Tuesday, May 26, 2015

ABT—Dark the Soul, Bright the Stars

Julie Kent & Marcelo Gomes in Othello. Photo: Gene Schiavone
We love ballet because it can defy mortality. The grace and ease with which the pros do the most difficult steps refutes gravity and the way most of us clump along, meat bags with a few muscles and bones. On the other hand, many of the full-length ballets in ABT's current Met Opera House season underscore the frailties and downfalls of being all too human.

Lar Lubovitch's Othello is revived every so often in part to showcase a powerful male dancer at the peak of his powers, and ABT has no better embodiment than Marcelo Gomes. Although the role was set on Desmond Richardson, it seems built for Gomes. As the curtain rises, simply sitting on his throne, clutching its arms, head bowed, he commands attention. The muscles on his bronze breastplate may not be his, but we don't doubt the power implied (we're also familiar with Gomes' strength).  

Xiomara Reyes, soon galloping into the sunset, in Rodeo. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It never hurts to have a good tale behind a story ballet, and Shakespeare's deeply troubling examination of loyalty and deceit reveals the darkest side of man's nature. James Whiteside made for a believably sinister Iago, slithering and scything his way around the stage's perimeter like an angry shadow. Julie Kent's Desdemona is effectively naive, and Stella Abrera, as Emilia, perfunctorily foreboding. The addition of Bianca (Misty Copeland) and Cassio (Joseph Gorak), who become vehicles for betrayal, flesh out the stage action while clouding the narrative. Still, these two magnetic dancers have some of the best sections of dancing, unchained from the text. The white scarf becomes a searing emblem of love; the more hands that touch it, the more tainted it becomes as a symbol of devotion. 

Agnes De Mille's Rodeo, on the other hand, begins with its lead cowgirl, Xiomara Reyes, longing for the camaraderie of the posse of cowboys, but being ignored until she accedes to at least some feminine conventions. Xiomara Reyes is retiring this season, but her lead performance makes that hard to believe. She's as sassy and tomboyish as ever, in this, one of her best dramatic vehicles. It highlights a buoyant sense of humor that can be buried in formal ballets, albeit where she excels technically. She will be missed in this role. James Whiteside danced the role of the cowboy who moves from buddy to beau, including a lighthearted tap segment.

Isabella Boylston as Giselle. Photo: MIRA
Giselle as well ponders the foibles of the heart, both figuratively and literally. Albrecht falls for, and guilelessly deceives, the frail Giselle, who after death is consigned to join the Wilis (basically, ghosts of unmarried women who taunt men and make them dance to death). Certain ballerinas are born to perform the role of Giselle, and Isabella Boylston is one of them. Her size, her ballon, and flexibility all contribute to a fine characterization. But it is her sublime delicacy that distinguished her rendition in May 23's matinee. When she lifted her leg in an arabesque early in the Act II duet with Alex Hammoudi (Albrecht), the movement was barely perceptible, floating upward steadily, like a feather on the slightest pulse of wind. Battus resembled the beating of a hummingbird's wings. Other dancers—particularly Russians, it seems—milk the drama more, or emphasize athleticism, but Boylston gives a nuanced, quietly magical performance free of histrionics.

Hammoudi, a soloist, is maturing into his princely physique. He is on the way to becoming a much needed leading man of a large size. His long legs only accentuate the height of his grand jetes, and he can finesse the details in traveling steps with beats. It can't hurt to play against the company's finest character dancer, Roman Zhurbin, who succeeded in bringing some empathy to the beleaguered second fiddle, Hilarion. This young cast supplied rewards of a different kind than expected from the company's headliners—a variety of stars populating ABT's galaxy. 

A company is always in transition, but it feels as though ABT is going through more changes than in recent memory, with three principal women retiring (Kent, Herrera, and Reyes), a recuperating David Hallberg out for the season, the oft-cast Polina Semionova injured, and young dancers being groomed for promotions. So while there is Gomes, a fully matured artist in complete command of the repertory, we watch for greatness to emerge from surprising places. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lyon Opera Ballet and Hubbard Street—The Rep's the Thing

Sarabande. Photo: Michel Cavalca
Lyon Opera Ballet can be counted on to bring interesting repertory to New York. Last year, at BAM, it performed Christian Rizzo's ni fleurs, ni ford-mustang, a somewhat impenetrable, glacial  performance work that exploded into ecstatic dance only in its final minutes. This year, it presented at the Joyce works by three buzzy choreographers: William Forsythe, Benjamin Millepied, and Emanuel Gat.

The dances by the first two put to ample use the company's ballet training. Steptext, by Forsythe, dates from a relatively early 1986. Women are on pointe, and the movement is frenetic and all-out, pushing our expectations of the athlete/dancers. There is still a casualness to the affair; moves sometimes ended abruptly and petered out in a walk, rather than a tightly closed fifth or fourth position. Millepied's Sarabande (2009) has a similar dance-and-dash quality. Four men in nifty, colorful shirts noodle and play with the ballet steps they're given, interacting at moments with the on-stage violinist or flautist (reminiscent of Jerome Robbins).  

Gat's Sunshine drew particularly on the idea of a group—reliance on one another, assembling and breaking apart, pushing through the fourth wall to draw in the audience. Gat's lucid lighting scheme seemed to add vast dimensionality to the stage. His movement, so distinctive when he began choreographing a decade ago or so, has expanded to encompass a vocabulary that feels similar to a number of Europeans working today. But his theatrical sense remains fascinating. 

Sunshine. Photo: Michel Cavalca
A couple of weeks later, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago arrived at the Joyce for a two-program run over two weeks. Years ago, under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, this company shifted its focus from jazzy fare toward the European ballet-influenced modern style, more akin to (and including repertory by) Kylian and Forsythe. It is a more global approach, and the company's dancers do well in the elastic, sock-clad movement. 

However, in the matinee I caught on May 16, many of the five dances on the program blended together stylistically. Two works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo displayed his seamless, organic movement, lovely and harmonious, but after 20 minutes or so, ultimately monodynamic and in the case of Second to Last (Excerpt), the use of Arvo Part's very familiar music did nothing to distinguish it. 

Crystal Pite's new solo, A Picture of You Falling, with text by Pite spoken by Kate Strong, was danced powerfully by Jason Hortin. It follows in the dance-theater canon of movement plus words, in stark lighting. And Robyn Mineko Williams, a longtime Hubbard dancer turned choreographer, contributed Waxing Moon, a trio. While the movement was slightly more angular and spasmodic than Cerrudo's, the tasteful black costumes, stark lighting, and long string of duets unfortunately felt very similar to the previous dances.
I Am Mister B. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

What did stand out, for puzzling reasons, was I Am Mister B, by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. The choreographer danced in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, and in theory this premiere is a celebration of Tchaikovsky's ebullient music, and an elegy to Mr. B. The women and men both wore blue dinner jackets, white shirts with narrow black ties, and black pants, to evoke the subject. This faithfulness to wardrobe fell flat when it came to footwear, which was the Hubbard's current rep default—socks. Three sets of semi-transparent copen blue curtains that reeked of a fusty baroqueness fell and rose periodically, compartmentalizing or opening up the stage. The dancers sprang and thrust their pelvises forward, chopping at the air with bent arms. One man spoke some lines so rapidly that I couldn't understand him. Perhaps they held the key to the work.

Sansano's choreography is his own interpretation of the music that has nothing to do with Mr. B's classic. It felt as if Sansano loved the music so much, yet didn't want to do an end-run around Balanchine, that he worked in the conceit of the character of Balanchine, maybe breaking loose after a performance of Theme and Variations. What made it even more confusing was the fresh, sweet memory of seeing Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane lead ABT in Tuesday's Met performance of Theme and Variations. Besides Balanchine's Symphony in C, there is perhaps no plotless classical ballet more musically adept and in concert with its score.

Hubbard Street's dancers continue to be outstanding performers, but I wonder if the repertory isn't too similar to draw on all of their talents. Maybe one piece without socks?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Refreshing, Ancient Bournonville at NYCB

Bournonville Divertissements. Photo: Paul Kolnik
It seems illogical to view New York City Ballet's Bournonville renaissance as fresh, as opposed to what defines new—brand new work by young choreographers, increasingly by men such as Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher, from the company's ranks. Bournonville (1805—79) is about as ancient a ballet choreographer as we see, and at that, we see very little. But we must thank Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins for putting together a program of Bournonville Divertissements (1977) and La Sylphide (1985), performed on the evening of the company's spring gala.

Tyler Angle. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Apart from a story with a melancholy ending such as La Sylphide, Bournonville's choreography, as noted previously, is often characterized by a multitude of petit and grand allegro steps, and a generally sunny mood. Dancers are in the air more than they're on the ground. The style makes use of deep pliĆ©s from which to spring upward. There is rarely a moment of stasis. The body is an axis, and the turned-out fifth position a ready-set-go point from which to move in any compass direction, and up and down, with fluidity, delicacy, and ease, despite the speed and challenging technique. 

The Divertissements' many sections, derived from Bournonville's Napoli, Flower Festival in Genzano, and Abdallah, offered choice spotlights for many of the company's fleet-footed dancers. Erica Pereira danced with Allen Peiffer, whose shorts and sailor top gave him the look of a teenager. But it simply contributed to an air of youthfulness and promise. Tyler Angle excelled in the style, unsurprisingly, given his lofty ballon and deceptively effortless bearing. But Sara Mearns, somewhat unexpectedly, managed to articulate each position; her broad dramatic sweep and luxuriant emphasis no hindrance. 

Amar Ramasar and Adrian Danchig-Waring partnered Lauren Lovette and Lauren King (both delightful), Rebecca Krohn (with a warmer demeanor than ever), and Megan LeCrone, whose cool modern outlook was somewhat at odds in the work. Anthony Huxley, who danced the gem of a short solo, was superb as always. The entire cast, beating tambourines, took turns dancing and goading on the others in the jubilant, earthy Tarantella.
Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide. Photo: Paul Kolnik
La Sylphide made its NYCB premiere in a staging by Martins. This production debuted at the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1985, with bright, mannerist sets by Susan Tammany, who also designed the kilts of purple tartan (read the fascinating story about how she also ushers). It's a bit of an odd duck of a ballet; two acts without an intermission. But it contains some great roles for a few dancers, including the previously mentioned De Luz, more radiant and magnetic than ever before, and like so many of the company's many principals, underused. Sterling Hyltin is ideal for the Sylph, whisper-light and delicate, and, as needed, alternately strong and frail. Georgina Pazcoguin played Madge, the witch, with ravenous, and at times contemporary, gestures, reinforcing her reputation as the company's leading character actress. Daniel Ulbricht danced Gurn, the spurned, yet ultimately redeemed suitor. The role is shallow enough that he made little memorable of it.

This dose of Bournonville is welcome, even in a repertory chock full of Balanchine and the talents of many youngsters. It also shows that the company can handle any challenge with flair. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Get Out the Good China

Gown by Guo Pei. Photo: Susan Yung
China: Through the Looking Glass, the Met's new blockbuster exhibition focused on China's influence on Western fashion design, peppers stunning vintage and new haute couture garments among artifacts from the museum's vast collection, setting both in a resonant light. Details from ancient jewelry sing anew next to a beaded gown. An animated calligraphic rubbing feels practically anarchic next to a silk dress imprinted with characters. And a hall of gilded buddhas becomes a monument to a regally opulent gown with an octopus train from 2007 by Guo Pei, who aims to unite cultures in her couture. (Pei also provided the ball's most stunning gown, a 55-pound gold ensemble with a teardrop-shaped trailing cape, worn by Rihanna, that proved the gala's hottest click bait.) 

Roberto Cavalli, 2005
The sprawling show, organized by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda and on view through August 16, includes sections such as Saint Laurent & Opium, Perfume, Ming Furniture, Anna May Wong, Communist uniforms, Emperor to Citizen, Moon in the Water (Astor Garden), and Blue & White Porcelain. The latter is one of the more dramatic juxtapositions, placing a vase next to a curvy 2005 Robert Cavalli gown. It also draws into the equation the tradition of blue and white porcelain in Northern Europe, an early example of borrowed stylistic cues.   

Filmmaker Wong Kar Wai is the exhibition's artistic director, and his romantic, elegant eye is evident throughout the extensive show. Clips of films by such directors as Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee are projected in select spots, providing a jarring modern, animated backdrop. The Astor Court houses a tribute to Chinese opera—stone floors are polished to a mirror finish, emulating reflective water; a moon is projected on the ceiling, but the lighting is too dark to clearly see the somewhat distant garments' details. More legible is the Imperial China gallery, featuring yellow and gold finery both ancient and modern. 

Imperial China gallery. Photo: Met Museum

Wuxia Gallery, Craig Green ensemble. Photo: Susan Yung
The Wuxia Gallery, with its magnificent, vast, early mural of Buddhist imagery, also contains the most modern installation—a forest of plexiglass rods, like giant fiber optics, amid which are situated Craig Green's neo-Mao outfits of quilted cotton, and Gaultier's futuristic silk damask getup with a laser headlamp. It's a lot of space to show a few mannequins, but such is the luxury of the Met's huge acreage.

Because the Met is a museum of everything, it has eluded the critical traps that have snagged the Guggenheim when it mounted a show of Armani's oeuvre, or one of motorcycles, and also MoMA, whose cold new building and Bjork exhibition have been favorite critical punching bags. There is no more brazen marriage of commercial and high art than the Met's Costume Institute (oh, sorry, the Anna Wintour Costume Center). Its gala raises millions for the museum, while allowing its future exhibition subjects a vast red carpet on which to display their latest wares—gratis—on the buzziest starlets, who invariably steal the limelight from the art on view. (Read about the influx of money from China in this Wall Street Journal piece.) 

There are few castigations of crassness or decadence, in part because the Met is the grand dame of US museums. With these fashion shows, it walks the fine line between supporting the arts, and abject capitalistic decadence and celebrity worship and exhibitionism—apparently the perfect equation for raising money now.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Brown + Judd: In Plain Site

Figure Eight. 4th Floor, 101 Spring Street, New York. Photo: Susan Yung 
Standing beside an artwork comprising a stack of bricks, Jamie Scott began the signature thumb gestures that begin Trisha Brown's solo, Accumulation (1974), to the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," and instead of of 41 years falling away, they seemed to compound and well up like a mini stormcloud of emotions, dumping its sentiments all over me as I sat watching on the floor of the Judd Foundation at 101 Spring Street. 

I thought of how the gesture is so emblematic of Brown, no longer performing; how she was one of the artist pioneers of the wilds of 1970s industrial Soho, where brave now means taking a pop-up store lease for more than a month. How she lived around the block on Broadway and commandeered the rooftops for her expansive site-specific performances. How the crossroads signs, Mercer+Spring, loomed through the window just behind Scott, signifying so many years spent on both streets, plying endless paths for work and life. How the jangly music was more of a time-stamp than the dance, written at a time when moonshots were realistic but rock was still in its youth.

I imagine Trisha Brown: In Plain Site, the performance collaboration between the Judd Foundation and Trisha Brown Dance Company, was meant to evoke all these things and more. But most of all, it summons the moment in time when modern art met post-modern dance, and created an artistic biome that has not been surpassed in New York. The program runs today and tomorrow (info at juddfoundation.org).

Diane Madden in M.O. 5th Floor, 101 Spring Street, New York. Art © Judd Foundation Archive, Licensed by VAGA, New York, Art © 2015 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo: Susan Yung
As we moved to the second floor, Marc Crousillat and Stuart Shugg performed an excerpt of Rogues (2011), a far more kinetic and space-eating dance to Alvin Curran's music. The space was surrounded by a wall mural of earth-hued, painted color blocks and huge windows with panes of original wavy glass. On the fourth floor, Cecily Campbell, Leah Ives, Olsi Gjeci, and Tara Lorenzen moved through the sublime Figure Eight (1974), in which their arms floated around their heads as they kept their eyes closed; they then performed Sticks IV (1973), a challenging task dance in which they formed one long pole with four segments, and rolled under it as they held it intact.

Passing through Donald Judd's house, you get the idea from a few massive dining tables and wall of liquor bottles that he liked to eat and drink, but otherwise immerse himself in his work at one of the desks. The five stacked floors of this iconic cast iron loft building could have inspired Judd's regimented geometric sculptures, many of which are on view alongside works by Oldenburg, Dan Flaivn, Ad Reinhardt, and furniture by Alvar Aalto.

Ascending the steps to the fifth floor could, hokily enough, be compared to arriving in heaven, where longtime Brown dancer and current associate artistic director Diane Madden, in a white chiffon tunic, floated through M.O. (Excerpt, 1995), to JS Bach. We viewers watched across Judd's two mattresses, with a major Flavin sculpture of red and blue neon shimmered at left. Shafts of sun speared the space, and for an hour, we were transported from the chic honky tonk of Spring Street back to an era where space, time, food, and art conspired. Trisha Brown's work happily continues on.