Wednesday, September 24, 2014

DEMO: Artists' Laboratory

Herman Cornejo & Robert Fairchild in Concerto 622. Courtesy of Works & Process at the Guggenheim/Jacklyn Meduga
Gone are the days of mourning a great dancer's retirement from New York City Ballet. Now, such an occasion can bring experimentation, broad collaboration, the unboxing of creative tendencies. We expect interesting things from Wendy Whelan, who takes her leave after this season to further her collaborations with young choreographers. And look at Damian Woetzel, who runs the Vail International Dance Festival and who brought his project, DEMO, to Guggenheim Works & Process this past week. 

He ran the show like a consummate professional, speaking eloquently about the project's simple mission: "Things I Like," following organizing principles such as science or musicality. Then he gathers like-minded (that is, open minded) friends who happen to be stellar artists, be they dancers, musicians, poets, scientists. Then he combines them together in short performances, creating individual nuggets strung on a common cord. 

It helps that his friends happen to also be superstars. The evening began with a duet by Fang-Yi Sheu, perhaps the finest performer of Martha Graham's oeuvre in the company's long history, and Herman Cornejo, a current rock star of ABT, standing with his back to us, emanating warm energy in that magical way he does. They performed Sheu's Pheromones to Philip Glass' pensive Façades, tracing one another's auras with their faces or palms, increasing in amplitude and speed until they tumbled across the stage in artful heaps. 

Fang-Yi Sheu & Cornejo with Claire Chase on flute.
Courtesy of Works & Process at the Guggenheim/Jacklyn Meduga

Sheu joined Lil Buck, jookin's premier attraction (hampered by a sprained ankle contained in a walking boot), after he improvised a solo to Claire Chase (a MacArthur fellow) on platinum flute, playing Edgard Varèse's fitful, at times shrill music. While it was game of Buck to even perform—an ankle injury caused him to bow out of last week's Fall for Dance al fresco opener at the Delacorte—his rippling arms and robotic head offered little new. But when Sheu boldly braced herself upside-down on the chair on which Buck sat, and planked her body across his lap, the interest ratcheted up several notches. 

Some musical segments pushed the form both structurally and geographically. Sandeep Das, on tabla, took up a self-imposed challenge of following a 15-beat phrase cut in half: 7.5. He tapped it out on his tabla while Woetzel egged him on, clapping heartily if not 100% of the time on the unconventional count. Cristina Pato played the Galician bagpipe, evoking music deriving from countries close to the equator, and less the upright Scottish mode (although Woetzel immediately began his Union Jack march when she mixed a few bars into her piece). She returned to play the piano while Logan Frances Kruger of the Limon Company danced a Mazurka excerpt, emphasizing weightiness and circular musicality.

Fairchild had begun rehearsals on Monday for An American in Paris, which is slated for Broadway. He and Woetzel had thrown together a rendition of "Ballin' the Jack," from a video of Gene Kelly. No doubt Fairchild recalls at times the athletic, jazzy Kelly, even in the most classical of repertory. Here, he was harnessed by the small, fan-shaped stage, but we got a sense of his exciting musical theater potential. And it's conceivable that he could continue on Broadway long after his departs the acute technical demands of ballet. Or, he could easily slip into work by, say, Lar Lubovitch, who choreographed the duet from Concerto Six Twenty-Two, danced at the Guggenheim by Fairchild and Cornejo. While Cornejo's preternaturally organic movement style is more naturally suited to the looping, fluid style, both men exude the quiet star power that characterizes Lubovitch's dancers.

The duet completed the last portion of the evening—on the theme of Monumentum, or remembrance—rounded out by a performance of Stravinsky's desolate, fractured Elégie by Johnny Gandelsman on violin, poet Elizabeth Alexander reading three vivid selections, and Chase playing Du Yun's An Empty Garlic (excerpt) on bass flute—as she described it, a big piece of plumbing. She will play the full work at The Kitchen in the near future.

The evening had the feel of an artist's salon, despite the absence of the previously billed Carla Korbes and Tiler Peck, and some performances were more rehearsed and polished than others, but you could imagine the ideas floating about, colliding, mixing, producing new ideas, with a little coaxing and orchestration by Woetzel, flourishing splendidly in his said retirement. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

From the Margins—Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis at the Jewish Museum

Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds, 1947, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 28". St Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. John Peters MacCarthy, the Linda and Harvey Saligman Endowed Acquisition Fund, Billy E. Hodges, and the Art Enrichment Fund 
An upside to modern art history's favoritism of white males? The latent "discovery" of talents who weren't. Two such artists are the focus of the Jewish Museum's show, From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945–1952, through Feb 1. The genesis of this show came about when the two artists were included in a 2008 exhibition at the museum of work primarily by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and their works both stood out and resonated with one another. 
Krasner, of course, is a more conventionally recognized figure, if often in relation to Pollock, her husband. However, she was established as an artist prior to their marriage, and in fact introduced him to a number of art world habitués, including de Kooning and critic and Ab Ex advocate Clement Greenberg. Who knows what course his career would have taken had she not done so? But her dense, agitated paintings such as Composition (1949)—bursting with small, ordered pictographs that fairly demand, yet ultimately resist reading— and her intricately layered dripped works (such as Untitled, 1948), can be seen in a fresh light in this show, detached from Pollock's magnificent, demanding canvases.

Norman Lewis, on the other hand, was unknown to me, a fact which confounded me while moving through the galleries. (If I had caught the Pollock/de Kooning show, I would've been enlightened six years sooner.) Was his relative lack of fame because he didn't hang with the downtown gang, as Pollock did? Or perhaps it was the delicacy of his lines, even though they vibrate with energy? No doubt being African-American contributed to his lack of recognition although his circle included familiar artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. One work inspired by social causes is included in this show, but his outstanding works are abstract, which perhaps marginalized him as he was more difficult to pigeonhole. In any case, his work is a wonderful, belated personal discovery. 

Lee Krasner, Untitled (1948). Oil on pressed wood, 18 x 38". The Jewish Museum, New York
Promised gift of Craig and Caryn Effron 
Interestingly, many of the paintings in this exhibition, curated by Norman Kleeblatt, derive from series with diminutive titles: Little Image paintings (Krasner), said to be inspired by her study of Hebrew, and Little Figure works (Lewis), which refer to African-American culture, including music. One of Lewis' major paintings on view is, in fact, titled Twilight Sounds (1947), which causes a modestly jarring conceptual disconnect. How does one depict sound? His vertical subjects resonate with the sense of fitting together, the way a band of musicians fits together visually as well as audibly. His compositions almost always surround the subjects with a wide border of color, isolating them and pushing them into focus. They are beautifully balanced, weighted like complex chemical compounds floating in space. 

Krasner tended to fit shapes just into the frame, or extended them past the edge, indicating an endless vista, a broad and busy universe. Several works show her experimentation with composition and technique—large organic shapes, or rectangulars spaced rhythmically, like paintings in a museum, or windows in building. The dense layering and scumbled pigment on her canvases tell of an inner life bursting at the seams, waiting to emerge. 

The Jewish Museum should be congratulated for bringing to light the work of these two artists essential to modern art. And who knows what other marginalized artists are waiting to be rediscovered?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Alice's Adventures—A Dizzying Delight

Sonia Rodriguez (Alice) and Cheshire. Photo: Bruce Zinger
Is it possible nowadays to make an entertaining ballet combining technology with a classic of literature? Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, danced the National Ballet of Canada and presented by the Joyce Theater at the Koch, offers a resounding yes. (It originally premiered at the UK's Royal Ballet in 2011, and with CNB that year as well). It falls closer to Broadway-destined spectacles by Matthew Bourne than traditional ballets—not a bad thing. Most enduring popular classical ballets are based on romances either tragic or hard-won, in part to justify the big pas de deux, the beating heart of the genre. Alice has a somewhat stitched-together storyline which fails to tug on the heartstrings like chestnuts such as Giselle or Swan Lake. Here, it's all about the adventure, as the title says, and a thrilling ride it is.

Photo: Bruce Zinger
The most prominent and surprising elements of the ballet are the sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. It feels as if he pulled every last proverbial rabbit out of his hat, where they've been multiplying for generations. Some effects are plain old stagecraft—puppetry (an enchanting Cheshire Cat, in large and extra-large), admirably built set elements (the Queen's rolling heart-shaped carapace), clever applications of playing card graphics (spade-shaped tutus). Video elements (projection design by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) are used cleverly, taking us through convincingly dizzying plunges through the rabbit hole, or causing a wall of doors to vibrate hallucinogenically. As in the book, one drawback to talking caterpillars and floating cats is that our protagonist is reduced to a wistful cipher, fading from prominence even as she hardly, heroically even, leaves the stage over the course of roughly two hours (excluding two intermissions). She is called upon, not surprisingly, to react to the various crazy events into which she is coaxed or thrust.

Elena Lobsanova and Xiao Nan Yu. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Sonia Rodriguez danced the lead role on Wednesday, with Naoya Ebe as her suitor, Jack/Knave. The flamboyant role of Mother/Queen went to Svetlana Lunkina, who landed at the NBC after departing the Bolshoi last year—threatened in the wake of artistic director Sergei Filin being attacked with acid. This real-life drama would be hard to match, but the Queen's eye-popping costume and favorite gesture (slashed throat) did just that. Lunkina switched from preening to bloodthirsty in a split second. Juicy signature phrases went to the Rabbit/Lewis Carroll (Robert Stephen) wearing Lennonesque round pink specs and twitching neurotically when not leaping about, the Fish and Frog Footmen (Dylan Tedaldi and Francesco Gabriele Frola) slithering and waddling with charm, and Raja/Caterpillar (James Harrison), slinking on his stomach, which he also comically rubs in circles. Alice and Jack are given relatively brief duos, in which little chemistry is produced, but Ebe displayed his elegant lines and expressive back, and Rodriguez her solid arabesque when she isn't wriggling through a tiny door or acting shocked, surprised, or delighted. 

Jody Talbot wrote the pleasing music, often filmic in feel, and recalling Prokofiev and Danny Elfman at moments. It moves the action along pleasantly; perhaps further listenings will let it imprint on the brain. New York City Ballet's orchestra manned the pit, led by David Briskin, music director of the National Ballet of Canada.

One niggling criticism about Crowley's costumes, which are on the whole brilliant and witty, is the clashing hues of Alice's lavender frock and Jack's red and white outfits (he is on the lam from Team Queen, whose color is red). Even when their lines are in harmony, they are visually off key. But what lingers in the mind's eye should be the abattoir complete with slaughtered pigs, giant teapots, flowers dancing down the aisles under a flurry of confetti, a massive neon labyrinth, and multiple houses of cards. Catch it if you can.