Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dance Notebook—Evidence and Romeo & Juliet

Annique Roberts in The Subtle One. Photo: Ayodele Casel
Evidence at the Joyce, Feb 24, 2015

A great distinction about Ronald Brown's 2014 dance, The Subtle One, is its jazz score by Jason Moran, played live by his trio in Tuesday's performance at the Joyce Theater. It had been awhile since I'd heard jazz played live for dance; so much of what is played live falls under the Bang on a Can style of new music, often without a melody or flowing pulse. So it was a pleasure to hear music by Moran, who scored the film Selma, plus a song by Tarus Mateen, who played bass.

The dance is, like its title, a subtle one. The smoldering star Annique Roberts begins moving at an even, moderate pace, marked by unfurling arms and a oft-repeated balance in which the she reaches forward yearningly with one arm. She is joined by the rest of the company, which breaks from briskly rhythmic ensemble sections into twos and threes, arms pumping like locomotive wheels. The work, while unspecific in story, refers to a stanza by Alan Harris about the strength of spirituality. The overall elegiac quality of the piece is enhanced by the white and peach-ombréd tunics, by Keiko Voltaire.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Marth Graham Dance Company Finds a Groove

Misty Copeland & Lloyd Knight, At Summer's Full. Photo: Brigid Pierce

Martha Graham Dance Company is celebrating its 89th year with a two-week run at the Joyce, with the theme Shape&Design. Misty Copeland guest starred on the opening night gala program in At Summer's Full (1940), a joyful dance that is part of Letter to the World, with new costumes (the originals were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy). While Copeland is not a native Graham dancer, her natural luminous stage presence and fully-articulated lines sang the choreography beautifully.

Michelle Dorrance's Lamentation Variation. Photo: Christopher Jones
The new Lamentations Variations show how a good idea can develop into a grand one. A film clip of Graham performing it leads off, a reminder of how fully integrated for her were form and message. Liz Gerring's displayed the drama she can squeeze out of simple stage formations. Michelle Dorrance's played on the snappy and jangly rhythms of the music, which included her own tapping. Kyle Abraham's tender duet articulated difference and harmony. Sonya Tayeh maximized the visual impact of the muscular dancers' limbs and feet, akin to So You Think You Can Dance, for which she has choreographed. This modular Lamentation series, which recruits new choreographic talent to the troupe, also demonstrates how small blocks can build a substantial edifice—much as Graham Company has done since its renascence.

Steps in the Street. Design by Frank Gehry. Photo: Brigid Pierce
Hewing to the season's theme of shape, Frank Gehry designed visual elements for Steps in the Street, Graham's classic war-time suite. The projected result is an animated illustration, a sort of volcano-shaped massing of lines that swiveled and blurred but remained secondary to the vibrant urgency of the womens' actions. Despite the mixed combined result, the attempt to enliven the repertory is admirable. Experimentation is once again a driving tenet.

Dance-theater artist Annie-B Parson was commissioned to create a premiere, The Snow Falls in the Winter. Her work is based on the Ionesco play The Lesson, and it fits surprisingly well within the Graham canon. Much of the movement is mime, or stage direction-type bursts (such phrases comprise part of the ample spoken text), but Parson puts the highly-trained dancers' skills to use in deep lunges, layouts, and extended legs held high (XiaoChuan Xie even waves a hand fan with her foot at one point). Technique aside, the company is comfortable with dramatic demands. 

In a direct line to Graham's work, Tadej Brdnik repeats some of the Minotaur's steps from Errand into the Maze, which had preceded Snow Falls on the program. The short-act tempo makes for lively viewing. Various props are clues to an admittedly absurdist affair—children's furniture, mics, a mysterious package, a dropped book, the fan. The Eagles' "Hotel California" is, intriguingly, played backwards (music is credited to David Lang), lending another element both familiar and disarming. 

Annie-B Parson's The Snow Falls in Winter. Photo: Brigid Pierce

Andonis Foniadakis' Echo, created last year, was performed again. The dance intrigues with the choreographer's opulent, circular movement style, enhanced with long flaring column skirts for all. PeiJu Chien-Pott was ravishing and forceful, buzzing like a live wire and swinging her long ponytail like a lasso, ready to rope anyone nearby. But the work runs too long, indulging a recurring and extended male duet (Lloyds Knight and Mayor) to the point of exhaustion. 

Artistic director Janet Eilber is succeeding in honoring Graham's legacy, enlisting artists to add to the repertory, resurrecting damaged sets and costumes, and engaging audiences with her pre-performance notes, which have become a familiar element at the company's performances. It's a positive takeaway as the Graham season closes on the eve of the first Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance season, which is promoting the incipient inclusion of works by choreographers who are not Paul Taylor—this year, Doris Humphrey and Shen Wei. To be continued.

Kehinde Wiley—A New Republic

Shantavia Beale II, 2012. Photo: Jason Wyche
There are many levels in appreciating Kehinde Wiley's work, the subject of an overview at the Brooklyn Museum, in a show subtitled The New Republic, through May 24. On the surface, the painting is technically impressive; his palette vibrant; the compositions energized by pattern-on-pattern. He is a perfectionist, apparent from the high level of finish in his carefully constructed frames and totality of presentation. And while he calls out the old master works after which he creates his compositions, the overall balance between central figure and secondary pattern is finely tuned. He plays with foreground and background, at times weaving floral garlands around the human subjects. (In this profile, he notes that assistants handle those elements, among other things.)

On a contextual level, Wiley is sui generis. His portraits of black people, mostly in their own clothes or modern-day dress, feature them in heroic poses patterned after classical works, including sculptures. The wall labels often feature photos of the source work, which is a welcome step in a time rampant with appropriation and unacknowledged re-use (ahem, Richard Prince). 

The Archangel Gabriel, 2014. 
Photo: Susan Yung

More than most contemporary artists, Wiley is acutely aware of art history and its religious, societal, and political beginnings. While juxtaposing modern black youth with the European cultural tradition so prevalent in American education, he is capturing his own time's people and customs of dress. A series of compact altar portraits depicts young men in saintly poses; the elaborate steepled frames are gilded in 24K gold leaf. A series of six stained glass panels similarly combine ancient ecclesiastical forms with contemporary young men. It raises questions: have these men done things to merit such sanctification? Were people who were similarly sanctified centuries before much different than you and I and the man up the block?

Femme piquée par un serpent, 2008. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery
The long central gallery contains many of Wiley's heroic, large-scale portraits. Several men sit atop horses (including Michael Jackson, in his high-late period face). A number of the paintings are from his "World Stage" series, taking classic works of art from various countries such as China, Haiti, and Turkey, subjects updated. Examples of paintings derived from sculpture include Femme piquée par un serpent (2008), based on a marble by Auguste Clésinger. The young man, underwear bared modishly, twists awkwardly, as the original female model must have, albeit even more so, nude. Wiley, however, has chosen to have the man stare directly at us. He is self-conscious, and we are self-conscious staring back. 

Colonel Platoff on His Charger, 2007.
 Photo: Susan Yung

Recent portraits of women comprise the final gallery. Until now, he has focused on young men to whom, as a gay man, he might be attracted. The depicted women, while noble and self-assured, are not asked to pose heroically, even if the source paintings are antique—as much a comment on the historical treatment of women in art as the contemporary version. 

In many of the paintings, the women simply exist amid the flora surrounding them, rather than dominate. Some wear elegant evening dresses that can be read in terms of socio-economics. Hair is sometimes done up in an elaborate beehive. A bronze sculpture, Bound (2014), features three women whose hair is braided together.

The exhibition, curated by Eugenie Tsai,  finds particular resonance at the Brooklyn Museum, where ancient culture meets broad racial diversity. Wiley's work feels like a portal in which time has collapsed, and eras are conflated. It's an exhilarating ride.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Justin Peck's Rodeo

Rodeo. Photo: Paul Kolnik
These days, a New York City Ballet premiere by Justin Peck is big news, and Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (sans the editor's nightmare of diacriticals) certainly adds to his rapidly growing stock of lively, thrilling ballets. Also of interest is the dance's context; it followed Ratmansky's recent Pictures at an Exhibition, and preceded Wheeldon's Mercurial Manoeuvres. There are links and degrees of influence among these guys, who are among the top ballet choreographers in demand.

This new four-section work to Copland's score contains broad themes of energy, weather, and nature. Peck breaks the fourth wall, like Ratmansky often has, most notably in Namouna. In Rodeo, which comprises 15 men and Tiler Peck, some of the men sit on the stage's edge, feet dangling over the orchestra pit, or reach toward the audience like the ham-handed effects in a 3D movie. They break poses and relax midstage as if in rehearsal, lost in thought. It's a device that invites us into their lofty realm, parlayed into a sublime heaven-on-earth by Brandon Stirling Baker's warm-hued lighting that evokes the smell of toast and hot chocolate, and shows us how spacious the Koch stage is.

The dance's sporty mood, set by athletic wear costumes by Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck, begins with the line of men "in the blocks" at the left, who then sprint across the stage. Daniel Ulbricht does what he does, which is spin, leap, and fly. The group of men fracture into small groups, supporting one in suspended or poses, or lifting one like a slow-motion carousel pony. Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar, in an extended duet, move eloquently, unfurling into striking poses, including a lift in which Peck vamps like a bathing suit model, flaunting her bare legs. Ramasar bends down to pull a cord, like starting a lawn mower, as the percussionist makes a similar noise. Gonzalo Garcia—like Ulbricht, an underutilized principal—is featured in the fourth movement. The group huddles and blossoms opens to reveal a soloist, like unwrapping a present. The eye is constantly fed, and there's plenty left to see in repeated viewings.

Pictures at an Exhibition. Photo: Paul Kolnik
There's a collegiality in Peck's dances that can only be enhanced by his position as a dancer. The new film Ballet 422, by Jody Lee Lipes, focuses on Peck's creation of another NYCB commission, Paz de la Jolla. Free of talking heads, it trails Peck as a dancer—in class, putting on makeup, backstage pre-show; and as a choreographer—in the studio alone with only his iPhone to record his own movement experiments, with Tiler Peck and Ramasar, in meetings with the lighting and costume designers, working at home. It is remarkable how self-possessed and focused he is for a 25-year-old (it was largely shot three years ago). Seeing the premiere of Rodeo just after watching Ballet 422 only multiplies the amount of respect I have for this young artist, who has already contributed some major ballets to the company's rich holdings.

New to roles—PicturesGeorgina Pascoguin (Sara Mearns' role), extraordinarily dramatic and risk-taking; wonderful to see this veteran soloist in featured roles which show her full dancing potential (we already know she's a fantastic dramatic artist). Sterling Hyltin (Wendy Whelan's role) conveys a similar clarity and deftness to Whelan, but has yet to gain the depth that may simply come with experience. Mercurial—the apprentice Preston Chambliss, with endless legs and ballon, a gifted young dancer in a state of emergence. Russell Janzen, a new soloist, partnering Sara Mearns; they are wonderfully proportioned together, and his coolness complements her fire.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

NYCB—Drawing Strength from Balanchine

Tyler Angle and Maria Kowrowski in Symphony in C. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The last couple of months have brought to New York some of the world's great ballet companies, including the Royal Danish Ballet, the Mikhailovksy, and the Mariinsky, not to mention our native ABT. Returning to New York City Ballet this week, I felt a renewed appreciation for this cultural mainstay even after—or because of—seeing these other companies.

Even as new choreographers emerge and ascend at NYCB—Wheeldon, Ratmansky, and now Justin Peck, within the last decade—it will always be about Balanchine. Obviously the deep repertory remains the font that feeds the whole enterprise, with his teaching principles and the legacies of his tutelage and choreographic process steadily driving things.

Balanchine's invention, love of craft, and attention to detail made dances that demand a high level of technique and artistry. Because of this, the dancers of NYCB are the most broadly skilled and well-prepared in the field. But the large size of the company can also mean that dancers become specialized, only getting cast in certain types of parts, or worse, getting overlooked. Some dancers seem to be in everything, others simply disappear for seasons at a time.

Some notes on the Winter Season's first two all-Balanchine programs, and a few notable recurring partnerships:
Ashley Bouder in Donizetti Variations. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Donizetti Variations (1960) is all breakneck speed, petit allegro, tricky timing, virtuosity. It is why dancers like Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette exist. They were paired again in the first movement of Symphony in C on the second program. There is great joy in their dancing, but at times it feels as if efficiency and hitting the marks supersede interpretation and nuance. Bouder is often ahead of the tempo, even if she lingers extra long in a balance to compensate, and she pushes moves past known limits. Veyette is ever eager, and when he's on his leg, he can spin endlessly.

Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, who led the cast of La Valse (1951) with Justin Peck as the macabre figure, are the opposite. They fill out the music with plushness and detail, injecting drama at every opportunity. There is risk and thrill in everything Mearns does, and Angle supports her while offering his own superb panache and peerless ballon. Mearns danced in Serenade as well, with Jared Angle, lending a dramatic depth that can sometimes be missing in this perennial favorite. Tyler partnered Maria Kowroski in the second movement of Symphony in C, lending his surehandedness to another leggy dancer whose amplitude and line are often breathtaking, despite an emotional guardedness.

Teresa Reichlen danced with Adrian Danchig-Waring in Chaconne and Agon on two programs. Both fairly independent spirits, they are tuning into one another. Danchig-Waring is seasoning as a principal, relaxing and savoring his time onstage. In ballet, one can never achieve perfection, and he seems to be accepting this in spite of his nature. Reichlen's height is no impediment to her moving quickly and with precision. She remains the cool kid who can send a message with a glance. 

Notable role debuts:

  • Anthony Huxley in Agon. He appears to have gained strength in the upper body, as well as confidence, and is soaking up and reflecting more of the audience's energy.  
  • Joseph Gordon and Lauren Lovette in Symphony in C's third movement. His jumps soar, to match his already high level of confidence. Her fluency and delicacy add a joy to this danciest of sections.
  • Lauren King in Symphony in C's fourth section. An assured performance by a relatively new soloist; we'll certainly be seeing her in more prominent roles.

Like the Royal Danish Ballet, which boasts the Bournonville repertory as the key to its legacy, NYCB will always have Balanchine's oeuvre as its source of power. The company is in fine shape to share those gifts of invention, musicality, and joie de vivre.