and platform shoes she certainly embodied royalty. Thus it's all the more shocking to see her stripped to her physical and emotional essence in her solo show, Bronx Gothic, presented at Danspace Project by the Coil Festival through February 1.

In this intense, intensely personal physical theater piece, as we enter, she stands in the corner of a cordoned off square within the sanctuary, where the audience lines two sides; her body judders and shakes as if jolted by an electric shock. How she sustains this trance for even a few minutes is astonishing, but this continues for another quarter hour. She then calmly begins to revisit her Bronx-based adolescence, reading notes exchanged with her experienced best friend at the time. Despite her maroon jersey halter dress being soaked with sweat, she barely breathes hard as she speaks into a mic. She switches octaves for the two girls' voices, between naive and knowing; her vocal and breathing control should be the envy of any opera singer. 

Between her many note-reading sessions, she repeats an alarming movement sequence in which she collapses to the floor joint by joint, each bone thudding as it hits, as well as her skull. She sings several songs in a lovely voice, lifting the mood of this dense reverie. The tone is also lightened by the kitschy figurine lamps and plant clusters scattered around what feels as much like a boxing ring as a stage. Much of what she recounts from the notes are differing levels of maturity from two 11-year-old girls: one all too experienced with boys and sex; the other innocent. Toward the end of the 80-minute work, Okpokwasili eerily takes on a wise Bronx adolescent's tone and aggression. She tears down the nature of the two girls' toxic relationship, recalling being repeatedly tagged ugly. It clearly scarred her, and she repeats it so much that we, as she must have, begin to believe it. A litany of questions and commands prompting us to determine if we're waking or dreaming further erases the line between real and imagined. The dream shades into nightmare again and again.

This confessional often approaches how the naive girl must have felt—held between thrall and terror at her friend's braggadoccio and admonishments—but witnessing the gamut of expression used by Okpokwasili is to marvel at her multifaceted talent.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Llewyn & Ulysses—Two Nomadic Cats

Ulysses and Llewyn
The Coen Brothers achieved a most elusive task in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. It wasn't capturing the quaint/ominous vibe of the Village in the 60s. Nor defining the genre of pop folk music in its struggle to find an identity. Indeed, it was employing a cat (or several) in a leading role. 

Ulysses is the apt name of the elusive ginger tabby who, in many ways, becomes a metaphor for Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) himself. Both are always moving, whether by curious nature (who hasn't had a cat make a break for it) or by circumstance (no apartment). Llewyn doesn't seem to have a particular affinity for Ulysses, but more than once he wakes up to find the cat lying on his chest, purring loudly. 

The two are thrown together in less glowing circumstances when both are shut out of their temporary/permanent apartment, and Llewyn is forced (or takes it upon himself) to carry the kitty around the city, partners in exile. They take the subway—if there are two more incompatible things than a packed subway car and a loose cat, I don't know what they are—creating some of the more indelible scenes in a gorgeously shot film. We see Ulysses' reflection in the subway window as the train hurtles down the tracks. The cat escapes the man's clutches, but is caught and taken safely to the next stop on Llewyn's nomadic journey.


That would be his ex-paramour Jean's (Carey Mulligan) apartment. Of course, trouble is always around the corner, and the cat once more escapes, this time through a window that Llewyn cracks open to smoke. (And anyone who has ever had a cat would have a sixth sense about such potential pitfalls, which adds another layer of angst. I'm yelling internally, "shut the window! the cat!...") 

So Llewyn is constantly on the lam looking for a break, while Ulysses is on the prowl for something not dissimilar—a mouse, a bird, more attention, and the like. I guess you could call it career advancement for cats. And when either gets a break, or receives an act of kindness, they spurn it or it turns into another reason to move along yet again. Llewyn, like a cat, takes for granted acts of generosity and can't help but hew to his own self-described standards of behavior and of standards for his art.

Later in the film, as Llewyn is driving back from Chicago during a snowfall, a tabby cat runs in front of his car, and he hits it. He stops to look for it, and while he didn't flatten the cat, he sees it limping away into the woods. Chastened, unlucky, alone in the cold, cruel world, Llewyn is like the battered kitty. He sulks back to his friends—owners of Ulysses—who welcome back their "folk singer friend" even after taking abuse from Llewyn, who wouldn't play a song on demand for other friends of theirs. (In addition to letting Ulysses out, he found and returned a different cat, adding salt to the wound.) 

Alas, Ulysses found his way back to them as well. So both escapees return, one humbled, both hungry. If there's any hope to hold out for Llewyn, it's that, like a cat, he will endear himself despite spurning help and affection. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

What's It All About—Bacharach Reimagined

Kyle Riabko. Photo: Joan Marcus
The subtitle of What's It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined says it all. Some of Bacharach's songs are such staples of pop culture that I can sing nearly every word from muscle memory. But growing up, the albums I owned were by Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Carole King. Bacharach was so ubiquitous on AM radio, you didn't need to buy his records. But hearing them now nearly always elicits an unwavering fondness and appreciation.

Kyle Riabko has rearranged nearly 30+ songs (most with lyrics by the remarkable lyricist Hal David) and strung them like newly-polished gems into a sleek, 90-minute show, at New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Steven Hoggett. Many arrangements, whittled down to acoustic guitar and voice, reveal the darting melodies and smart lyrics. (Video here.) Simply hearing new voices sing the familiar words fosters a new awareness of their appeal.

The imaginative set by Christine Jones (who designed the ingenious set for American Idiot, among others) serves as a sturdy metaphor for the project. The theater's walls and upstage wall are covered with old rugs; battered old sofas lie stage right and left, and hang from the upstage wall, bookending an avalanche of guitars and a cello (many of which are used throughout the show). Lamps with old-fashioned shades are scattered about the stage, or hang on the walls. It looks like a barn full of estate cast-offs. What might seem like old favorites—the most comfortable old couch, that fallback tune that always make you hum along—are revivified and given new purpose. Gradually, the props and detritus become illuminated from behind; the musty lampshades removed to reveal twinkling light bulbs, like a beautiful sky with northern lights and fireflies. The songs, meanwhile, shed years—and the baggage of Dionne or Herb or Aretha—to emerge anew. 

Front row: Nathaly Lopez, Laura Dreyfuss, Kyle Riabko. Back row: James Williams, James Nathan Hopkins, Daniel Woods, Daniel Bailen. 
Photo: Joan Marcus
Riabko, guitar at the ready, makes for a perfect troubadour. He leads off with a gorgeous rendition of "Anyone Who Had a Heart," its rhythms strongly demarcated, and the rest of the troupe joins in on various instruments. All sing capably, but the velvet-voiced Nathaly Lopez stands out with touching renditions of "Say a Little Prayer" and "Don't Make Me Over," and Laura Dreyfuss for "Walk on By" (marking the first use of two effective stage turntables) that segues into "A House is Not a Home," sung with simmering emotion by Riabko. In these thoughtful interpretations, we better grasp the bittersweetness in the lyrics, overshadowed in their Top 40 versions.

"Alfie" spawned the title and bits of it pop up throughout the show, primarily as an inquisitive rejoinder layered over another lyric. It serves as the tenuous narrative through-line navigating love, loss, and hope. A couple of tunes kick out the jambs—a surprisingly rockin' "Message to Michael," and the encore number, "What's New Pussycat?" (although you gotta watch Tom Jones in the original). Hoggett, in addition to sure handedly directing, provided the no-nonsense choreography, including strategic head tosses and foot stamping. The show is a celebration of a chapter in American pop culture that has for too long been shelved as kitsch or neutralized as mainstream. The reassessment is underway. (Extended through February 2.)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Gotham Dance—Elkins and Shick

doug elkins choreography etc. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Gotham Dance's first program offered polar opposite views of contemporary dance in New York in two revivals. 

Doug Elkins' Scott, Queen of Marys (1994) is all precision moves and poses, with a kaleidoscope of influences from the highland fling, voguing, hip-hop, ballet, and ballroom. The eight dancers wear smart, form-fitting athletic gear (by Naoko Nagata) reminiscent of Star Trek (why don't others use of this type of gear more often?). Javier Ninja is the mysterious, fleeting central figure of the dance who makes a grand entrance by executing an elaborate Medusa's head of snaking hands and arms. The runway stomp binds this stylistic collage, which is delivered in a highly presentational, semi-confrontational attitude by the dancers to goad, or dare, you into liking it, which of course you do. And while Elkins' highly varied choreography may seem improvisational at moments, his bouncy phrases (to a score by Mio Morales) fit together like a precision machine.

Vicky Shick and Dancers
Vicky Shick's Everything You See (2013) was originally done at Danspace Project, where a scrim separated the stage—and the audience—into halves. At the Joyce, the scrim simply bisected the proscenium stage longitudinally, so half of the action was veiled. The cast of 10 moved in a casual manner, posing, making gestures with crooked fingers, occasionally leaned on one another, hoisted a table across the stage, climbed atop it or leaned on it. Every so often they ran laps around the scrim, rare moments of unison. Like the choreography, the costumes (by Barbara Kilpatrick) are composed of quirky combinations. In one poignant scene, Shick paired off with Wendy Perron (both danced with Trisha Brown), playfully knocking limbs and nuzzling on the floor. Together they possess a great deal of modern dance history, and they shared the stage with many younger, yet established, artists, such as Heather Olson and Jon Kinzel. 

In the end, Everything felt like a word search in which I sought moments of logic, in contrast to Elkins' crisply engineered crossword puzzle.