Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Royal Danish Ballet and the Joys of Bournonville

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Flower Festival in Genzano. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
There is simply nothing like the choreography of August Bournonville. With so much amazing ballet in the city, it is still a rare treat to see lead dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet in a program of Bournonville excerpts at the Joyce. The repertory dates to the mid-19th century, yet feels timeless. Its breadth is represented here and includes a modern-feeling male duet of Jockey Dance to the glorious abundance of the folk-infused Napoli, Act III. The lack of sets may actually serve to let the dance emerge more clearly.

What defines this distinct style? Some thoughts: 
Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli.
Photo: Costin Radu

  • The inventive phrasing which can change directions in the blink of an eye.
  • The thrilling musicality, which underscores the cursive flow of the dance phrasing.
  • Moments of stillness in contrast to great space-eating passages.
  • An entire section of grand allegro in which a man's feet barely touch the floor.
  • Details such as landing a jump with the arms held above the head with the palms facing outward rather than inward; or turn preparation from the second position rather than fourth; or landing a pirouette gently in a closed fifth position. 
  • There is such joy and life in the style, while it retains a consistent elegance and purity. This attitude is summed up in the signature leap, with the front leg straight, the trailing leg bent to form a split, and the arms spreading in front in a welcoming gesture.

The signature leap, shown by Alban Lendorf. Photo: Costin Radu
Ulrik Birkkjaer, a principal dancer who also organized the tour, exemplifies the company's style and aesthetic. In La Sylphide, kilt-clad, he leaps and slices across the stage like a laser beam, his ballon and precision astonishing—and effortless. All of the other 12 dancers on this ingenious bill gave charming, smart performances that deepened a love of the art form. This includes Sorella Englund, a former principal, now a character artist and ballet master, who performed the sorceress in La Sylphide and reminded us of the keen importance of gesture and acting. One single terrifying gesture of hers aimed at Birkkjaer seemed to drive him into the ground, and it certainly electrified us mortal viewers.

While the company, now led by NYCB alum Nikolai Hübbe, is uniquely prepared to perform Bournonville, even its skilled members encountered some difficulties, no doubt magnified by our close proximity to the stage. Wobbly balances, an occasional unpointed foot, indecisive finishes to pirouettes, a tendency to push a few degrees too hard to achieve more height... all reminders that very few other companies could undertake this exquisite, difficult repertory.

Read Marina Harss' New York Times piece here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Elkins—Playful and Deadly Serious

Alexander Dones in Mo(or)town/Redux. Photo: Christopher Duggan
Doug Elkins' program at the Joyce this week shows two sides of his artistic sensibility—the playful, lighthearted goofball in Hapless Bizarre, and the serious dramatist in Mo(or)Town/Redux (2012). While there are some sweet moments in the first work (a premiere), it's a tall task to ask it to stand next to the taut, compelling second work, which takes nothing less than the story of Othello and Limon's modern dance classic Moor's Pavane as influences.

Hapless Bizarre has a thin filament of a narrative thread. A nerdy, bespectacled guy (the vaudeville performer and clown Mark Gindick) chases, and is chased by, a black hat, which is replaced by a mauve hat, a harbinger of creativity and the onslaught of a gang of free spirits wearing paisley and bright colors (costumes by Oana Botez). Amanda Ringger designed the lighting, which perhaps includes the psychedelic projections. Gindick is swept along in familiar ways—first as an outsider, and eventually as a unique member of this fun-loving group. Elkins uses social dance and pedestrian movements, including basic interactions that resemble how children behave. It's a less studied vocabulary, more relatable. The music (credited as "musical supervision and original music: Justin Levine and Matt Stine") is a melange of mostly romantic songs hewing to the nouvelle chanteuse; I recognized Madeleine Peyroux, but regrettably the specific artists included are not listed.   

Donnell Oakley and Kyle Marshall in Hapless Bizarre. Photo: Jamie Kraus
In any case, the songs are not as familiar as those that accompany Mo(or)Town/Redux, which are mostly Motown staples. These are also not credited specifically, but the emotional evocativeness of many of the songs by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, and Amy Winehouse drives the work forward inexorably, with shifting dynamics. Jose Limon created the source dance which tells the Shakespeare story with audacious simplicity—of love, deceit, misunderstanding, and tragedy as told through a single misplaced hanky. Elkins was wise enough to base his dance on the solid bones of Moor's Pavane, but he leaves his mark in his fluid, eclectic choreography, with bits of modern connecting hip-hop and court dance. It already feels like an indispensable classic, despite its recent provenance.

Kyle Marshall makes a striking first image as the Othello figure, dressed in a suit and handling a mic and stand like Steven Tyler. Donnell Oakley, as his queen, and Cori Marquis, as the friend, convey jubilation and dreamy romance. But Alexander Dones is the dark Iagoian heart and quicksilver soul of the dance, with his elastic, compact body and coiled energy. He also embodies the everyman, as Elkins can (does) when he performs. It makes the sui generis choreography even more accessible, even if that's a quixotic illusion. Perhaps the one drawback of including this dance is the difficulty in matching its artistic achievement. Call it the Revelations Syndrome.