Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Humanity in the Machine

Michael Trusnovec in Banquet of Vultures. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
Marathon Cadenzas, the second season premiere for Paul Taylor Dance Company, evokes the carnival glossed nefariousness of Taylor's Big Bertha (1970) and Oh, You Kid! (1999). Those dances also come to mind when seeing Santo Loquasto's gorgeous atmospheric light string and pennant set, recalling those sultry summer nights in smalltown America where the unexpected is to be expected. The costumes define the characters by type—sailors, middle aged, vamps (which seems to be the only shading for women other than average); wigs and hairstyles play a larger than usual role.

The dance, to Raymond Scott's antic music, depicts old fashioned dance marathons. Sean Mahoney plays the white suited ringmaster inured to the dancers' suffering. He could be interchangeable with a tent preacher, snake oil salesman, or for that matter, choreographer. (Taylor's To Make Crops Grow, which preceded Marathon Cadenzas on Thursday's program, featured a similar figure in the form of Rob Kleinendorst.) Round and round the  dancers go, until they drop from exhaustion. Pullout duets and solos punctuate the monotony; Michelle Fleet, in a sleek jumpsuit, jitterbugs frantically. Sailors James Samson and Francisco Graziano toss off heel kicks and other gee-williker moves. Laura Halzack swivels her hips and bevels her feet, and gets pawed by the emcee. Finally, a depleted Michael Trusnovec wins the contest in a woozy, comic number, in which every move is rubbery, and possibly fatal. As Mahoney forced the weary dancers to keep going, I could only think of the company working tirelessly in the studio to prepare two premieres and 20 other dances for our viewing pleasure.

This season's premieres seem to have found Taylor in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on his role as an artist within the tight context of his de facto family. Seeing Mercuric Tidings (1982) and Arden Court (1981) on consecutive programs drew attention to a particularly fertile spell for abstract dances chock full of movement invention and extreme physicality. Mercuric Tidings contains devilishly quick, filigreed footwork sustained for long periods, and explosive movements that regularly punctuate the proceedings like mini fireworks. Like so many of his dances, it also has several breathtakingly lovely tableaux that crystallize out of nowhere. Arden Court is back in the rep after a deserved rest; it was last performed in New York by the Ailey Company. When it was last in PTDC's rotation and performed frequently, it was easy to take for granted the imaginative time shifts and the seemingly simple lift in which the woman locks her legs around the man's waist while pulling her torso apart from his to form a human tree. Seen anew, these small inventions are far better appreciated.

George Smallwood, Francisco Graziano, Rob Kleinendorst, and Sean Mahoney in To Make Crops Grow. Photo: Jamei Young
Two dark revivals featuring Trusnovec are reminders of how dark and sardonic Taylor can be. Banquet of Vultures (2005) is barely lit (by Jennifer Tipton) and Trusnovec, in his dark suit and red tie—the uniform of ruthless power—appears out of nowhere, ghoul-like, hell bent on utter domination of the soldier minions. His on-point timing and precise positions, the tautness with which he draws his upstretched arm like an arrow, and when he crosses his arms on his chest, tilts his head back, and channels some divine power all work to terrifying effect. The stygian setting is augmented by Morton Gould's glowering score. 

I'd forgotten how funny parts of Dante Variations can be. This study of frustrations is one of Taylor's dances that parcels out solos or duets showcasing the dancers' characteristics. The piece begins with the dancers forming a pyramid shaped tableau of still, torqued bodies; as the wheedling Ligeti organ music starts, they pulse with it, inert beings come to life from the underworld. Trusnovec whirls and darts in his quicksilver way, showing the curving arm shapes and off-kilter stances that comprise the vocabulary. Rob Kleinendorst is at his funniest, dimly aware of a length of toilet paper stuck to his foot. Laura Halzack's knees are inexplicably tied together, as are Aileen Roehl's wrists. Trusnovec and Eran Bugge face off in an angry duet, formidable foes warily circling the ring like scorpions preparing to strike. The dancers return to their sculptural tableau, hell refrozen over.

Every dance company's members develop as individual, and Taylor's moreso than many, given the huge scope of his oeuvre. On Sunday, a version of From Sea to Shining Sea (1965) acknowledged this by inviting alumni onstage for a sloppy group hug of a performance. A handful of current dancers were joined by dozens of recent and vintage departures, including Carolyn Adams, AnnMaria Mazzini, Heather Berest, Orion Duckstein, Hernando Cortez, Rachel Berman, David Parsons, Senta Driver, and current rehearsal director Bettie de Jong. Many were unrecognizable in the motley costumes which ranged from bathrobes, circus gymnasts, Super Mouse, Miss Liberty, land masses, pilgrims, etc. Lisa Viola in particular, with her surgical comic timing and blank facade, reminded us of her glaring absence. The pageant was more about sentiment and the institution than choreography and dance, which happened to bind everything together.

Fibers (1961) provided another look back at the company's roots. Two men (Kleinendorst and Michael Novak, a ringer for a young Taylor) and two women (Aileen Roehl, radiant and pliant, having a break-out season, and newish Christina Lynch Markham) become sculptures themselves with costumes of colored straps, pads, masks or face paint, and bas-relief piping, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, also the designer of the stunning, rainbow-hued tree-like set. Taylor danced with Martha Graham, whose influence might be found in the work's Kabukian drama, stillness, sculpted poses, and the use of spacious, at times tumultuous music by Schoenberg. On a program preceded by Sunset and followed by Troilus and Cressida (Reduced) and Mercuric Tidings, we saw the full range of the choreographer's visions of poetic romance, seminal modernism, slapstick comedy, and precision machine. Mercuric Tiding is so airtight, and its speed so unforgiving, that, like a Formula One engine, it might explode with one misfire. And yet watch closely, and you can see Trusnovec slide his hands along Halzack's arms in the gentlest of gestures before once again hoisting her overhead. There is humanity in that machine.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Martha Graham, Reduced

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Lorenzo Pagano in Echo
I'm all for brevity—there is no sweeter lyric than "one hour, no intermission"—but not necessarily when it comes to reducing full-length Martha Graham dances to 20 minutes. The one-act version of Clytemnestra (1958) led off the gala evening program at City Center on Wednesday, with Katherine Crockett in the lead role. Introductory projected synopses provided the dance's basic plotlines and I suppose getting a taste of the myth is better than none at all. But with so many shorter dances to choose from, does it make sense to cut one of Graham's best-known full-length works?

Crockett stands out as the glamazon in the company, and her recent stints in acting with SITI Company no doubt have enhanced her dramatic skills. The other solo roles are so reduced in this short version that they make little impact. The six Furies, by their number, reinforce the visceral impact of Graham's style. And, as always, Noguchi's spare, sculptural set pieces resonate with the svelte, flattering womens' costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee. 

Panorama (1935) is a large group work danced here by Graham 2 and the Hellenic Dance Company. It has political shadings—the potential power of the people to bring about revolution and order, and more specifically, art's ability to effect change—but also can be a technical showcase for students or an entire large company. Clad in all red, the 35 dancers rush across the stage in small groups and through various traffic patterns; they mass, form a circle, and move in a ring, stopping to stamp a metatarsal in a kind of call to arms. Five are left onstage, and each dancer, suddenly filled with calm, strikes a different sculptural pose. The metaphorical possibilities are rich, but it could also simply be a formal exercise.

Andonis Foniadakis' Echo made its premiere on Wednesday. Narcissus (Lloyd Mayor) dances with his reflection (Lorenzo Pagano); they're observed by Echo (PeiJu Chien-Pott), who remains boxed out of their ego-fest. Foniadakis' style is quite engaging at first—swirling, cursive movement phrases that recall tai-chi for their flowing energy and logical continuity. Anastasios Sofroniou designed the knife-pleat, long skirts (that's nearly a trend, what with Ballets de Monte-Carlo's similarly pleated sheaths last week; do I hear three?) that flare out and float down like rippling sea cucumbers*, further expressing the movements' impetus. But there is little shift in dynamic, and the phrases take on a sameness. Seven shadow-like dancers in dark blue (the women wear half dresses, for some reason; the men turtlenecks) emerge from the shadows like harrowing restless spirits. Chien-Pott gets to swing her long ponytail in a circle, in a show of frustration, and Mayor and Pagano make convincing mirror images. It ended a brief, somewhat harried hour-long performance before the gala began—an odd, un-Martha-like act of dance deferring to fundraising. Not that I'm complaining.

* Post-script: A reader kindly pointed out that sea cucumbers are slug-like creatures familiar to us through Chinese banquets, not the fringy, rippling things I am picturing. So let's say, like parachutes. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

American Dreamer—Reverie on Working in Dance

Michael Apuzzo and Michelle Fleet in American Dreamer. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
American Dreamer could be read as a nostalgic reverie about the daily life of a dance company. Santo Loquasto's set places it in a contemporary studio, with a parted curtain, barre, rolling clothes rack, upright piano, and assorted chairs; his costumes are pale leotards and rehearsal clothes, and hats for all. A selection of Stephen Foster songs sung on a recording by Thomas Hampson provides the soundtrack and some of the wispy plot lines. 

As in many of Taylor's works, there is a timeless sense of politesse and flirtation. The ensemble filters onstage; the dancers greet one another cordially before the rehearsal/performance begins. A man tries to get a woman's attention. Or, in Sean Mahoney's case, to the tune of "Beautiful Dreamer," he tries to catch the glazed eye of three sleepwalking women who are oblivious to his antics. Through segments to "Oh Susanna," "My Wife is a Most Knowin' Woman," and "Molly! Do You Love Me," the performers not dancing sit to the side, relaxing, drinking water, changing clothes, watching the onstage action nonchalantly but with quiet focus, just as they might in a rehearsal.

Many steps repeat; Taylor's soft chassée is the most common means of locomotion. Formations evoke folk dancing. The dancers move in a circle a number of times, sometimes splitting into pairs for some social dancing, or falling into lines for a square dance. The piece seems to focus on habits, on comforts—of familiar movement, of daily behavior, of the circumstances under which a dance is made. By simply donning a costume—symbolized by various straw hats—you can completely change your character. It's the beauty of art, the endless options available from which to pick and choose. It is not Taylor's most inventive or captivating work, but American Dreamer feels like an appreciative glimpse into the pleasures of a life path that isn't always poems and platitudes, but which does offer its share.

LAC—A Stylish, Rejiggered Swan Lake

Anja Behrend as the White Swan, Stephan Bourgond as the Prince. Photo by Angela Sterling
Cliché alert: absence does make the heart grow fonder. After seeing Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo perform Jean-Christophe Maillot's LAC at City Center, I realized what makes me so fond of my adopted version, by Petipa/Ivanov, currently in ABT's repertory. But first, about this new version, which, because of its foundation, begs to be discussed in relation to the classic version.

LAC takes place in modern times, with minimal sets; the women's costumes and the overall styling make the grandest statements. The music (written by Tchaikovsky—credited nowhere—with additional music by Bertrand Maillot) is rearranged. The story is taken apart and reassembled to incorporate Her Majesty of the Night (a female Von Rothbart) who may have borne a child with the king, with whom she can't stop flirting, understandably driving the continually suffering Queen mad; the daughter is a version of the Black Swan, who is  covertly swapped for the White Swan as the Prince's betrothed. White is cursed to be human at night, and a bird by day, indicated by feathered gloves that make her look like a team mascot. The Prince is spineless and confused by the sterotyped, annoying women vying for his hand, as well as his Confidant, who can't stop pranking him. Her Majesty is the most interesting character; she comes with two acolytes who carry her ashoulder, handle her cloak, and ripple her arms as needed.

The inventive, haute-couture womens' costumes (by Philippe Guillotel) push beyond the norm. Many are versions of a sleek, fitted bodice of lace with a long, accordion pleated skirt. The line is columnar, but the skirts flare out for dramatic turns and leg extensions. The white gowns worn for the final ball follow the same elegant conformation. The swans wear short shifts with tufts and feather-fingered gloves; legs are bare and they wear matte pointe shoes for an unbroken leg line. To indicate that the Black Swan is disguised as the White, the dress' tufts are ombréed gray. Her Majesty's costume is a blue-black corset tunic with sprouting feather fringe. The mens' costumes are fairly generic short jackets and knickers; the Prince's silver lamé getup is particularly unbecoming. (It was good to see Christian Tworzyanksi in the ensemble, a longtime member of New York City Ballet.)

Maillot's movement phrases connect swells, swoops, and other musical dynamics. It can be quotidien and widely sourced—bawdy hip-thrusting hops, energetic military drills, chest bumps, rough housing, or girlish prancing on pointe. The sections for the many swans carry the most power; they bend forward at the waist, and pound the floor with one toe box, standing upright abruptly to demonstrate birdlike alarm. Highly articulated feet, sometimes in forced arches, and tautly extended legs are company signatures. Instead of going for high romance, the big pas de deux becomes a snapshot of young adults playing like children who are best friends. Alvaro Prieto (King), Maude Sabourin (Majesty of the Night), Noelani Pantastico (Indifferent One), and Jeroen Verbruggen (Prince's Confidant) excelled in their roles, which were the juiciest and most physically expressive.

Mimoza Koike as the Queen and Alvaro Prieto as the King. Photo by Doug Gifford
The re-ordering and re-assignment of the music to different subplots can be mentally vexing. For me, the reason the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake works so wonderfully is that the musical themes pair well with the storyline, and the classical ballet vocabulary is perfectly suited to describing these narratives. (I realize some of this might be Pavlovian at this point.) Taking it apart and putting it back together out of order makes LAC feel like Frankensteinian. Even the solid musical and narrative bones of the original can only take so much bending and stretching. I'll give LAC plenty of points for style, though. Now if only old Tchaikovsky could receive some credit...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul Taylor Company—0 to 60 and Back Again

Cloven Kingdom, the perfect gala dance. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Paul Taylor opened its 60th season last Tuesday at the Koch Theater, but there's little time to celebrate this momentous milestone. Yesterday at a press conference, the company announced plans to restructure, and by this time next year we should be seeing Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance performing its first season. 

This reincarnation of the current Taylor company anticipates the choreographer's eventual (but not currently planned) retirement. Work by other modern choreographers will be performed alongside Taylor's impressive oeuvre; the alien works—commissions and existing rep—are sure to be acquired slowly, so the programming probably won't be radically different at first. The release says: "To best showcase masterworks, they will be danced by legacy companies or artists trained in the signature techniques of the choreographers show pieces are being presented." Taylor was reluctant to name companies (and to speak, in general; if he were not a man, he'd be a clam), although Martha Graham popped up, and Merce Cunningham in the context that it might not be possible to perform his work.

Another interesting tenet says that live music will be used "where intended by the choreographer," and/or when possible. This addresses the one consistent criticism of Taylor's six decades of seasons, including by the union—the use of recorded music, which is an understandable compromise, faced with survival. What this means in practical terms is, again, yet to be determined. But in an impoverished dance climate, it is heartening to think of opening up this one-artist institution as a repository for modern dance, while maintaining Taylor's oeuvre.

To help finance this transition, four Rauschenberg artworks in Taylor's personal collection will be auctioned off in May, to raise an estimated $10 million. A representative from Sotheby's was on hand to speak about the specifics. One piece is a mixed media "combine" from 1954; another, Tracer, from 1962, includes a bicycle wheel and was made for the Paris Opera Ballet. Two additional 2D works round out the sale. You can't help but think about the trend of cultural organizations considering the sale of artworks to prolong the life of the institution. But in this case, apparently the Rauschenbergs have been in storage, and might never be seen otherwise. And it stems from personal relationship wrought in the nascent modernist movement of mid-20th century New York—reaping what was sown.

Sunset. Photo: Paul B. Goode
As for the current season, the company looks sharp, with some relatively new faces. Cloven Kingdom (1976) remains one of the gems in the rep; it opened the run, and was included on the gala program last night in a shrewdly sardonic bit of scheduling. As the tux and gown clad gala-goers took their seats, the curtain raised to reveal a parallel universe of fancily dressed women with shiny accessories (albeit mirrored objects on their heads) and men in elegant white tie tuxes behaving alternately like pouncing beasts and society swells, moving to a potent mix of classical music and tribal rhythms. The fact that it was being performed in the David Koch Theater, with its namesake in attendance, only contributed to its pungency.

Sunset (1983) followed, a gentle, if bittersweet paean to a bygone time of chivalry and military service. Each element fits perfectly within the whole—Alex Katz's mint-fresh set, Elgar's lilting string music augmented by the sound of loons, and Taylor's reductive, lyrical mode of movement in which even difficult feats are made to look effortless. Its undercurrents of war casualties and muffled male romance emerge, but never weigh down the mood. Guest artists Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild danced a duet from Airs (1978). As you might expect, they added some speed and height to the more technical elements like jumps and hitting shapes, and rendered it with a far lighter—airier—touch than the grounded Taylor dancers. 

Piazzolla Caldera (1997) is an oddity in the repertory, with its stylized interpretation of the tango tied to Kronos Quartet's interpretations of Piazzolla's tunes. It dawned on me that in two programs, I hadn't yet seen one of Taylor's "pattern" pieces, often set to classical music, but that Piazzolla Caldera actually contains a fair amount of group traffic exercises and patterns that bind together a series of solos and duets. Michael Trusnovec slices and slips his way through his opening solo and duet with Michelle Fleet, making the tango feel truly dangerous, and in a section with Rob Kleinendorst, the contrast between a warm Eran Bugge and the cool Laura Halzack clicked nicely.

On Tuesday, the company performed Dust (1977). Made a year after Cloven Kingdom, but lacking its sociological and kinetic incisiveness, it features the visual punch of Gene Moore's set—a thick, twisting column, like Jack's beanstalk—and costumes, flesh-hued unitards with blobs of color. Black Tuesday felt like a retort to Cloven Kingdom, with its Depression setting and roster of characters either succumbing to poverty and loneliness, or finding the brighter side. The absence of Parisa Khobdeh (out with an injury) and her current role as the company comedienne and daredevil was felt strongly here. Christina Lynch Markham handled the "Big Bad Wolf" solo ably, while Heather McGinley continues to make her mark as a memorable presence (flame-colored hair doesn't hurt). The season continues through March 30.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, Taking the Classics Seriously

Cristian Laverde Koenig and Dawn Gierling in Leaves Are Fading pas. Photo: Eduardo Patino
What place is there in contemporary dance for classical ballet dating from the mid-19th century? Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's A Showcase of Classical Styles raised this question in its recent Symphony Space performances, which also included a duet from Anthony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading, which Tudor set on Kirkland in 1975. That piece's relevance is not in doubt, particularly as danced by the gifted Dawn Gierling with clarity, partnered ably by Cristian Laverde Koenig. Gierling possesses both great flexibility and preternatural composure that translates as a whiff of hauteur, an often handy tool for a ballerina.

The balance of the program included the light comedy Cavalry Halt (Petipa), with set elements and red boots for most, and excerpts from Raymonda (Petipa), Ballebille (Bournonville), Flames of Paris (Vainonen), and a Pas de Quatre (Dolin). Costumes are traditional, elaborate, and of varying fit and finish. This raises one of the main interpretive factors—the audience is so close, some people not more than a few feet from the stage—that details such as safety pins and frozen smiles are unavoidably detectable. The proximity indeed forces the dancers to be even more precise and technically sound, but it soberly reveals cracks where they exist.
Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Cavalry Halt. Photo: Luis Pons
In Raymonda Suite, Johnny Almeida as Jean found his center at the right moment, easing through five turns (and, adorably, fist pumping upon exiting the stage, visible thanks to non-existent wings), and complemented the elegant India Rose, in the title role. Bournonville's Ballebille, from the third act of Napoli, is a good indication of a classical aesthetic guidepost, and the dancers handled it well. Pas de Quatre, a perfumy high romantic work, was danced by four women in Giselle tutus with delicacy and great intent. But its seriousness and nearly Manneristic style of ballet evoked the Trockaderos, with their over-the-top earnestness. It's just a sign of the times, but it does raise questions of relevance, at least for this moment.

Cavalry Halt comprised the entire second act. This humorous work combines a romance (Gierling and the fresh-faced Anderson Souza), a platoon of soldiers led by the gangly, hilarious Alexander Mays, and a saucy beauty eager to catch the eye of any male within range (Katrina Crawford, radiant and dramatically accomplished). Gierling again impressed with her pliant spine and high extensions, although her placid face felt somewhat flat among the pointedly exaggerated expressions of the rest.

Kirkland certainly hasn't shied away from pursuing technically rigorous repertory for the company of 23. The dancers have been trained to a relatively high level of polish. (That said, the requisite, repeating mens' double tours en l'air did not impress; it remains a true test that is failed as often as not, even among the top companies. Reason enough to keep it in the canon.) The company performed a full Nutcracker last December, and has planned a Sleeping Beauty for May at the Schimmel Center. And when will contemporary ballet choreography make an appearance in the repertory? In any case, the ambition that drove Kirkland to her best performances is now serving her company and the classics, with promising results.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Q&A with Paul Taylor's Transcendant Eran Bugge

Eran Bugge getting a lift from Rob Kleinendorst in Esplanade. Photo: Paul B. Goode
On PTSE—Paul Taylor Season Eve—here's a conversation with Eran Bugge, a dancer of uncommon lyricism and velvety plushness now in her ninth year with the company. This season, her growing Taylor repertoire duets with Michael Trusnovec in Airs and Dante Variations, as well as key roles in Sunset and Esplanade, among many others. The company appears at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center through March 30.

Ephemeralist: What repertory are you most looking forward to dancing this season?

Eran Bugge: It really is so hard to choose! I think I am most excited about Sunset, Airs, and Dante Variations.

Ephemeralist: Sunset is my favorite Taylor dance. Can you talk about performing in it, and the atmosphere that it creates?

Eran: Sunset is such a gift to perform. The set and the lighting really help to create a world that you can lose yourself in. There is a sort of longing, a sadness that hangs over
even the lightest of moments for me. I know that by the end I will be standing among all those soldiers—are they ghosts already? Am I with them on the field? Am I there to carry their souls away? Am I waiting for them to come back home? So many moments in that dance are just perfection to me. The music couldn't be more beautiful, the steps and couldn't be more perfect, there is depth to the characters and a through line even though it isn't a narrative. I can't speak enough about it.

Dante Variations is more serpentine and sinuous, and a shift from the bright lyricism of some of the other dances in which you're featured. What's your role in this work, and do you have any mental imagery that helps you prepare for it?

Eran: I am dancing the role created for Lisa Viola. The character is definitely a dark conflicted creature, but she is fierce and strong as well. First I dance a solo as Michael Trusnovec creeps in the background, then we switch roles and then we have a pretty confrontational duet. I have really been having a blast exploring this dark side. It is an especially fun exercise since the other duet I dance with Michael this season is Airs—completely opposite! Pure dance and pretty lines vs. angst and contortion. I like to think that the woman I play has a bit of an upper hand on him so it is fun to play the aggressor.

Eran Bugge, 4th from right, in Mercuric Tidings. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Ephemeralist: And Piazzolla is such a stylistic contrast to all the other rep. What section are you dancing in, and who with?

Eran: I dance the first duet with Robert Kleinendorst and the trio with Robert and Laura Halzack, another Lisa Viola original role. There are similarities between my Piazzolla woman and my Dante woman, but I think in Piazzolla I am trying to be more angry, while also sexy. It's important to be sharp and crisp and clear in Piazzolla, but I am trying to delve deeper into the character and let the technical stuff take care of itself as a result.

: Are there any roles you haven't done yet that you'd like to?

Eran: So many! That is an impossible question— I dream of trying out so many roles in so many dances. I'd be thrilled with anything Paul would throw my way and trust that he knows what would suit me best or be the next great challenge to expand my range. I could stay dancing here forever just to get a chance to try them all.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Biennial's Uptown Salvo

Carol Jackson, Slip, 2013
As important as it is, the Whitney Biennial is but one barometer of the state of the art world today—and I'm talking about just this week in New York. Coincidentally, along with several other art fairs, the Armory Show takes place—a better snapshot of the commerce-driven art market, although presumably this Biennial's curatorial choices have been made without regard to the market, perhaps even in spite of it. And then there's the age-old method of doing a gallery walking tour and seeing what's hanging, particularly during this time period. The Biennial feels a bit like a gallery stroll, assembling eclectic visions and voices.

Suzanne McClelland, Steve and John: Ideal
, detail.
Three curators, not based in New York (at least when they were chosen), were given one floor each: Michelle Graber (whose work is, incidentally on view at the Armory Show), Anthony Elms, and Stuart Comer. This approach is useful in that their curatorial approaches are distinct and show some ideas that better served the artists, many of who are not familiar names. For example, Carol Jackson's sculptures were interspersed throughout the second floor, drawing more attention with each encounter. She makes oddly shaped sculptures and then paints sections of epic landscapes on the sides; another work featured an ornately tooled leather frame from which hangs a thick hank of suede fringe. I'm not sure I would've paid so much attention had her work been clustered together, but her distinctive voice kept popping up mixed with other artists' work.
David Wojnarowicz, Calendar

Painting is well represented, notably by Louise Fishman, Suzanne McClelland, Phil Hanson, Dan Walsh, Dona Nelson, and Amy Sillman. Some smaller galleries are devoted to one artist, notably painting installations by Tony Greene, Keith Mayerson, and Etel Adnan. John Mason's geometric totems evoke nostalgia for timeless modern sculpture; Terry Adkins' suspended hubcap/sound installation (Aviarium) contemporized it. And Lisa Anne Auerbach's giant Megazine (complete with a pair of page turners during designated hours) and knit outfits with political undertones reminded me of the outré satire of the 90s.

Several installations acknowledged the influence of other artists, some in memoriam, such as Julie Ault's Afterlife: A Constellation. David Wojnarowicz pops up in two. His work, influential during his brief life, is a reminder not only of the tragedy of AIDS, but of the urgency it forced upon artists to focus and produce when faced with a drastically shortened lifespan. Charlemagne Palestine's series of stuffed animal/sound pieces in the stairwell were awkardly reminiscent of Mike Kelley (even though Palestine has long worked with plush animals), perhaps because of the scale and the guerrilla placement. 
Shio Kusaka, Dinosaur 2

Zoe Leonard created the haunting room installation 945 Madison Avenue, which consists of a camera obscura with a plate-sized "pinhole" capturing the view onto Madison Avenue from the iconic geometric window. The resulting ghostly image of the street view, cast onto the opposite wall, takes awhile to see as your eyes adjust to the dark. It is a poignant reminder that this is the last Biennial in the Breuer building before the Whitney moves to the Meatpacking District. (Meat for sale!) The window itself has become a storied witness/inspiration; only recently it provided much of the light during a section of Sarah Michelson's Devotion 4. No doubt it will continue serving the Met Museum when it moves in.

Peter Schuyff, Sans Papier
Video and film are of course present, including works by Jennifer Bornstein, Andrew Bujalski, Robert Ashley, Miljohn Ruperto, and Alexander Waterman, but I am sorry to say that this time-based genre is at odds with a tight schedule. Ken Okiishi twists the video genre by painting directly on flatscreen monitors, which play video. And obsessiveness is present: Semiotext(e)'s room of philosophical detritus neatly encased and bound, fetish-like, by thick black rope; Triple Canopy's Pointing Machines installation of Americana furniture and photos of olde paintings. A slate of performances and other events is also planned, including by choreographer Miguel Guttierrez.

In order to process a survey like this (and much of which is excluded here), I find myself grouping works together—more survival than intent. Notes:

  • Dinosaurs, as reminders of extinction, seen in Shio Kusaka's elegant ceramic vases and David Wojnarowicz's plesiosaur calendar
  • Writing desks, including Paul P's graceful Ming Dynasty inspired wooden set (to complement his extensive series of quiet ink wash portraits), and David Robbins' arts and crafts version
  • Sparkly and or rainbow hued things—Joel Otterson's amazing curtain of colored crystal gewgaws and chandeliers of gem-hued goblets; Sheila Hicks' infatuating Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, a cascade of colored yarn, and her textured fiber woven works; and Ken Lum's Midway Shopping Plaza, a suburban shopping mall directory doubling as a sociological and political commentary
  • Terry Adkins, Aviarium
  • Familiar names showing new forms—Peter Schuyff's vitrine of elaborately carved spiral pencils; David Foster Wallace's notebooks and scrawlings
I'm already in anticipation of the next Biennial, which will be in the new, much larger Whitney. We can only hope that the Highline will be commandeered so that even more genres can be accomodated, including installations on the Hudson and in New Jersey to be viewed by telescope or drone, and performances along the lines of Trisha Brown's rooftop event of a few years ago. Or perhaps it would make sense to just wave a wand and say that all galleries are participants and should open their doors collectively—a plein air biennial. Oh wait! That's called Chelsea.

Photos: Susan Yung

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Michael Trusnovec Returns to the Dark Side

Michael Trusnovec in Banquet of Vultures. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
The Paul Taylor Dance Company begins its 60th season at the Koch Theater on Tuesday March 11, presenting nearly 20 dances over three weeks. One of the company's—the world's—finest dramatic and technical dancers, Michael Trusnovec, answered a few questions about revivals in which he is featured prominently (in addition to a majority of the other season repertory).

Ephemeralist: I believe that Banquet of Vultures and Dante Variations were among the first dances Paul choreographed featuring you in the lead role (although correct me if I'm wrong.) How is it to return to them after several years?

Michael Trusnovec: It's always incredibly satisfying to revisit a role that Mr. Taylor’s tailor made for you, especially when they are some of the earliest important roles I feel Paul made specifically FOR me. These two are such richly satisfying, physically and emotionally demanding dances—which I love! For me, time away from a work gives an opportunity to come at it with a fresh perspective—with a deeper, and often different, understanding of the character I’m inhabiting. And, years of life and performance experiences definitely affect the way my body and mind approach and respond to the choreography.

Dante Variations. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
E: You are at your scariest in Banquet, in which you paint a searing portrait of evil. How do you psych yourself up for the role—kick puppies?

I am not a method dancer—I don't usually need time to inhabit a character before the dance begins. With the disturbing and very dark works like Banquet of Vultures and Speaking in Tongues, I think I start to zip into the role and focus my energy on its demands when I am dressed in the costume, I hear the audience hush, the music begins and the shadowed lighting comes up—it’s as if a switch flips inside me. In rehearsals, I always make good use of that time to be sure I have a very specific understanding of who I am and what my purpose is in the work so that when I get to the stage, everything comes together naturally in an unforced way.

E: Dante is also a somewhat darker dance. It includes a swirling, fast virtuosity that is one strong characteristic of your abilities (among others). How much do the choreography and music push you, technically and/or emotionally?

MT: For me, in all of Mr. Taylor's dances, the emotion, character and story, are built into the movement; it lives in the music. All I have to do is be present and tap into it.

E: Any other thoughts on the rep this season?

MT: The astounding breadth of Mr. Taylor's repertory never ceases to surprise and thrill me, especially as we head into a season filled with masterworks spanning the 60 years of this incredible company of dances and dancers. I feel so honored to be a part of the history, and of the future, of this great modern dance organization.

Dante Variations. Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Need for Speed

Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm
Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy. Photo: Courtesy Fondazione Cassa di risparmio della Provincia di Macerata

The Guggenheim in New York, with its utopian form obedient to laws of physics more than the needs of its inhabitants, is the perfect venue for Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, a survey of a morally flawed movement guided by style and dogma. Futurism began in literature with the 1909 publication of a manifesto by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Aligned with the rise of Fascism, it was meant to shake things up, and courted controversy by promulgating war and lashing out against feminism. Inflammatory tenets aside, it glorified technology and speed, which have thrived in modern Italy in the form of sleek Ferraris. Nonetheless, many Futurist artifacts made lasting impressions, and hundreds are gathered here by curator Vivien Greene.
Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens (Prima che si apra il paracadute), 1939, oil on panel, 141 x 151 cm
Casa Cavazzini, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Udine, Italy, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
Photo: Claudio Marcon, Udine, Civici Musei e Gallerie di Storia e Arte

One of the main themes of Futurism was capturing movement, and thus time. In this respect, it crossed over with Cubism, although Futurism was far more concerned with speed and the political implications of its many genres. The Guggenheim show includes monuments familiar from textbooks, notably Boccioni's bronze sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). But it is largely fleshed out with examples of literature, photography, film, textiles and clothing, and furniture and homeware. Graphic design and typography were particularly ripe expressive milieus for this movement that relied on verbal bombast and propaganda. One of the most powerful works is the final painting, at the zenith of the ramp—Tullio Crali's Before the Parachute Opens (1939) in which the skydiving soldier appears to be made of bronze, as if we're sitting at a dizzying height above a monumental statue looking down at its domain. Like a number of Futurist paintings, it's a snapshot of several dimensions.
Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à Grand Vitesse. Photo credit Paul Kolnik.
The urge to capture the dynamism and thrill of speed remain inspirations. Coincidentally, in its final week of the winter season, New York City Ballet performed Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à Grand Vitesse, to Michael Nyman's MGV: Musique à Grand Vitesse (both riff on the French bullet train moniker, TGV). The set, designed by the fortuitously named Jean-Marc Puissant, illustrates the effects of speed, its sheets of translucent mesh peeling off the floor as if sucked up in the wake of a passing vehicle or speedboat. The dance is full of rapid, forceful sections, and the dancers themselves become emblematic of a utopian mammal—sleek, muscular, fast, idealized. The old Futurists might have been pleased but for the prominence and relative equality of the women, and the peaceable intent.