Sunday, March 22, 2015

Taylor—Shifts Subtle and Tectonic

Cloven Kingdom, clockwise from left: Michaels Trusnovec, Apuzzo, and Novak, and George Smallwood. Photo: Paul B. Goode
The revolution in the inaugural season of Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance isn't just the presence of Shen Wei Dance and the Limon Company (performing Doris Humphrey)—it's the new use of live music for nearly every dance. And given that Taylor has favored classical music for many of his dances, it's a huge windfall. 

The big musical surprise was Cloven Kingdom (1976). Corelli's haughty music vies for primacy with lurking drums (by Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller, combined by John Herbert McDowell). In the prologue, the percussion is usually faint in the recording; done live, it was at first too distant to glean the sense of foreboding, but they eventually balanced out. The dancers must surely savor the immediacy of the live music after so many seasons of predictability. It can only have added nuance to their renditions.

Shen Wei's Rite of Spring led off the program on Mar 17, to a recorded piano interpretation of Stravinsky's famous score. It felt very strange in the context. His style de-emphasizes emotion and human interaction, and communicates through a tightly contained expressiveness of the body and stage patternings. Drama is conjured, for example, when a cluster of dancers stands upstage at the right, and one downstage dancer faces the group, forming a line of tension. The stage floor is covered with a painted canvas of strokes and charcoal tones which resonate with the dancers' costumes; their socked feet make shushing sounds as they glide. 

Shen Wei's movement has moments of beauty—when a dancer swirls and twists, following organic looping shapes. But the repetition of a rapid shuffling step, arms held immobile at the side, soon takes on an annoying affectation. The cool, reserved aesthetic is so different from Taylor's that it might enlighten some viewers, but it also may distance others. Would that it were Taylor's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) (1980)—among his most fascinating dances.

The rest of the Mar 17 program fell into the more intense, dramatic side of Taylor's oeuvre. The Word (1998) ranks among the choreographer's studies of indoctrination and rebellion. The 12 dancers wear Santo Loquasto's witty prep school uniforms of white shirts, ties, and knickers. Some of the men wear smeared-on lipstick. Jennifer Tipton's fluorescent tube installation lighting the upstage wall, covered in gray fabric, feels appropriately austere, institutional, and soulless. The commissioned score, by David Israel, is played live. The movement is strident and limbs are arranged in lines and angles; Parisa Khobdeh is the only errant dancer, in a nudie-painted unitard. As with many demons or rebels in Taylor's canon, she chassees with her arms slashing like scythes, hands, claws. Francisco Graciano is lifted and carried as being initiated or honored. Whether about religious, intellectual, or viral infection, its edges still cut.

Diggity: Francisco Graciano, Eran Bugge, George Smallwood, and furry friends by Alex Katz. Photo: Whitney Browne
In Promethean Fire (2002), the live performance of Bach's symphony injected a clarity and immediacy into this rep staple. And for the first time since its early years in the rep, Michael Trusnovec did not dance the lead male role, now held by the warm, lyrical James Samson. To those who follow the company, it felt like the beginning of a sea change that is inevitable, even if it is simply to spread around the choice roles. Trusnovec, the paragon of Taylor's style, has danced the lead with a simmering emotional intensity that seemed to key off of the underlying terror, and redemption, that imbues the dance, made in the wake of 9/11. Samson's rendition is yet serious, but the potential for cataclysm is more remote. And while Samson has in recent years been shifting into the role of a company lead, he still has a few steps to take in order to fully assume this power. It's almost as if he wears it like a cloak, whereas Trusnovec has long since internalized it. 

The Mar 19 program, in which all three dances were designed by Alex Katz, led off with the whisper-light Sea Lark, which I discussed here. Last Look came next, with its frenetic, ping-ponging series of solos, the dancers' psychoses tuned to an altered state. Katz's lurid-hued satin dresses for the women were refracted off the freestanding panels—a house of mirrors capturing a moment of wild abandon. The pile of bodies at the end evokes the same image in Promethean Fire, spinning a mental connecting filament within Taylor's oeuvre. The effervescent Diggity, with its lovable field of dog cut-outs, closed the bill. The lead role was danced by Eran Bugge, whose generosity and charisma are cherished gifts.

The slate on the evening of Mar 21 contained a surprise—an amended version of Death and the Damsel, just a week old. The entire final act was cut, in which Jamie Rae Walker wakes up to realize she defeated the real or imaginary demons overnight, and wipes her brow in relief (also treated in a recent post). The revised version ends as she is surrounded by the dark spirits and swallowed up. It's a more fitting ending to a work that has garnered some unintentional nervous laughter from audiences unsure of what to expect.
Sunset: Aileen Roehl with Michael Trusnovec and guys. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Sunset (1983) began the evening looking splendid as always, and getting a lift from the live performance of Elgar's score. The core male duet continues to be danced by Trusnovec and Rob Kleinendorst with great sensitivity to its numerous emotional note. Aileen Roehl has distinguished herself this season, not just with her tremendous athleticism and energy (she's got the big split leap), but with her luminosity and generosity of spirit. Here she takes the role of the woman whose feet never touch the ground for an extended spell, as she's continuously lifted and then steps and rolls on the men's backs. Not just a portrayal of genteel flirtations and camaraderie, Sunset is a poetic remembrance of the toll of war. 

The Orchestra of St. Luke's needed to tune its strings a bit more prior to Brandenburgs (1988) which closed out the bill. The opening minutes were filled with distractions, including the slightly off-key notes and the well-meaning opening curtain applause, which drowned out the early bars. But as the beautifully structured dance progressed, on through Trusnovec's series of duets with three women—Bugge, Michelle Fleet, and a vibrant Parisa Khobdeh—the strings seemed to blend better, building through the final sections when the nine dancers' swoops and leaps synced with the orchestral dynamics. As always, Trusnovec, in the male lead differentiated by his costume of olive tights, was the paragon of strength and vulnerability, precise and yet plush. Emerging into his own throughout the repertory is Michael Novak, who presents the pleasing Taylor lines with elegance and brio.

The fact that Taylor was able to make a major change to the latest premiere—during the season—is somewhat astonishing, but it makes some sense given the tectonic shifts in the company's structure over the past year. The announcement that Lila York, Larry Keigwin, and Doug Elkins will be choreographing works for PTAMD is heartening, after this year's logical inclusion of Humphrey (performed by Limon) and the more artistically puzzling addition of Shen Wei. The addition of live music is obviously great, but the amount of work it entails should be acknowledged—the hours of rehearsals on the part of the orchestra, and with the dancers, all add up to an enormous artistic and financial investment, from which we viewers profit immensely. The run continues through this week.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Taylor, Bright and Dark

Michael Apuzzo in Sea Lark. Photo: Whitney Browne
With Paul Taylor, you never know which side of him will come through in a new work—pensive, elegiac, romantic, dark, crazy, or joyful, to name a few. Sea Lark had its New York premiere by Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance on Wednesday at the Koch Theater, and it falls into the joyful category. Taylor conspired with artist Alex Katz, who designed the set and costumes, to give us a slice of sun, water and sand during the tail end of a wicked cold snap. It's all about the setting, and less about movement invention or deep narrative.

The boat is actually seaworthy looking—capable of holding four, it has a single operating sail (and hidden wheels). The 10 dancers (mainly Francisco Graciano) push it back and forth, marking the passage of time. In the first part, a bright yellow cyc and a foot-high bright blue wavelet provide the dancers with a narrow lane in which to move. Parisa Khobdeh, in a dotted crop top and neon orange shorts, frolics in the shallow surf, doing a back walkover. She is hauled into the boat with a lifesaver, more play than survival. The men wear white sailor pants and fitted primary-colored t-shirts. Dancers pair off; one couple is flirtatious, another boyishly antic. Michael Novak and Christina Lynch Markham compete like athletes on Venice Beach; Michael Apuzzo shows off his biceps and a back handspring. Poulenc's music (Selections from Les Biches) is bright and delineated in broad strokes, suitably cartoonish for this romp. 

Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in Beloved Renegade. Photo: Paul B. Goode
In the season's second premiere, Death and the Damsel (admit it, his titles have always been pretty great) to music by Bohuslav Martinu, he went pitch black. Jamie Rae Walker, whose blond bob and girlish stature are shorthand for innocence and optimism, wakes up in an apartment, as seen in Santo Loquasto's Broadway-scale mural of a fractured cityscape. In her pink gingham sundress, she skips, rolls, does fouettes, makes funny bicep displays. But she falters as black-clad characters infiltrate the stage, foremost among them Michael Trusnovec in Loquasto's trim biker pleathers. The others are dressed like vampires going to a ball, with high collars, long coats, and all sorts of straps and head gear for the women. The music, until then a crisp interplay between cello and piano, starts to blur, and we've soon fallen completely into a dream sequence.

The next scene is backgrounded by a painted drop of a "Dance Club." The darklings conspire, clutching shoulders and circling ravenously, or inch-worming across the stage. Trusnovec and Laura Halzack waltz with deliberation, as if to impersonate people. He casts his spell on Walker, and she's in thrall to his powers, giving in like a rag doll. She awakens, only to be spun to the floor, her legs snapped open like a lobster cracker in a shorthand for rape. Each of the men take turns. (Once again, I found myself wondering, in fact hoping, if Mark Morris, in the house, would shout "No more rape!" He didn't.) If that weren't enough, after Walker rises, stunned, she's slapped by Halzack, evoking audible gasps from the audience, and is mock hit and kicked repeatedly.

Cut to the next scene, in front of Chrysler Building details. Halzack has now bewitched Walker, and they drift through a prolonged duet in slo-mo; the darklings lurk slowly nearby. The cello and piano lines weave tightly. Walker regains consciousness and defeats her demons abruptly, signaling victory.

If the desired effect was shock, Taylor succeeded. He has never shied from the depiction of terrible violence or madness. Is the work about dealing with dark psychological states? Or simply an expression of a dislike for nightlife? Maybe both. Like many of his narrative works, it is as much theater as dance. Its overtness and baroque sensibility, however, weigh heavily.

It didn't help that it followed Beloved Renegade (2008) on the March 13 program, perhaps the most recent truly great work in the company's rep. This tops the list of dances to benefit from live music, played this season by the Orchestra of St. Luke's (here with St. George's Choral Society and soprano Devon Guthrie). The recording that Taylor had previously used always sounded particularly canned, but played live, Poulenc's Gloria gains a needed immediacy and shimmering delicacy. You feel that Taylor was inspired, even frightened, by the idea of a poet (Trusnovec) facing his mortality, and every moment he's onstage, we're reminded of it. How he is a distant observer of playful humans, how fate (embodied by Laura Halzack) guides him unerringly and brutally, how he at last wholeheartedly embraces his peers—his life—during goodbyes. 

The finale on both of these performances was Esplanade (1975), another career high point that benefits immensely from the Bach score played live. It is often remembered for its gaiety and exhilaration, but the dark sections demonstrate how Taylor has ingeniously expressed inner turmoil. The broken family whose hands only hover near one another. The human animals, on all fours, trudging in an unending circle. It's capped by the exuberant ending, following the stage equivalent of a series of pool party cannonballs, now led by Parisa Khobdeh. Michelle Fleet bidding us a warm thank you and goodnight.

The company's season, now with works by Doris Humphrey and Shen Wei, continues through March 29.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Cunningham, Merci

Photo: Patrick Andre
Longtime Cunningham steward Robert Swinston brought his new company to perform at the Joyce this week. Compagnie CNDC d'Angers, resident company at the Angers Centre National de Danse Contemporaine, is just two years old, but in that time Swinston has developed its eight members into convincing interpreters of the Cunningham legacy.

Back to legacy. The word that so frequently pops up in dance conversations these days. Between Graham, Taylor, Brown, Ailey, and Cunningham, it's rampant. All of these troupes featured their founders' choreography exclusively, the only structure that was practical and made sense while their leaders were productive. Among these big five, only the Cunningham company completely disbanded, leaving Merce's work to be licensed to other companies and rehearsed under the auspices of a trust's repetiteur. Swinston was able to land in France, in that company's still relatively generous dance ecology. (It always boils down to the bottom line, and dance, as the poorest relative, rarely fares well, at least here.)

Photo: Patrick Andre
The CCNDCA (okay, so the national structure doesn't exactly produce snappy acronyms) danced an Event on Tuesday night. It was brave to begin with this seamless 75 minute work, which is a concatenation of excerpts from potentially 11 of Cunningham's dances. The first and most striking element is the set, comprising multi-colored banners with cut-out shapes, evoking Matisse and in fact done by his granddaughter, Jackie. I suppose if anyone has the right to further Henri's legacy in a direct manner, it would be a literal legacy. Fans blow the banners dreamily; lighting (by Augustin Sauldubois) at times glows from behind them. The combined effect is akin to wind and sun, appropriate for the nature evoked in Cunningham's oeuvre. These effects are yet furthered in the score, played live, by John King and Gelsey Bell—chirrups, tones, yelps, and sundry other sounds painted an organic sonic setting.

The movement was a familiar, welcome tonic—crisply delineated, muscular, turned out, infinitely extended, architectural. Dancers lean on or are supported by others, at times with the unconscious fraternity of children, at others with groupthink lifts. Cunningham's style combines a sense of freedom with great underlying structure. It takes tremendous training, however, to interpret it with an easeful demeanor, and these dancers largely succeed in that. At times, it felt as if some added force was required, and in some of the men, more personal interpretation than demanded. I was particularly moved by Clara Freschel, luminous and clear-sighted, and Flora Rogeboz, with polished lines and a tremendous expansiveness.

The company's existence is surely a gift, and even though we may ultimately see it perform here nearly as often as the old Cunningham troupe, it's sad that they are not based in the US. But as the world shrinks and borders melt, so does the field of dance, to our benefit. The company is dancing a second, shorter Event this week as well.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Finding a Common Language with Uncommon Dancers

Hyltin, Mearns, Melnick, Mitchell, and some viewers. Photo: Ian Douglas
The New York dance ecosystem is big. It contains several distinct groups that usually maintain a safe distance from one another; the main ones being ballet, modern, and Broadway. Lately, there's been more mixing between them than in recent memory, and it's primarily ballet stars dipping their calloused toes into other ponds. Broadway shows now star the Fairchild siblings, NYCB principals Megan and Robert, as well as his spouse, Tiler Peck. A number of ballet dancers have hatched their own small troupes to experiment with dance hybrid forms; they often employ their talented large company mates to perform (Troy Schumacher, Michele Wiles, Craig Salstein).

The most recent experiment began by Danspace Project director Judy Hussie-Taylor inviting critic/poet Claudia La Rocco to curate the space's spring platform, which is titled Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets. A series of Dance Dialogues combine dancers from ballet and modern worlds. 

starts and fits, no middles no ends: 8 unfinished dances featured NYCB stars Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin paired with, respectively, Cunningham alum and independent success Rashaun Mitchell and Jodi Melnick, a luminous presence who has danced with numerous descendants of the Trisha Brown tree, including Brown herself, and choreographed as well.    
Sara Mearns. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was no surprise that given the venue—fertile turf for post-modern creativity—the ballerinas looked somewhat out of place at first, in warm-up type clothing (by Reid Bartelme) and sneakers. It was not until they moved in their own classical language that they seemed to relax, doing what they've trained their whole lives to do, and that includes not looking ungraceful or untrained.

Melnick and Mitchell comported themselves as distinctively as they have in their own projects. Melnick's every move is purposeful and linked to her next; she rarely inserts breaks into what read as structured improvisations, but which are probably carefully choreographed. She maintains an alert but broad focus that never reads as a specific emotion, until she is coached by Hyltin to do so in a hilarious Somnambula coaching session. 

Mitchell did a masterful improv with four chairs hanging from his body. He is a rare combination of subtle and strong, at times nearly ruthless, as when he ran headlong toward one of the viewers sitting in the performance area. (Two of these viewers were a critic and choreographer who could not resist exchanging whispers during much of the early stages of the performance, and by their location became chatty set pieces.) And—huzzah—he was asked only once or twice to support his female collaborators, two of whom spend a lot of time being lifted or steadied by men.

Mearns is the moment's leading ballerina. Her utter abandon and emotional outpouring in NYCB performances are made possible by her technical prowess, without which she couldn't be free to communicate all that she does. She is fearless and emotionally giving in the many ballets in which she now stars. Stripped of distance and formality, she became even more human. She walked without grace—like a Neanderthal, as a viewer behind me put it—particularly in her first costume of sneakers and multi-colored workout tights. When she changed into a sparkly beige romper and soft ballet slippers, she took on several layers of glamour that more typify her presence. She flashed her split extensions, shapely feet, and pliable back, releasing into a deep back arch with a slowly blossoming port de bras. She had transformed from ape to angel, grinning with happiness.

Hyltin is another radiant principal, quicksilver and delicate in her ballet roles. She seemed reluctant to diverge from ballet steps during improv sections, quoting some Balanchine here and there. One of her costumes, a short leather circle skirt, felt odd. But she hit her stride while coaching Melnick as La Somnambula, a NYCB rep staple. After Melnick stole the show by responding exaggeratedly to Hyltin's spoken notes—"more pain, now bump him," evoking a moan and a hip check—the ballerina demonstrated the proper way, and why she is a highly respected and beloved dancer.

These are fun experiments, mixing and matching modern and classical stars to see what results. It humanizes the mythic ballerina, and reminds us of the numerous gifts of modern artists. It does raise a timeworn issue: is it right to give these international stars opportunities that any of a hundred under-exposed modern dancers might truly appreciate? But who can blame La Rocco for putting together these dream lineups.    

Sunday, March 1, 2015

New Museum's 2015 Triennial; Wave and Particle at Feldman

Komar & Melamid, Super Objects: Super Comfort
for Super People
, 1977
Eva Kotatkova, Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013
Photo: Susan Yung

The New Museum's triennial, entitled Surround Audience, culls art by more than 50 creators from 25 countries. It's far too dense to absorb in one visit, but even if that's all you do, you'll come away with a snapshot of what's happening around the world, and some strong impressions of work that concerns the global environment as well as political, social, and economic issues. Here are a few that stuck with me. 

Antoine Catala's Distant Feel is a mesmerizing sculptural installation comprising sea creatures living on the characters "E3." The plumbing and filtration are integrated into the piece, lit by deep blue neon.

Antoine Catala, Distant Feel, 2015. 
Photo: Susan Yung
Eva Kotalkova's nostalgic room-sized installation of objects and artifacts that slide between function, torture, and whimsy. Performers demonstrate some of the pieces at work. (I was unavoidably reminded of Komar & Melamid's series of Super Objects from the 1970s.)

Shreyas Karle's installation of relic-like objects, in a separate room, felt related to Kotalkova's work. This repository of small objects made of copper, plaster, and other assorted materials keyed off of both sexual and religious fetishes.

Juliana Huxtable's inkjet print series, Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming, feel like surreally accurate depictions of sci-fi fiction, with their hyperreal, idealized women amid unfamiliar environments.

Eduardo Navarro, Timeless Alex. Photo: Benoit Palley
Frank Benson's Juliana is a partner piece, by intent or proximity, that occupies front and center on the second floor. It's a lustrous, life-sized sculpture that parallels Huxtable's women; its media is listed as "painted Accura ® Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype," for what it's worth.

Onejoon Che's installation depicts a series of heroic monuments in Africa, built by a North Korean company. They could be in a number of locations where propaganda has thrived, recording some kind of universal language for terrible public art.

Eduardo Navarro's Timeless Alex combines a sense of poetry in its title as well as the concept—a costume that replicates an extinct Galapagos tortoise, which performers will don and move about in. 

Brian Knep, Healing #1. Photo: Feldman Gallery
Wave and Particle, a group show at Ronald Feldman Gallery through March 21, showcases work by artists funded by Creative Capital. It's a terrific survey of artists who may not be brand new names, as many in the Triennial are (to me, in any case), but their inclusion in such a show means they have earned a number of accolades. 

A number incorporate video or photography, such as Brian Knep's Healing #1, an interactive floor piece that you can rearrange by walking across.

A few other highlights: Shih-Chieh Huang's Nocturne-II, a joyous mixed media mechanized sculpture whose plastic sleeve arms inflate like a comical octopus; Jason Salavon's eerie Rembrandt and Velasquez sin rostro portraits; and Ken Gonzales-Day's haunting wallpaper photograph of a tree, After the Crowd. With art fair madness about to begin, this show is well worth a visit.