Sunday, September 13, 2015

Arvo Pärt, Celebrated with Music, Dance, and Crickets

Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar in Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy. Photo by Kelley McGuire
Of all the esteemed professionals on staff at the Met Museum, perhaps the one most needed at Sept 11th's Arvo Pärt tribute was an exterminator. No offense to crickets in general, but a cheerful and persistent representation of that species had a little too much fun alongside a string quartet, pianist, and singers, serenading a packed audience in the Temple of Dendur as part of Met Museum Presents. The chirping, I'm told, could even be heard on the live simulcast.

And why wouldn't the crickets celebrate since the event—featuring members of the New Juilliard Ensemble (directed by Joel Sachs) in chamber pieces by Pärt—honored his 80th birthday. It happened to coincide with the 14th anniversary of 9/11, which imbued the mostly delicate, elegiac pieces with perhaps more gravitas and emotion than usual. A number of them have been used in choreography, and in fact the program's finale featured New York City Ballet principals Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar dancing Chris Wheeldon's Liturgy (
created in 2003 on Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto), which is accompanied by Pärt's Fratres for violin and piano. Krohn's elegant, long line and Ramasar's sure partnering and warm presence maximized the impact of this lovely architectural duet by the recent Tony winner.

A string quartet version of Fratres began the evening, before the crickets were really warmed up. It was followed by hypnotic, and at times sweet piano pieces played by Robert Fleitz and Mika Sasaki with great sensitivity, in which solitary notes hung suspended (when the crickets were resting). Less familiar to dance-goers were works with a solo baritone or mezzo voice, engaging in their pensiveness and wonder, humanizing the solitude and spaciousness that can make Part's music so wondrous.

The temple is of course not the ideal hall for such a concert, nor for a ballet performance, what with a hollow platform amplifying the light-footed Krohn's pointe shoe steps, and the rear spotlights often obscuring the dancers from our view. But taken as a whole, on the anniversary of 9/11, it was a solemn and moving experience. Through the massive window wall facing Central Park, I observed bats flitting over the trees at dusk, and after sunset, dozens of airplanes heading in every direction. The water in the moat in front of the stage rippled every now and then, and the crickets chirped happily—a recreated, yet real natural setting for this temple—witness to ancient rites, now host to contemporary resonances.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

Purity, the title of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, is the name of one of the protagonists. It is also an adjective the he uses several times to describe an aspirational aspect of some of his charismatic, treacherous, and staid characters. Purity, who chooses to go by Pip, is impoverished character who is immediately annoying after the first chapter describes her ineptitude and self-absorption; this soon gives way to her resolute love for her mother, shading her a bit rosier. This engrossing epic novel focuses on several main character plotlines that grow like a dense, intertwined (and sometimes suffocating) ball of roots.

There’s a hall-of-mirrors quality to the novel. The characters’ stories are told in first and third person, signaling a change in perspectives and tone; in other chapters, further definition of the same person may emerge from other points of view or actions. Time scrolls forward and backward, revealing many a-ha moments as we’re able to eventually tag the same person as a daughter, mother, or love interest. Impetuous youthful actions intersect with major geopolitical events to carve the life paths of the protagonists, but intent and an overarching scheme shadow everything, ominously. Agribusiness, Wikileaks, and online-only respected publications provide the backdrop. The fall of the Berlin wall actually becomes a threat rather than a benevolent event on a personal level. Power, both economic and interpersonal, is wielded and withheld in numerous ways. Franzen zooms out and in, macro to micro, making the trivial momentous and vice versa.  

Many of the main characters’ names begin with “an,” which can mean a lack or nonexistence of something. Annegret, Anabel (and NOT Annabelle!), Andreas, Annelie. The accumulation of these A names play with the mind; I flipped back continually to check that I hadn’t mistaken one name for another. Then I subtracted the prefix to get Egret, Abel, Dreas, Elie. Meaningless, perhaps, but certainly as much as Franzen’s deliberate play on names and shifting identities. At first it feels weird, like how pitcher Roger Clemens gave his kids names all starting with K (as in, strikeout), but then accrues and feels more subconsciously significant than anything else.

Franzen's language is mostly straightforward, but once in awhile he drops in a lovely poetic bomblet. His concise yet profound manner of describing people, things, and places is also impressive. His last novel, Freedom, felt more affected and closer to satire. In Purity, we meet complicated, unlikable people who have done reproachable, sometimes horrific things, but we sympathize. And with Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, it does feel like one of the most significant novels of the past couple of years. I was fortunate to read it over the extended weekend; it took me over like an extended dream—one I was sorry to see end.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Creative Domain, a film on Paul Taylor's process

James Samson working with Paul Taylor
So much goes into creating a dance, but we rarely see this painstaking process. Instead, most of us saunter into the theater, plop down, possibly scan the program, and expect to be entertained, enlightened, and/or challenged. Then we are quick to judge; the impatient ones sometimes can't even wait until the house lights go up before proclaiming their already firm opinions.

Kate Geis' new film, Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, follows choreographer Paul Taylor as he built the dance Three Dubious Memories, which premiered in 2010. A surprising amount of time is devoted to Taylor working in the studio with his leads: James Samson, Amy Young, Sean Mahoney, and Rob Kleinendorst, plus the chorus. We watch the very first day in the studio working on this piece as Taylor reads the casting assignments. Because he typically creates just two dances a year, being cast—or not—can have great bearing on a dancer's studio time. It's also an honor to be included (although no one is cast in everything), and the dancers give their thoughts about this selection process.

We then watch rehearsals—in some, Taylor prods the dancers into supplying poses and transitions—on into production meetings, and finally the premiere. By dissecting certain sections and interviewing the dancers and creative team involved, we gain understanding about the motives and motifs within the dance. It's fascinating, and we are shown just how painstaking it is to create a complex 20-minute plus dance. 

We also receive a broader view of daily life at the company. Morning class, physical therapy, personal relationships (well — one, in any case, as Amy and Rob are married; they partner here—somewhat unbelievably—for the first time), and the fluid, respectful relationship between Taylor and his dancers. Taylor also talks at length about his working process, including nuts and bolts about structure (he shows his notebook of diagrams and schematics), influences (or, as he winkingly acknowledges, a stolen idea from Tudor, whose work he greatly respects), choosing and working with the music, and his two basic approaches to the body in space—2D, his flat "Grecian" style used for the chorus, and 3D, with more plasticity and dimension, for the leads.
Amy Young and Rob Kleinendorst
Composer Peter Elyakim Taussig sent in his composition for Taylor's consideration, and against the odds, it was chosen. We meet Taussig as he sits in a bucolic field with his computer, working. Two longtime collaborators—costume/set designer Santo Loquasto and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton—discuss their contributions to the process as well. And Bette de Jong, Taylor's rehearsal director since the early days of the company, reveals how the choreographer uses his dancers like shades of paint; sometimes he typecasts, as he did with de Jong while she dancer, using her long limbs and inner tension in dramatic ways. 

This casting-to-type is evident as we watch Samson in the role of Chorus Master. His stature, gravitas, and clean-cut looks underscore a kind of unerring steadfastness essential to the role (and not dissimilar to several other roles either choreographed for, or inherited by, James, whose physique is similar to Taylor's as a dancer). Young, who retired last year and is intensely missed for her warmth and adaptability, similarly possesses an archetypal openness and fortitude. In this dance, she is betrayed by her mate, who bonds with Mahoney's character, and she becomes enraged, and empowered. Young also touchingly discusses how she used to be disappointed to not be chosen for dances, and rather than reacting petulantly, embraced the gifts that Taylor did offer, which seemed to lead to more involvement, or at least more appreciation on her part.

Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz focused his lens on close-up shots of Taylor and the many interviewees (Geis allows these tight shots to linger long enough to allow unspoken sentiment to come through). He also takes us into the rehearsal—in, above, and among the dancers. 

The film's premise makes sense, and covers lots of ground while tracking a very specific arc. However, presumably by virtue of timing and chance, some of the company's finest dancers are nearly invisible—Laura Halzack, Parisa Khobdeh (both of whom were injured at least during part of the shoot; Khobdeh offers some of the most poignant comments, nonetheless), Francisco Graziano, but primarily Michael Trusnovec, one of the foremost interpreters of Taylor's oeuvre in the history of the company. He is interviewed briefly, and in the final scene we see him begin to work with the choreographer on the next dance (to Arvo Part), but we are deprived of any substantial dance segments with him. If only Geis would film a sequel revolving around a dance with these missing artists. One can dream, but in the meantime, Creative Domain is a worthwhile dive into Taylor's process, and among his gifted company.

Paul Taylor: Creative Domain (82 mins, directed by Kate Geis; executive producer Robert Aberlin; presented by Paul Taylor Dance Company and Resident Artist Films), screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center starting Sep 11.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pearl Buck's Story, Told Through Dance

Stephanie Kim and Isaac Huerta. Photo: Elizabeth Hinlein
Pearl, a dance/theater spectacular performed at the Koch last week, tells you more than you thought you wanted to know about Pearl Buck, the writer who bridged China and the US. The biographical show, directed and choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, is a fine excuse to build a scale model of the Yangtze River onstage, although if you're sitting in the orchestra, this key element is barely visible. Nonetheless, there are many other design elements (production design by Michael Colten), including some well-conceived projections, that are visually stunning. It's akin to a Broadway show, albeit with dance movements propelling the drama forward instead of songs, plus an occasional voiceover. (I'd love to show you some of the striking set images, but the company did not make any available.)

The prologue features various dancers portraying Pearl at different ages, alternating with their facsimiles projected on the numerous banner screens. We watch Pearl the girl as she observes daily life in China including workers in fields. It's the first big dance number, and it shows Ezralow's skill at describing a narrative picture with many dancers. We learn of her childhood, including three brothers who died young; their deaths are artfully depicted as human silhouettes dissolving into bubbles (creative video design by Mirada).

Pearl bonds with her nanny, is tutored in calligraphy and confucianism, and then joins the fold at Randolph-Macon College in the US; her slow acceptance is signified by hopping at first off rhythm, and then in sync with her fellow students. She meets her first husband, but their marriage falters as relations between China and the US undergo friction. The river symbolizes the respective rifts, and Pearl balances on a raft as it floats downstream. At times, the divide becomes isolating, but bridges are laid down, and borders and relations become fluid. Jun Miyake supplied the broad-ranging music, which incorporated traditional instruments into fluid, plangent, propulsive melodies and rhythms. 

At the beginning of the second act, several lines horizontally cross the proscenium space. These are taut yet stretchy straps from which dancers hang and swing from like acrobats as Pearl furiously mimes typing, representing her most fertile writing period. The lines, one by one, release with a bang from one side of the armature, unsubtle metaphors for the failure of stability. Receiving hasty treatment is her second marriage and her husband's passing. In the exuberant finale, all of the dancers, clad in Oana Botez's white costumes (just one set of numerous changes), circle around Pearl like a source of energy, and then repeatedly line up on the stage's apron, engaging our gaze, turn, run, and leap over the river, which is no longer a barrier.

Ezralow, who once danced with Paul Taylor, seems to give that man a nod with a few Esplanade-like motifs. But he primarily creates a blend of modern, gymnastics, tai chi, and "contemporary" styles to keep things moving, and at times create some fetching tableaus performed by crack dancers. Renowned modern dancer Margie Gillis roots the last part as the older Pearl, moving her upper half with great enthusiasm and expressiveness.

It's entertaining and modestly educational, if you have a hankering to learn about Pearl Buck and while away a couple of pleasant hours in the theater.