Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ailey—A Different Kind of Revelation

ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson
If there's one person within the Ailey company who represents its soul, it might be Matthew Rushing, who has been with the troupe for 22 years and is now rehearsal director and a guest artist. As a dancer, he is noted for his humility, speed, accuracy, and the gift of parsimonious but deeply meaningful expression. When some dancers try to go big and spin off energy, Rushing seems to focus his energy like a laser beam and direct it precisely where it counts. As a choreographer, he is just beginning; he has made three works for Ailey, and ODETTA—which premiered this season—shows he has a very promising future making dances.

This tribute to the folk singer (embodied in the dance with great strength and nobility by Akua Noni Parker) naturally uses a selection of her songs interspersed with spoken and projected quotations affirming human rights and self-respect. Each song carries a different message, which Rushing elaborates upon. Some of the sections are earnest and forthright, others—"A Hole in the Bucket," in which Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun act out the silly lyrics—exaggerated to the point of slapstick. The men go to war, and put on helmets, to underscore the action. Travis George's flexible set, of a series of lightweight benches with geometric cutouts, is arranged in a number of inventive ways. But on the whole, it's Rushing's choreographic style that propels the work, at times thrillingly. He parlays what would seem right on his own body into a vocabulary for the whole group—fluid phrases with precise gestures that connect directly with what Ailey produced, particularly in Revelations

The penultimate section that takes place downstage shows great skill. Initiated by a soldier going to war under a giant American flag, the dancers enter from the side in a line, holding hands, and shift through compact moves, pulsing and morphing; the group halves and the two parts alternate directions. It's almost as if the tightened spatial parameters were conducive to more creativity. (Earlier, we'd seen iterations of the forward-advancing line—in Hofesh Shechter's Uprising, which begins as the men stride to the apron and hit a passé, which they hold for a good long minute, and in Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women, when 15 women rustle their voluminous skirts as they advance downstage.) Rushing takes the subject matter to heart, and the song's messages resonate anew.
ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson

I recall Uprising (2006) differently from the company's 2008 Fall for Dance appearance, but perhaps it is simply Shechter's volatile, athletic language on Ailey's men instead of his own company. It shows how the Batsheva alum uses darkness and light to control the stage space and the level of drama. Stillness alternates with speed; gravity remains in control, as when the men motor about on all fours. The tongue-in-cheek Misérables finale—a red flag held aloft a pile of men, accompanied by a cheesy smile—put an odd exclamation point on an otherwise serious dance, as if to say, "just kidding!". 

As a bookend, the company's women (and four men) danced Suspended Women (2000). The lavish, Victorian-style dresses (by Christina Giannini) evoke both hyper femininity and its flip side, entrapment. Lines of dancers ebb and flow; there is much darting, skipping, and management of flouncy skirts and hoops. The men enter late in the work to lift and lug the women, doff their jackets to reveal bare chests, and disappear again. Daniel Bernard Roumain's score, using primarily violin and piano, grates at times. And at moments, especially toward the end, Martha Graham's influence can be felt in the urgent stage crossings. Yet the company felt truly at home in Rushing's work. It was an evening without Revelations per se, but with some promising revelations of its own. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ephemeralist's 2014 List


Leonid Sarafanov/Mikhailovsky Ballet, The Flames of Paris
Finding new treasures in the elegant, lithe Sarafanov, who performed in much of the Mikhailovsky's rep, including the Soviet-era spectacle Flames of Paris

Melissa Toogood (Petronio, Sally Silvers, Pam Tanowitz)

This all-purpose excellent Merce alum popped up, delightfully, everywhere.

Met Museum Presents
TwinnedJohn Heginbotham/Alarm Will Sound and El Greco/Cappella de Ministrers
One of the world's great museum's finds strong traction and modern relevance in its performing program. 

Kyle Abraham/Glenn Ligon's Watershed at NYLA
A harmonic partnership of movement and visuals.

What's It All About: Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop
Connecting pop music of yore to musical theater of today.


Chris Ofili, New Museum
A stunning exhibition, mounted beautifully.

Lee Krasner/Norman Lewis, Jewish Museum

Two overlooked expressionist greats given some overdue attention.


The Foundling Boy, Michel Leon

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Mad and the Bad, Jean-Patrick Manchette (this is old, but new to me)

Collected Short Stories, Lydia Davis

One More Thing, BJ Novak

The Miniaturist, Jessie Norton

Overhyped books:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Goodbyes, or at least for now:

Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue

Wendy Whelan at New York City Ballet

Looking ahead... 

Sports—Signs of Life after dismal seasons:

Jacob de Grom, Mets

Odell Beckham Jr., NY Giants

Modern Dance's Future Pivots:

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance
The repertory floodgates open to other choreographers' work. First up: Doris Humphrey's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor danced by the Limon Company, and Shen Wei's Rite of Spring danced by his own company (seven times!). The selection of Shen Wei is, artistically, somewhat mystifying, although the two companies share deep roots at ADF. 

Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines Project
A five-year project to revive modern masterpieces to which Petronio connects, just as the companies of some of modern's greats are shutting down. First up: Cunningham's RainForest. How handy that Toogood (see above) has been guesting with the company lately. The following year brings Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy. Can't wait.

Hello again:

Whitney Museum near the Highline

Wendy Whelan doing other stuff

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Nut to Squirrel Away

Anastasia Barsukova. Photo: Igor Siggul
Around the year-end holidays, we tend to settle into traditions and habits, and dance's one uncrackable tradition is The Nutcracker. The big two, at least through this year, are Balanchine's at New York City Ballet, and Alex Ratmansky's at BAM, which moves to California next year. A number of smaller companies mount productions, and Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's has risen surprisingly quickly as an alternative to the biggies. (She established her Tribeca-based school just four years ago and in recent years has mounted three or so ambitious annual productions.)

This production, choreographed primarily by Michael Chernov after Vasali Vainonen, takes few shortcuts other than using recorded music. The steps for the group scenes are smartly kept simple, garnering the basic desired effects. The costumes (also by Chernov) look of high quality, even from the close distance afforded by the wide house at Pace's Schimmel Center. With its shallow stage, there is nowhere to hide at such a proximity; jitters, sweat, and cheap fabrics could be easily detected by viewers, and the costumes fared well in this test (as did the jitters and sweat).
Chinese Ambassadors. Photo: Igor Siggul

At the Saturday matinee, Anastasia Barsukova danced the role of Marie, in this case both as a child and an adult (and shown above as a Flute from another cast). She impressed with her strong basics—balances, extensions, pirouettes—as well as in the fine tuning of her head positions and delicate hand gestures. A radiant Anderson Souza played her Nutcracker Prince, commendable for his partnering and the athletic sweep of his grand jétés. Of the many secondary roles, of special note were Katia Raj and Shelby Chaney as the Arabian Ambassadors, both long of limb and emanating a magnetic intensity, and an energetic Galen Bolard and Souza again, as the Russian dolls. 

The large group scenes felt well populated—no scrimping on the personnel—including the party scene, which the tiny Charles Klepner stole with his adorableness; the mouse/soldier battle, the snowflake dance, the angel scene, and the "Prince's Kingdom: The Theater of Life" scene with international dances. Chernov incorporated the dancers into the stage set by artfully arranging them in an upstage niche during the final scene. It's just one more indication of making the most of the company's assets, its dancers. Even the "that's theater" moments—seeing a stagehand haul the rope that moved the streetlamp, hearing the mesh-mounted Christmas tree unfold with a thud—had their charms, given the context.

With tickets ranging from $39—59, it's not the cheapest (ABT's tickets began at $20, but again, that's not an option starting next winter), but nowhere near the gulp-inducing range at the Koch Theater for NYCB's: $71—260. But it's the best production if you want your children to connect with the dancers; proximity and overcoming human vulnerability are its strengths. Kudos to Kirkland and company for making a real go at enriching ballet life in New York City. In May, the company takes on no less than a full-length Don Quixote.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Greco—Contextual Immersion

El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo courtesy of Met Museum Presents.

The Park Avenue Armory may have a lock on presenting some of the city's biggest cross-genre spectacles, but the Met Museum Presents boasts a vast choice of rooms, and thereby time and culture capsules, in which to host a variety of events. Some are tied to current exhibitions. This past weekend, Capella de Ministrers gave a series of concerts linked to the exhibition El Greco's Toledo, in the Velèz Blanco Patio, from Renaissance-era Spain. When combined with a tour of the El Greco show, it felt like a micro vacation, or being in a  snow globe within a larger snowglobe (the vast cultural riches of the Met) within the city.

Capella de Minstrers comprises five members: soprano Elisa Franzetti, and four on period instruments: director Carles Magraner (viol), David Antich (flutes), Sara Àgueda (double harp), and Pau Ballester (percussion). Franzetti's rich, focused voice permeated the small hall, moving between dancey, playful lines and the haunting lilt of more somber songs. Magraner, on viol, most often provided the steady pulse; the percussion, by contrast, was more embellishment, and Ballester deployed a wide array of small instruments in addition to a handheld, platter-sized drum. Antich's flutes at times engaged with the vocal line, or trailed it, while the harp contributed a delicate wash of notes, at times even taking the lead.

The song selection ranged from a Greek instrumental, with a nod to El Greco's hometown of Crete, to the Italian and Spanish Renaissance period, with longer selections of work by Ceari Negri and Fabrizio Caroso. In "Romerico Florido" by Mateo Romero, Franzetti sang with attack and felicitousness, boldly engaging while spinning a story. In the encore, "La Muerte de Absolan," a Sephardic lamentation, she strolled about while briskly regaling us in song.

The Blanco Patio, just off of the grand lobby, was a nearly ideal setting other than some ambient chatter from passersby and some echoing footsteps from above. The concert demanded a re-viewing of the El Greco in New York show—now degrees richer, armed with a greater context. 

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608—14, oil on canvas, 87.5"x76"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956
The show, up through Feb 1, is a gathering of the painter's works from the Hispanic Society of America and the Met. It is surprisingly compact, filling one relatively small gallery. It includes two of the artist's best-known paintings: View of Toledo, in which every object and surface shimmers with electricity, and The Vision of St. John, whose modernist tendencies purportedly influenced Picasso's composition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. One of the earliest paintings on view, Christ Healing the Blind (1570), with its clinical approach to perspective, is a reminder of just how radical El Greco's subsequent work was, with its unfettered, supernaturally expressionistic brushwork and flattened planes.

The show contains several portraits: of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, with his searing and judgmental gaze; Saint Jerome as both a scholar and a penitent, his elongated features compounding his otherworldliness; and a tiny cameo cut from a larger canvas, painted with Holbein's exactitude. The collective experience of the art and the music— artifacts five centuries old, yet very much alive with us today—is a surprising gift amid the holiday clamor. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

MoMA—Forever Now, or at least until April 5

Kerstin Brätsch, Sigi's Erben (Agate Psychics) (2012) at left; Matt Connors, Variable Foot (2014), at right. Photo: Susan Yung

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is the kind of show you'd expect MoMA to do more frequently—a compact survey of young painters expanding the genre, curated by Laura Hoptman, like a biennial (and including a number of artists that were in the last Whitney Biennial). In press materials, the obtusely titled show is parsed into four loose categories: reanimation, reenactment, sampling, and the archetype, which provides intellectual crunchiness if you prefer to go deeper than "I know what I like."

Some highlights:
Dianna Molzan, Untitled, 2012. Photo: Susan Yung

Kerstin Brätsch—some of Brätsch's "Blocked Radiant" paintings sit outside the gallery, like either greeters or warnings; frittery shapes surround fuzzy orbs. The large installation inside, Sigi's Erbe (Agate Psychics) (2012) is composed of a metal framework off of which hang panels made of glass or aluminum with imaergy, or of agate segments arranged into compositions, all meant to be seen from both sides. 

Mark Grotjahn—his carefully arranged psychedelic compositions of layered arcs, such as Untitled (Circus No. 6 Face 44.22) (2013) could be biological snapshots, or dense jungle. They are hermetic new worlds.

Julie Mehretu—she has relaxed somewhat from her hypothetical utopias that approach architectural renderings into scribbled graphite-hued fog banks that will be unavoidably compared to Cy Twombly, such as Heavier than Air (written form) (2014).

(Here, take note of the penchant for parenthetical titles. What gives?)

Amy Sillman, Untitled (Head), 2014. Photo: Susan Yung
Dianna Molzan—what she does—playing with the traditional format of painting—may not be entirely revolutionary, but it is entertaining and beautifully done. In the example pictured here, she has painted on sheer silk, which is then stretched onto bars so that both the canvas and stretchers are visible. In others, she slices the canvas, or reduces it to a net, whose strings receive the paint.

Amy Sillman—among the more traditional-seeming painters, which is perhaps the most ambitious. Her still lives and portraits resonate for their reductive shapes and gorgeous palettes.

Oscar Murillo—his extensive representation within the show is enough to make a statement. He pieces together canvases, using primarily dark hues with looping scrawls and dense occlusions.

The exhibition, through April 5, is on the sixth floor, next to the Matisse Cut-Outs. Catching both might give you a sense of the ongoing continuity within art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Maliphant—Sculpting with Humans

Carys Staton and Adam Kirkham. Photo: Warren Du Preez & Nick Thor
Russell Maliphant's Joyce Theater programStill Current, features his strong, fluid dancers solo or in small groups, moving in a fairly limited spatial range, in lighting (by Michael Hulls) restricted to geometric shapes, otherwise surrounded by utter darkness. In some ways, it banks on certain aspects of his last Joyce presentation, The Rodin Project, but it's unencumbered by the dubious, if elegiac, allusions to the sculptor's work. Still Current presents in abstract terms the beauty of the human form, but without the pretensions. In some cases, movement is limited to just the upper body, or a repeated set of phrases performed with great precision.

It's impressive how focused this program is, despite Maliphant being injured, causing a rejiggering of pieces. A men's duet, Critical Mass (featuring Thomasin Gulgec and Dickson Mbi) feels grounded and muscular as the pair fit their bodies together, or narrowly miss one another. Clothed in chambray shirts and pants, they appear as regular people. Two, a solo for Carys Staton, similar to the duet Two x Two seen in the recent Fall for Dance, confined her to a square, whose lit border she swiped with her feet and hands. Her folded arms became shapes bereft of function. In Still, Mbi's sculpted torso flickers under banded lighting; he is joined by Staton in a contrasting pale blue gown. In Afterlight, Gulgec appears alien, with a beanie covering his head, a white orb floating above a red warmup jacket. (The costumes, by Stevie Stewart, are for the most part casual tops and pants.) 

In Still Current, Marlon Dino danced in place of Maliphant with Staton. Until this piece, most of the partnering was atypical—same gender, or not load-bearing in the male/female tradition. But Dino repeatedly slung Staton over his shoulders, her legs maintaining a parallel, spear-like aspect, sliding her around his torso. It closed a tightly curated evening, mercifully trimmed of artifice and extraneous set pieces.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marooned in Manhattan

It's an unlikely time of year for the Park Avenue Armory to mount tears become... streams become..., given that its premise is to flood the Armory's vast hall along artist Douglas Gordon's specifications, and have pianist Hélène Grimaud give a concert of water-themed piano pieces (or at alternate times, have a player piano operating). Especially during weather like this week, when rain drenches the cold air. But the Armory has not shied from ambitious projects that few other presenting institutions in their right minds would undertake. 

The logistics of the project alone are breathtaking. 
At a press preview, as Grimaud sat on her piano island (there are so many metaphors to this image alone) surrounded by mostly dry black material, water began to seep up through the seams, nearly silent except for a stray burble or bloop. In a matter of minutes—under 10—the Drill Hall was a glassy pond. Grimaud played Fauré's Barcarolle No. 5 in F# minor, Op. 66, and Berio's Wasserklavier. While the acoustics are challenging, the effect of one brilliantly played piano floating on a glassy lake was transporting. Gordon sat beside her, giving lighting cues; after she was done, they walked through (on?) the pond to the dry deck, sloshing and looking like beached shipwreck survivors. Grimaud wore a sporty white track suit designed by Agnès B.

The most surprising and powerful aspect is how the hall's ceiling and roof trusses were illuminated by the choreographed lighting cues. From engulfing darkness, the east/west spine at the apex of the hall's ceiling was lit gradually. Then the "ribs" of the ceiling's armature were emphasized, and it appeared—seated at the very center to capture the symmetry of the ceiling in the reflecting water—as if we were in a giant whale's ribcage. Spots hit Grimaud's piano, and then the idle player piano. This tranquil yet humbling image will likely never be replicated in the middle of New York City... one more singularly memorable experience in a one-of-a-kind space, provided by the Park Avenue Armory.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Varone—Hitting Reset

Xan Burley in Dome. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
After 28 years of running a highly respected company, Doug Varone has done the unexpected. He has departed, if by degrees, from his signature style of modern dance, which is a fluid, looping, channelling of energy that looks organic but which is carefully constructed and practiced expertly by his trained dancers. In a new group work, Dome, and a solo for himself, he has created stuttering, angular phrases separated by long moments of stillness. In a sense, he has hit the reset button.

The Joyce program leads off with Castles (2004), representative of Varone's essential style. It's marked by a matrix of pin spotlights (by Jane Cox and Joshua Epstein), at times reduced to light just the stage's perimeter. The lively, danceable music, Prokofiev's Waltz Suite, Opus 110, coaxes the mood from carnivalesque to martial to grandiose. The 3/4 tempo accommodates Varone's affinity for dropping weight into the ground. Xan Burley is particularly effective in this dance—lush, boneless, muscular.

Doug Varone in The Fabulist. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Varone then performed a new solo, The Fabulist, to "Death Speaks" by David Lang, presumably sung by an uncredited Shara Worden, whose lilting voice imbues a folk music touch. The lighting, by Ben Stanton, plays an important part, as it does in most of Varone's repertory. Just Varone's head and shoulders are lit at the start; he is bathed in a cone of light and moves almost begrudgingly, primarily using his arms and upper body. As the lights pull apart to rake him from both sides, he expands his range, stutter-stepping, hunching, and walking awkwardly, almost as if relearning his first steps. He plops down and with some effort pushes a stray leg into position with his hands. He eventually gains power over his environs, batting away a spotlight, and finally snapping his fingers to extinguish the light. It's atypical of his extravagantly graceful movement, and an overt reckoning of his own role as a choreographer/creator. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung's gray silk suit with sheer sleeves and pant hems seem overly fussy for Varone, who generally comes across as the super graceful pugilist-next-door.

Dome, the group premiere, builds on the angular, fitful phrasing. To Christopher Rouse's strange, at times cyclonic Trombone Concerto, it feels emotionally dark (despite Jane Cox's golden lighting) and vaguely post-disaster. The dancers read as detached from one another, in contrast to their usual cohesiveness; they move robotically, bursting into a phrase, or freezing in arabesques or beaching themselves on the floor apathetically. Hsiao-Jou Tang captures the sense of resigned doom in her elegant, economical phrasing. In a flurry of brass instruments, the eight dancers finally trundle together, each raising an arm. Dome showed some fresh approaches from an established choreographer.