Saturday, June 28, 2014

Q&A with Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga

The Boston Ballet is performing at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater, through June 29. Principal Misa Kuranaga, phenomenal in William Forsythe's The Second Detail, answered a few questions for Ephemeralist.

Ephemeralist: What does it mean to you that the company is making its debut at Lincoln Center, and in particular on the Koch Theater stage?

Misa Kuranaga: This means a lot to me and the entire Boston Ballet organization. We are such a versatile dance company at the height of our skills and it will be a joy to share this with the dance scene of New York City.

E: Of the repertory to be performed in New York, what do you most eagerly anticipate performing, and why?

MK: I love The Second Detail and I'm the most excited to perform this ballet. It is such a thrilling piece... you can give it all you have and explore your art form in the midst of a performance. It is a piece that is constantly growing and changing.

Working with Mr. Forsythe was such an amazing experience for me. He inspired me by sharing his life experiences. I hope I can share all of the things he taught me on stage with the audience in NY.

E: You guested with New York City Ballet in Serenade. What memories do you have from that performance?

MK: I remember when I first got the news of receiving the opportunity to perform at the Koch Theater with New York City Ballet. I was just so excited! I was given the chance to dance the Russian girl in Serenade and Heather Watts and Margaret Tracy helped me prepare for the show. I had a great time dancing on stage with friends I had not seen in years and they were all very supportive. It was a special moment for alums of School of American Ballet. I'm not always happy with my shows but this one I was very happy with, and it is one of the best shows I can remember. Because of such support from everyone, I was able to dance comfortably and perform my best at the time. 

It was definitely one if the most memorable performances of my career.

E: What are you looking forward to doing during your free time in the city?

MK: I'm in every show so I'm not expecting to have a lot of free time, but meeting some friends I haven't seen in a while for dinner will be something I'm looking forward to.

Boston Ballet's Return to Gotham

Boston Ballet is performing at the Koch Theater this week, the company's welcome return to New York after a very long time. The program on Thursday included The Second Detail by William Forsythe, Resonance by José Martinez, and Cacti by Alexander Ekman.

The Second Detail. Photo: Gene Schiavone
The recent news that William Forsythe will leave his company to teach in California and perhaps pay more attention to his classical repertory in various companies shadowed my viewing of The Second Detail (1991). The operative word here is not "the," as spelled out in a downstage sign, but "cool"—as in Forsythe's lighting design of white fluorescent light, iceberg-hued leotards designed by Yumiko Takeshima and Issey Miyake, and the dancers' louche attitude between razor-sharp ballet phrases, as if they were in rehearsal. It's a rhythm of taut and relaxed that lends pace and respiration. The traditional structure of ballet is shaken up, but a profound affection for the vocabulary still resonates—posés with hyperextended ribcages, the encouragement of showy multiple pirouettes, leg extensions and leaps pushed to extremes. An upstage line of minimal stools grounds the stage (also designed by Forsythe) and serves as seating for performers, who rest, and at times gesture. 

The women get the meaty sections, spinning like dervishes on pointe. I watched Misa Kuranaga perform two revolutions, looked away; and when I looked back a moment later, she was still finishing what must have been six revolutions. She has the right approach to Forsythe's style—without affectation, which can happen with certain dancers; fluid, technically astonishing (a leg afloat to the side, serene and unwavering). Thom Willems' score—electronic keyboard evoking a pipe organ—provided little structure, yet some of the dancers' moves seemed to align precisely with specific notes. A woman in a dress of white sheaves signalled the finale's onset; the work ended when a man kicked over "The." End!

Ji Young Chae and Patrick Yocum in Resonance.
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Forsythe has influenced an entire generation of choreographers, including, apparently, José Martinez, who choreographed Resonance. This ambitious work, in shades of pewter and blue, features a set of rolling grey panels that reworked the stage space every few minutes. Two pianists play Liszt (one at first hides behind a panel), an odd and at times awkward musical choice that can be melodramatic and rhythmically unsupportive. One group of women, led by Lia Cirio, wears flared navy sundresses; the other (by Dusty Button), camisole leotards. 

John Cuff's pale, silvery moonlighting frequently features dancers' silhouettes framed on the  panels. The ever-shifting set creates a feeling of unease and provides visual variety, but proved distracting at times. Martinez's movement abides by a similar muscularity and an extreme rendition of ballet as Forsythe's. It includes difficult phrases of pirouettes that change direction and foot positions, particularly in a polished performance by Alejandro Virelles. The work ended as it began, with a solitary woman walking backwards. 

I must confess that Alexander Ekman's Cacti left me with mixed feelings. He pokes fun at dramaturgical pretense and dance criticism, and those who practice one or both and have thin skin might understand. With that in mind, here are some notes:

Cacti. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Wow, that is an impressive sight... 16 dancers who all look the same, like they're not wearing tops but they actually are wearing flesh-toned leotards (is that a woman? not sure) with funny short black pants, each on a little platform... scary light grids falling askance from the fly... a few musicians standing around playing... the dancers are pounding their platforms and bodies, making rhythms, alternating and in unison, like football players doing the Polynesian haka pre-game... even slapping their heads, covered with chalk dust… poof… some mock critic's thoughts are read aloud… it sounds pompous and lugubrious… wait, I take that back, those words are pompous and lugubrious. sorry.

Hey! there are the cacti, obviously cheap and light plastic versions, seemingly red herrings, but I'm not supposed to get into any meaning here… those side light grids actually spell out "cacti," flashing like traffic alerts... platforms are dragged and arranged in a little fort… a couple performs a scene while their dreary thoughts and shorthand for moves are spoken aloud… it's supposed to be funny… and it's really just annoying… everyone comes back onstage, without their black pants, and they pose like some expensive Vanity Fair portrait… and the dumb voice comes back on asking if this is the end, like, eight times, and we're all praying it's the end... and it actually does end one second before I actually scream "It better be the end!"

That said, several viewers guffawed at every silly visual joke and satirical sentence. And the stagecraft—set arrangement, lighting (both by Tom Visser), tasteful music played live (Haydn, Beethoven, etc.), and the synchrony and execution of the company, were top-notch. Ekman had hit his target, but it clearly wasn't (or was?) me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Koons—First and Last Laughs at the Whitney

Hoovers galore! 
The Whitney Museum's show, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, (Friday through Oct 19) fills the one truly glaring blank in the artist's lengthy CV. Until now, he has never been featured in a major New York museum exhibition, though he has been ubiquitous in group and gallery shows since the '80s. Not only does the Whitney show, organized by Scott Rothkopf, capture this wily artist's body of work at a peak in his career, it is the final Whitney exhibition at the Madison Avenue building. (That said, it's not for a lack of opportunity—in 1996 he was scheduled for one at the Guggenheim, but he was unable to complete the work in time.) Those are some meaningful firsts and lasts.

Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994—2000

Despite all that cold-shouldering by the curators, Koons' oeuvre has emerged among the most famous and high-priced in recent years. And why not? Shiny objects appeal to humans as much as they do to magpies, who collect little glittering baubles for their nests. So it is with rich collectors and their nests, particularly the clientele of Gagosian Gallery, which shows Koons (in addition to Sonnabend Gallery) and is the lead sponsor for the Whitney show and of a companion installation of a giant, floral Split-Rocker at Rockefeller Center. And Koons' sculptures really do shine and glitter; many even make convenient mirrors if you need one in a pinch. But he also knows that simple objects from childhood can be like visual baby blankies or junk food—comforting, reminiscent of innocent times and carefree days before adulthood and its dreary responsibilities set in. Thus, inflatable things—mylar bunnies, flowers, pool toys, balloon animals; plastic stuff, cheery tchotchkes—are the bulk of the subject matter in this multi-floor show. And they make you smile.

Gorilla, 2006—11.
I am 8' tall and granite!
Lines can be drawn connecting Koons to Duchamp and his readymades, and Warhol and his Brillo boxes, pop art staples, and the Factory. But Koons has taken the techno-industrial supersizing of his subjects to Frankensteinian lengths. What appears to be an inflatable lobster pool toy is actually painted aluminum. (By god, it's all one can do not to squeeze it for proof. Perhaps that's why a guard stood not a foot away.) An 8' tall gorilla that looks like a giant version of a little plastic figurine is made of highly polished granite. The recent Celebration series of colored, mirror-surfaced works familiar to many of us—including a balloon dog, a heart with a bow, a dome—are made of polished steel with transparent color coatings. It's mind-boggling to think of the number of steps involved in creating these scale-ups and highly seductive surfaces. These technical feats alone are worth a tip of the hat, even if the subjects are trite.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241
, 1985. Nearly nothin' but window.
One of the most visually powerful, yet understated, galleries is a temple for his vacuum pieces from the early '80s. (An early iteration appeared in the window of The New Museum on Broadway back in the day.) The room comprises single and multiple arrangements of various models encased in plexi boxes and is lit almost solely with fluorescent tubes, lending the space a tongue-in-cheek gravity and solemnity. And the basketball equilibirum sculptures look downright like old masters by now. 

In between these robust periods, however, we cannot avoid the early '90s Made in Heaven series (when he married Cicciolina, a porn star/politician, and decided to explicitly immortalize their love on photographic canvases and in life-sized 3D). This was when he alienated pretty much everyone (though I have to hand it to Sonnabend Gallery, which stuck by him even through this), and critics found the perfect ammunition to justify dismissing his work as glib and egomaniacal. Before that came the Banality series of tchotchkes in polychromed porcelainMichael Jackson and Bubbles, Woman in Tub, String of Puppies, and prior to that, the semi-serious statuary collection of pewter-toned replicas of bar paraphernalia, renaissance sculptures, and kitsch. While the show features sculpture, a number of 2D works are on view, including a series based on the power of advertising, and the Easyfun-Ethereal series of funny paintings such as Sandwiches, in which the pseudonymous lunch items are affixed with googly olive-and-pickle eyes and moustaches. 

Sandwiches, 2000
In a sense, the slickness and dumb appeal of Koons' technically challenging sculptures are as deceptive as his current popularity, which has taken his entire career to reach. (You can bet many people will see this show seeking not just floating basketballs, but also Schadenfreude.) And the man himself looks the same as he did decades ago, more like the investment banker he once was, and nowhere near his 59 years. Then again, he himself has been a consistent subject of his own work. One more example of the exterior appearing to be one thing, and the interior quite another. Taking the analogy a step further, despite their fragile appearance, you cannot pop his inflatables—they will endure, just as the artist has despite critical drubbings and symbolic exile.

A note on Gagosian's sponsorship: on the one hand, it would seem scandalous that Koons' dealer is underwriting these high-profile exhibitions, but on the other, the clarity is rather refreshing, as opposed to banks and real estate developers trying to bleach their spotty reputations in philanthropy.

The Whitney moves to MePa, or should I say HiLi, after this, with exhibitions planned for next spring in its new 60,000 square foot digs with a river view. The Met will take over the Breuer building on Madison, with its well-proportioned rooms, stone and wood floors, and embroiled history with Landmarks.

Photos by Susan Yung, except Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000, © Jeff Koons, courtesy the Whitney Museum.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Things are Looking up for the Mets—Towels, Toros, and BarTolos

Bartolo Colon: powered by the core.
Just as I'd resigned myself to watching the Mets vie for last place in the NL East for the rest of the season, and excoriated myself for caring, they started scoring. And winning. Not writing any encomiums about playoffs or division champs just yet, but c'mon... any flicker of hope is light, eh?

This recent wave of hope began with jovian pitcher Bartolo Colon's double during the Cardinals game last Wednesday. Though I didn't see the play as it happened, descriptions included details about how his belly bounced as he ran the bases [note: I'm watching the Tuesday night game against the Oakland As, and because he singled, they replayed the double—I wouldn't call it "bouncing," exactly], and he could hardly catch his breath as Eric Young, behind him, hit another double to score him. More running for Colon. 

Colon was one of the big ticket acquisitions for the Mets between seasons, and his arrival was met with a mixed reception. He is 40, 5'11", 285 lbs, or somesuch. But he also had a great record last year with the A's, and most importantly, he carries himself with a mix of determination and humor. If he weren't so good at hitting the strike zone, he'd be on the list to replace Mr. Met on rest days.

Another emerging secret to the Mets' recent success seems to be, and I'll admit I'm somewhat ashamed—the rally towel. Yes, the prosaic, cookie cutter, default waving of the towel. It emerged in the wake of the Colon Double, and is now ubiquitous and all-purpose. With any man on base, be it hit or walk, the towel twirl is done in the dugout. When a guy homers (like Travis d'Arnaud tonight against the As, freshly returned from a 16-day relegation to AAA), his teammates hold their towels like a matador teasing a bull. When, say David Wright doubles, in the absence of an actual towel, he twirled his fist above his head while standing at second. It has become "a Thing" in just a few days, whether cause or bellwether!

I'll end this as the Mets lead the As 8-1 in the 6th inning. I will not take it as an omen that the feed from SNY just cut out completely, just an opportunity to eat dinner while the Mets feast. (PS—the feed has resumed. I mean the SNY feed. Bon appetit.)(Toro towel update, post Chris Young's 2nd homer tonight—they hold their towels and he, like bull, runs through them.) Good night!

David Hallberg, Home Again

Gillian Murphy & David Hallberg in Cinderella.
Photo: Gene Schiavone
It's been a year since we've seen principal dancer David Hallberg perform with ABT, as he began dancing with the Bolshoi and splits his time between Moscow and New York. I guess we should feel lucky that he keeps one elegant foot here, even if it means a reduced spring ABT season workload and no fall/winter New York dates. It would be unthinkable to lose him completely.

In any case, it's wonderful to see him again in well-suited leads in Cinderella and Giselle. He is a natural-born prince (despite—because of?—his South Dakota provenance), with his statuesque height, noble profile, blond locks, and his innate hauteur. In his months with the Bolshoi, he has added welcome upper body strength to make overhead ballerina presses look easy, particularly with the sparrow-sized Alina Cojocaru in last Saturday evening's Giselle (he stepped in for an ailing Herman Cornejo), but also in the case of the substantially taller Polina Semionova earlier in the week.

In Cinderella, he confidently lifted Gillian Murphy above his head and gracefully descended a set of stairs. He has burnished other elements of his partnering studies—the feather-soft placing of the ballerina back on point, firmly gripping her waist as she tilts downward in arabesque, arranging his gaze to complement hers. It's somewhat ironic that the better partner a man is, the more he disappears, but in a good way.

Hallberg in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Hallberg's demeanor is less that of an innocent youth now, and grounded with more maturity and intent. When he ponders his fate, it reads as concerned instead of unclear. And his technique remains paradigmatic, amplified through an emphasis of certain details. A leg held at 90º for an added second or two projects into infinity through his gloriously pointed, high-arched foot. As he circles in the forest, a small scissor step has become far wider and bolder, expressing ecstasy but also ferocity. (Has he learned to outwardly savor those moments when he approaches the sublime, as his fellow dancers often do?) And as always, he floats in perfect split grand jetés, defying gravity. One drawback is that he is so long-legged that the Met stage seems too small for him in these leaps.

I would not have predicted that Semionova would be such a profoundly moving Giselle; her rather tall height doesn't lend itself to the girlishness that in part makes the character's illness and death so terribly sad. But she moves with such tenderness and delicacy that she appeared to be moving through water at times. Hallberg is the right height for her, and together they were heartachingly gorgeous. He is tall for Cojocaru, with whom he danced on Saturday, but she gives a powerful portrayal of the broken ingenue. (Plus, how can one quibble with him as a substitute, despite missing Cornejo's only Giselle?) She is a natural fit for the role, seamlessly transitioning from a demure coquette to a tragic spirit. Again, it is a lovely gift that Cojocaru, one of the luminaries of the current generation, guests with ABT.
Alina Cojocaru as Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

David Hallberg will perform in Swan Lake and The Dream in the final weeks of ABT's season at the Met, and in July, with the Bolshoi during the Lincoln Center Festival. When it rains it pours, but don't hesitate to seize the moment as he is a singular talent in a generation of fine dancers.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Rec: The 40s—Anthology of a Turbulent Decade

One confession no doubt common to many New Yorkers: I always have between one and seven issues of The New Yorker sitting bedside, waiting patiently for me to find the time to read through them. I never regret doing so, but depending on the height of the stack, they do at times take on the affect of an impatient teacher checking her watch for my tardy arrival.

So it was with trepidation that I took up reading The 40s, a newly published, nearly 700-page anthology of pieces from The New Yorker from that decade. Like the magazine, it's a mix of journalism, profile, criticism, poetry, fiction. The 1940s hold great fascination for me, post-war, pre-modern, a time of great transition in the world, and in New York, and this book delves into the historical global context of that pivotal decade.

The volume contains gem after gem, leading with a section on the war, which sets the table for the remainder of the book. Some favorite pieces: John Hersey on Lieutenant John F. Kennedy and Hiroshima, Janet Flanner on the Monuments Men, Niccolò Tucci on a visit with Albert Einstein, the poem "Barroom Matins" by Louis Macneice, and stories by EB White, Carson McCullers, and VS Pritchett, among many others. 

I do wish it contained a sampling of cartoons from that era, assuming they were included back then. I also would have liked to see some stand-alone dance criticism (also providing it was featured at the time), although it does refer to Agnes De Mille's Rodeo in Robert A. Simons' review of Copland and Shostakovich. There is also a hefty sampling of writings on "Feminine Fashions" by Lois Long, which are sprightly reading, but it's an overly generous dedication of space relative to the other cultural genres. 

Those quibbles aside, it's a fascinating overview of a pivotal time. I consumed the book while its younger, slimmer brethren sat watching, waiting for their turn to be read and perhaps graduate to an anthology of this decade in years to come.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ailey—Pleasures and Lessons

The Pleasure of the Lesson. Photo: Paul Kolnik

At this point, the Ailey company has more active repertory not by Alvin Ailey than by the company's founder. It has become one of the world's larger commissioners and remounters of contemporary dance, by default. One of the season's premieres, The Pleasure of the Lesson, is by Bay Area-based Robert Moses, who also created the score with David Worm. It was performed in the company's Koch Theater spring season.

Moses knows how to craft handsome stage compositions. The dancers arrange themselves in columns, ovals, and lines both parallel and at 90º angles. A woman, lying on a raft of men, rolls atop them and is subsumed by bodies on occasion. In a repeating series of funky lifts, the women sail upward with limbs askew. There's a lot of new stuff to look at, plastically speaking.

The five female/male couples, clad in Jon Taylor's hot- or flesh-colored pieces—panel skirts, short for the women, long for the men; shoulder shrugs, halter tops—were bathed in similarly warm-hued lighting (by Al Crawford). The score varies between sounds, rhythms, and spoken text, most of it unintelligible, and therefore transformed into frustrating background texture. If its meaning underpinned the movement, it was lost in space.

Jacqueline Green in The Pleasure of the Lesson. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Midway through the dance, when the group coheres and does a kind of ritualistic stamping and heel-rocking phrase, I realized that until then, the movement was a series of stop/start poses and sculptures. It was less fluid dance than snapshots—gifs—linked together. This thought was only reinforced while watching Ailey's unavoidable, yet continuously rewarding Revelations—specifically, "Sinner Man," which is the finest section of this condensed anthology of the choreographer's work. Sure, it's one bravura move after another—leaps (Sean Aaron Carmon, sleek as a dart), multiple spins (boy, can Kanji Segawa spin), layouts—but they surehandedly flow across the stage as cursive from a pen. It's simple to take for granted this masterwork from its ubiquity, but it continues to mete out profound, and yes—pleasurable—lessons about the craft.

Rounding out the bill was Wayne McGregor's Chroma, in its second season with Ailey. It worked better at City Center where the shadow box set fit more tightly within the proscenium, and where the audience sits closer to the stage so the dancers are more visible and accessible in this somewhat remote, often dimly-lit piece (that is, when it's not lit bright white). The mostly berry-hued spaghetti strap camisoles are still problematic, at least for the men, and their thigh-joint length chops the dancers' lines in half. McGregor's style might be suited better to ballet-dedicated bodies, as it felt lacking in crispness, if imbued with power. But it remains an interesting curatorial choice. And a note on Jacqueline Green, who performed in all three dances, and who is fast becoming one of the most thrilling dancers in this top-level troupe.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cinderella, Take 3

Photo: Gene Schiavone
Eight years ago, I saw Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in the ABT premiere of James Kudelka's Cinderella from 2004. Last Tuesday, I saw Kent and Gomes reprise the roles of Cinderella and the Prince, only in Frederick Ashton's ballet from 1948, using Sergei Prokofiev's score, that originated at London's Royal Ballet and was given its ABT premiere last Monday. (Remarkably, Kent also danced the lead role in Ben Stevenson's version in 1996.) 

This version, while not modern, fits ABT's strengths better than the Kudelka, which contains some memorable stage pictures and dynamics—the Prince's urgent dash around the planet—but falls flat in comparison. Kudelka's is like a cartoon tree—a puffy circle atop a cylinder—versus a lushly-leaved, knarled-trunk, detailed etching by Dürer. Wendy Ellis Somes and Malin Thoors directed this production.

There is a tendency in contemporary ballet to push extremes—extend a leg past vertically, push an arabesque into a split, break a sculptured, curved line with a flexed extremity. Ashton (1904—88) often did the opposite. He dimished the exhibitionist tendency, lowering an attitude to an elegant height, holding the foot in coupé derrière, or arranging the arms in crisp Vs held high or low. That's not to say that he pared the choreography to simple forms. As the variations by the four fairies demonstrate, he created knotty phrases that challenge even the most skilled practitioners, in this case Stella Abrera, Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, Isabella Boylston, and April Giangeruso. In some instances, he detached the music's support of the movement; the two cross paths and sometimes interweave, rather than swimming parallel.

The ballet's most memorable waltz section begs for swooping, dipping actions that emphasize gravity. But Ashton gave the corps' women slashing arms and crisply hit spots, an advancing army that marked the transition from reality to fantasy. Craig Salstein, as the Jester, seemed slightly overwound, pushing beyond the 110% he usually gives. His expressive face was painted clown white, which may have led him to try to use his body more. Nonetheless, he is reliably one of the most enthusiastic and entertaining performers in the company.   

The hysterics of the stepsisters (Kenneth Easter and Thomas Forster, in drag) offset the generally tasteful atmosphere set by Cinderella's passages. The tradition of men playing the sisters may be coveted in Britain, but it has less appeal to me. And yet, if women were given the slapstick pranks of this duo, it would surely count as misogynistic. Does it still? Hmm.

The set, by David Walker (who also designed the costumes), while column-and-candles classical in concept, recalls in practice the Japanese sliding screen form of theater, dogougaeshi. As each fairy makes an entrance accompanied by a pair of children, the portal in which she stands is revealed by a raised scrim. It shows off the great depth of the Met's stage. In Act 3, the ballroom appears to recede deeply, pushing us to focus on the couple, as if at the center of a Fabergé egg. In the final scene, a shower of glittering confetti sparkles hopefully around the couple, already on the neighboring hill.

Kent, after so many Cinderellas, exudes the essential purity and inner glow to be able to transform from peasant to princess. She enters the ballroom by walking on point, in her borrowed tutu and a sail-sized chiffon train held aloft by footmen, mincing ever so slowly down the steps. (I admit to worrying about the potential consequences of those steps, both here and when Gomes pressed her overhead and descended the staircase. He was fine, of course.) Gomes, clad in all white throughout, black hair gathered in a neat ponytail, is the consummate prince, drawing the eye even while darting through the crowd. He so fully inhabits his roles that even the sometimes awkward mechanics of partnering seem natural. His ability to exude both bravura and naturalness are remarkable, a testament to both physical training and artistry.