Monday, April 28, 2014

DTH Aims High

New Bach. Photo: Rachel Neville
Here's the thing about being a Ballet company. There is a standard canon that must be mastered, a kind of core curriculum that you must pass in order to be awarded a metaphorical degree, which allows you to go on and do whatever the heck you want. Said canon includes a list of difficult steps, such as the fouetté (for women) and the double tour en l'air (men), in addition to including some classic standards in your repertory. You can embrace that canon—as have most major ballet companies in New York, including Dance Theatre of Harlem—or ignore it. Choosing it means not only that you're serious about being a part of the continuum of classical ballet, but that you're accepting failure as an option, but admitting that you have a ways to go. And, of course, mastery means just that. The company performed at the Rose Theater last week in its second return season.

DTH, by that standard, has some work to do. Electing to perform Petipa's Pas de Dix, sections of Raymonda's final act from 1898, indicates that the company (reconstituted last year under Virginia Johnson's artistic direction) has high goals and is serious about pursuing them. Keeping that in mind makes it somewhat easier to watch the young troupe attempt these difficult moves and at times fall short. Ballet can be a cruel art—while it can't ultimately be held to a binding standard, such as timed speed or first across the line—it can be graded and compared to ideals of perfection. That said, there were many lovely performances, including by the two leads: the serene, precise Ashley Murphy and Da'von Daone, with his explosive jumping ability.

DTH's second season in its rebirth provides many reasons for optimism. Two of the works I saw last year were reprised: Swan Lake Act III pas de deux, and Return (1999), choreographed by Robert Garland. This year, Nayara Lopes, magnetic, with a supremely flexible lower body, performed the Black Swan with Samuel Wilson, once again confident and strong, with sailing grand jétés, and the ability to finish a double tour in arabesque. Return, again featuring Daone, remains a terrific show closer, with its crowd-pleasing R&B score and combination of ballet, jazz, and instantaneous switching from effete ballet to goofy club idioms.

New Bach was choreographed by Garland in 2001, and with its proximity style-wise to Return, it might have been better served being separated on the program by another dance. It, too, blended classical ballet with jazz-inflected moves. The women walk on pointe, sinking into their hips; it resembles the strange way supermodels slink down a runway. Pamela Allen-Cummings designed the elegant rhinestone trimmed navy costumes. Lindsey Croop, leggy and suave, led the cast, which looked at ease and happy to be performing such a witty and fun dance. But don't let this light-hearted dance overshadow the fact that DTH is serious about tackling the classical idiom.

Company note: Michaela DePrince, so memorable in last year's run, left DTH to join the Dutch National Ballet's second company. While her personal story of survival is riveting, and her astounding ballon and flexibility are missed, it gives DTH's other accomplished dancers more of a chance to shine, and shine they did. Here's hoping she returns to New York at some point, on tour or with another company, so we can see her artistic progression.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Snow White and the Seven Aerialists

Miner/dwarves descending the rock wall. Photo: Jean Claude Carbonne
The Grimms' fairy tale Snow White contains some pretty horrific events, revealing the worst (but also better) sides of human nature, plus some cool magic. You got yer death during childbirth, a magic mirror, a suffocating corset, a deadly apple, animal organ trafficking (as a substitute fo human organ trafficking), Snow's mistaken death, a glass coffin, and red-hot iron dancing shoes. These all make appearances in Angelin Preljocaj's ballet of the same title, at presented by the Joyce at the Koch, through this weekend. At the heart of it, you have a jealous and vindictive queen (Anna Tatarova), and a next-generation ingenue, Snow White (Nagisa Shirai), who—as the mirror helpfully reminds—is more beautiful, in no small part due to her relative youth. 

Preljocaj's ballet is not meant to retell the tale, as he says in the program note, but traces Snow White's story. (That said, they sure overlap a lot.) He follows the bullet points of her rather dramatic life in this two-hour work. Using a montage of Gustav Mahler's compositions is an ambitious gambit, since so many of the oft-staged stories—Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty—have iconic scores that are inseparable from the ballets and have us trained pavlovian-style to feel accompanying emotions on cue. But in Preljocaj's staging, we must rely on the narrative unspooling through movement. And this becomes a big problem when the lighting (by Patrick Riou) is so dark that you can't see what's happening. 

It's not always dark, of course, and some scenes really pop, due in no small part to stunning set designs by Thierry Leproust—a gilded, multi-panelled wall with elevating thrones, a huge ornately framed "mirror," an ominous forest, a plexi panel propped on some rocks for a glass coffin, and a shimmering, rugged obsidian wall from which Snow's pals, the seven miners (dwarves), emerge from holes and perform a long aerial routine, at times hanging upside down like Spider-Man. They also unclip from their harnesses and frolic with Snow, hoisting her aloft.

Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the costumes, some with deep slits. Snow's costume—a toga-like draped number with high-cut legs and an odd diaper bottom—is unflattering, and, with bare feet, lacks the elongating help of pointe shoes, although her finale wedding dress with a sheer hooped skirt is a knockout. The Queen's is the most recognizable by Gaultier's hand—based around a black bustier, it has lots of straps and a beautiful red-dipped tulip skirt; she wears high heeled boots and is accompanied by a pair of languorous black cats. The Prince (Sergio Diaz) wears orange pants and day-glo suspenders and makes a fleeting impression.

Modern touches aside, the movement sequences take shape in traditional patterns: groups reveling, the bold-move mens' sections, a female duet (one of the choreographer's emblematic forms), and repeats of the above. The miners stamp and sway like lovable lunks, adopting Snow as one of their own; she and the prince have a romantic duet, and later he dances with her unconscious body, which limply echoes their previous lively dance. 

And while Preljocaj can create inventive, elegant movement, two hours is a long time to fill. Ballet's chestnuts, like Swan Lake, often rely on tent-pole pas de deux or sections handed down through the centuries, many remarkably intact; these are sometimes rearranged or connected by new material, but usually don't break form signficantly. (That said, another recently-seen exception is Les Ballets de Monte Carlo's LAC.) These contemporary versions, while imperfect, still offer audiences handholds to navigate individual choreographers' visions. Take a look at TV and film's offerings (Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Supernatural, Frozen, etc.) and you can see the pervasive power of traditional legends and fairy tales in pop culture. That most likely won't change, nor in ballet—only the sets, costumes, and time periods.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lebbeus Woods, Architect?

San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City, 1995
Architect is an insistent title for a show of Lebbeus Woods' work at the Drawing Center (through June 15), since he was never overly concerned with practical environments. He was trained in architecture and engineering, and taught at the Cooper Union, although apparently he never received his architectural license in New York. More importantly, his fantastic creations are often at odds with human use, evocative of the results of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or landslides. In all of the works in the show, hardly a person is depicted, and only then seemingly for scale. Then again, his recalcitrance at designing functional buildings helped allow him to expound on his vivid, sometimes terrifying imagination.
Photon Kite

His obsessive renderings at times recall steampunk inventions, or the literature of writers such as Jules Verne or contemporary sci-fi visionary China Miéville. They may mash together the built and organic worlds, often depicting what feels like a post-apocalyptic scape in which the machines and buildings regenerated and rose to life without, or by ingesting, humans. Many of Woods' designs looked to have accreted, or collapsed from once stable positions. Structures arc and soar away from the earth, or appear to have bubbled up from magma and cooled into edifices. 

His oeuvre is most reminiscent of the genre of sci-fi film. In fact, one of his designs influenced Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys enough to garner Woods a settlement. And Woods, who passed away in 2012, consulted as a designer for Alien 3. It's a shame that he never pursued a full-blown career in scenic design, where his creations could have been "built" and found immortality through CGI (bringing to mind films such as the Star Wars prequels, John Carter, and even Battleship). Never mind—they exist in his meticulous graphic work, models, and obsessive postcard-sized notebooks, fertile source material for dreams and nightmares.

Corrected April 28, 2014.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ai Weiwei in the BK

Moon Chest, 2008. Seven chests in huali wood, each 126"x63"x31.5". Photo: Susan Yung
The Brooklyn Museum's show Ai Weiwei: According to What? is a sweeping look at this provocateur's work, which has been little seen in New York on a large scale. Viewers are immediately confronted with S.A.C.R.E.D., six iron boxes—models of his remembrances from being imprisoned for eight months in China—which block some of the lobby portals. You can step onto a box to peer into a small cutout, making you a voyeur. Inside are half-scale models of Ai in his cell, with guards. It's chilling, if a bit cartoon-like.

Bowls of Pearls (detail), 2006, porcelain bowls (ea. 15"x38.5") filled with
freshwater pearls
. Stockamp Tsai Collection. Photo: Susan Yung
An installation of bicycles is on the ground floor as well; don't miss it like I did, inadvertently. The majority of the show occupies the 4th and 5th floors. There are several ambitious, large-scale installations: Moon Chest, a series of cabinets with holes that, when peered through resemble phases of the moon; Straight, a minimalist field of 38 tons of straightened steel rebar taken from the wreckage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; Snake Ceiling, a deceptively playful serpent made of childrens' backpacks, evoking the 5000+ child fatalities in that quake; He Xie, a mounded dome of 3200 porcelain crabs which allude to state censorship as well as a farewell dinner in advance of the dismantling of his studio; he was prevented from attending. (He served eight months in prison charged with tax evasion.)

He Xie, 2010, 3200 porcelain crabs. Photo: Susan Yung
There is a sense of disconnect throughout the show. Ai's populist ideas are at odds with the luxe materials he uses. They include Han Dynasty vases dipped in bright colors, antique wooden furniture cut apart and reassembled in different forms, building parts salvaged from Olympic domain claims, and bushels of shimmering freshwater pearls. These seductive substances are also part of the allure, for sure. Simply viewed as objects, they are beautifully crafted. But each work has a back story that gives it depth. Then there is his use of quantity as a brickbat. It is a body of work that definitely took great resources—material and labor-wise—to assemble, plus a dash of the hubris needed to create the Great Wall. 

Cube in Ebony is a 40" cube of rosewood, a dense block with a mesmerizing carved surface inspired by a small keepsake box of his father's. A couple of big doghouse-sized Teahouses made of compressed tea sit atop a floor of tea leaves, emitting an evocative fragrance. And Kippe is a rectangular stack of lustrous salvaged wood and decorative architectural elements that recall the obsessive nature of his family's well-stacked pile of firewood.
Kippe, 2006, Iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty, iron bar. 71.5"x112.5"x41".Collection of Honus Tandijono.
Photo: Susan Yung

Some of the photographic, video, and smaller works are vaguely reminiscent of familiar late-20th century Russian exiles such as Komar & Melamid and their more recent compatriots who wove Soviet and Russian touchstones into their art. Ai's reputation has grown as his encounters with Chinese authorities became news fodder, in addition to scandals such as lead levels in his ceramic sunflower seed field (Tate) and a vandal smashing one of the Colored Vases in Miami recently. If the former weren't comprising a vast roomful, and the latter an extremely valuable ancient vase, and both put together by a now-oppressed Chinese dissident, would it be self-perpetuating news? But it is the sum total of the opulence, scale, and personal history that does make it news, and worth seeing. Through August 10.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sigmar Polke—Artistic Chameleon

Supermarkets, 1976, Gouache; metallic, enamel, acrylic paints; felt-tip pen; collage on 9 sheets of paper on canvas
Liebelt Collection, Hamburg
Sigmar Polke was an artistic chameleon, moving from one medium to another, one style of painting to the next, this sphere of public discourse to that one. Organized by MOMA with the Tate Modern (London), this show is a type at which they can excel—guided not by a blockbuster or blatantly populist sensibility, but with an eye toward revealing the many layers of an important contemporary artist's work. MOMA's survey, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, demonstrates how extensive and deeply rooted his influence has been.

Polke (1941—2010), German, had a wry, satirical streak. Early works include a painting of a cabinet indicated by one vertical line surrounded by two dots. He also recorded things in the news, such as a seemingly incomplete raster (benday dot) drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald—an incomplete, distorted portrait of an enigma—as well as banal objects, such as socks, sausages, biscuits, and shirts, which connect to Pop Art. His eye for pattern was expressed in dot paintings, as well as compositions using patterned or textured fabric as a canvas. 5 Dots (1964) depicts five blobs on a calico background; one of the green dots with a tail becomes a balloon, immediately conjuring a sentimental context amid a pleasing abstraction. 

He absorbed influences, and no doubt emitted his own that were refracted in the work of others. His rasterized pieces summon Roy Lichtenstein; his dots, Damien Hirst. He cited Cezanne, Gilbert & George, and Malevich—hilariously, as in Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! (1969). His self-reflection materialized in studies of himself as an astronaut, a test-tube drug, and in a mock-serious diptych, glamorous lurex portraits of his palm's lines as read by a fortune teller. He connected to Fluxus with inventive elastic band rendering of a bunny; a folding-ruler composition; and in Carboardology (1968—69), an oddly riveting index of cardboard samples.

Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963,
poster paint & pencil on paper, 37 5/16 × 27 1/2″, 

Private Collection, Photo: Wolfgang Morell, Bonn

His identity as a German found its way into his work with regularity; swastikas and military symbols recur. Potato House (1967) combines two national icons—the root vegetable and the garden shed. In this chronological installation, double-exposed photographs of mushrooms share the year 1972 with Mao, an absorbing painting representative of his complicated technique of layering multiple images, perspectives, and subjects.

Supermarkets (1976) is a prime example of his major paintings—a complex 2D layer cake of an army of Supermen clones painted atop a jammed supermarket aisle, supported by cartoon and graffiti-like characters. He would also sew several types of fabric together—canvas, sunglass-and-deck-chair-print, and pink quilting—to form a canvas, onto which he layered freighted imagery, as in Watchtower with Geese (1987).

Videos and sculptures mix in with the two-dimensional pieces. Sketchbooks and multiples show his concept and color experimentation. And his later work, such as The Young Acrobat (2000) shows a curiosity for producing intentional technical flubs—stretching or contorting an image—thereby subtly twisting the narrative context and subverting the predictable reliability of technology. The soaring atrium serves as the starting point for the 10-gallery installation; it's a fitting entree to the output of a vast imagination. On view through August 3.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trisha Brown Dance Company Moves Forward by Looking Back

Opal Loop. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was just coincidence that the companies of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio, who began his professional career as a dancer for her, had coincidental runs at, respectively, New York Live Arts and the Joyce, just a half a block apart. But still, it was strange to walk by the Joyce, as it was filling up for the show, en route to Brown's performance, at the smaller venue. It was just another reminder of the generational shift in modern dance that has been in process for years now.

The program by Trisha Brown Dance Company was a well-chosen slate of three older works: Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 (1980); Solo Olos (1976); and Son of Gone Fishin' (1981), plus Rogues, a newer duet from 2011. Each dance showed a facet of Brown's impressive canon: structured improvisation, accumulation, retrograde. The apparent ease and bonelessness of Brown's style usually cloaks the rigorous intellectual underpinnings, but Solo Olos pulls back that curtain A square dance-style caller commands the six other dancers to perform certain phrases, in reverse, and sometimes in double-reverse. It's apparent how complete their mental and physical dedication must be. 

Son of Gone Fishin'. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was a satisfying show, for sure, and it was the first in New York since Brown stopped choreographing, which was marked by the troupe's run at BAM last year and Brown's final work, if I toss my arms.... Of course Brown isn't the first choreographer to depart, but despite her irreplaceable output, she doesn't have a huge mythology built around her, like Merce, Pina, or Martha. She has always seemed like one of us, only smarter and cooler and way more talented.

As Brown and many other choreographers have demonstrated, retrograde is a highly useful creative method, but you need forward progress in order to reverse it. It may only be a matter of time before the currently assembled dancers and staff dissipate by necessity, despite fund-raising achieved and pedagogical goals set, in addition to an isolated performance project here and there. As the pioneer modern dance generation ages, there is an ominous premonition of loss, that a repertory will never be the same as under a choreographer's hand. That it will be watered down by added contemporary repertory (Graham) or simply vanish (Cunningham).

Perhaps some of Brown's repertory will surface in the newly formed vehicle of Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance. (Since that announcement, a lot of similar suggestions are going to be aired by a lot of voices.) Brown's work qualifies when measured by all three definors within the title, and is as worthy as any. TBDC's relatively small infrastructure is there to support a huge artistic achievement, so some timely external support might be just thing.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Petronio at 30—C'mon baby, see the Locomotor

Joshua Tuason and Melissa Toogood in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Stephen Petronio's group premiere, Locomotor, is a stunning dance and a worthy milestone to mark the company's 30th year. It isn't easy to continually produce new work for three decades, especially if, like Petronio, you generally shy from narrative and gesture. That said, there are moments in Locomotor that profit from this dearth of emotion, so touching are they when finally shared. In keeping with the collaborative tradition, the beige and black geometric unitards are by haute designer Narciso Rodriguez; the soundscape, shifting from crisp clicks and church bells to shimmering drums, is by Michael Volpe (appetizingly nicknamed "Clams Casino.")

The work's premise is simple: movement, both forward and backward. In a leadoff solo, guest artist Melissa Toogood slips perfectly into Petronio's precise, demanding style that somehow requires both dangerous kineticism and stillness at the same time. The company's remaining eight dancers enter in pairs, carving arcs from and into the wings. Two men, one in front of the other, hold hands as they dart about the stage—a simple, ingenious device, and one of those "why haven't we seen this before?" moments—and pivot and loop their arms like ballroom dancers; at a point, one kneels and receives a kiss on the head from his partner. It's like they're locked into the idea of forward progression, and yet their mutual bond is as much a necessity.

Barrington Hinds, Nicholas Sciscione in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Raised legs are at right angles, feet crisply pointed, torsos bent and twisted to preset degrees off-center. The technique is modern, but with a highly classical skeleton; it can pound into the floor, but the overall effect is to instigate flight, if for a split second. Petronio's choreography is reliably exciting to watch, but his singular invention and sui generis technique are polished to a diamond brilliance here. 

Surprisingly, the most captivating move, and one that is clearly not easy to pull off with grace, is the reverse leap, which occupies the final thrilling movement. Prior to that, Nicholas Sciscione and Josh D Green—both muscular and dazzlingly fleet—partner Toogood, flinging her high, or feet overhead, flipping her around a leg rotisserie-style, pulling her from a prone position as she flutters her arrowed feet in unexpected, delicate battements. 

Petronio danced the other premiere on the Joyce program (through April 13th), Stripped. This brief solo is to Philip Glass' Etude No. 5; the visual punchline is designed by artist Janine Antoni—a headwrap of neckties, which meets a linear fate in the finale. No further spoilers. The third piece, Strange Attractors, was created in 1999; its silken pajamas (by Ghost) and Michael Nyman score are the only indications of its pre-millenial age. It showcases well the standout, eclectic company, in particular the ageless Gino Grenek and an eloquent Jaqlin Medlock. The program rightly travels forward—and backward—with gusto.