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. 

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