Monday, November 23, 2015

Thomas Adès—Composing and Performing with Friends

Polaris. Photo: Andrew Lang
Thomas Adès: Concentric Paths—Movements in Music featured four choreographers who set dances to pre-existing works by the British composer, produced by Sadler's Wells London and at City Center as part of the White Light Festival. The highlight—the composer played piano or conducted for all four works, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Calder Quartet. Two veteran dancemakers were included—the ubiquitous Wayne McGregor, and Karole Armitage. But the revelations were the dances by Crystal Pite, who created a giant 264-limbed organism, and Alexander Whitley, whose velvety, muscular style captivated. These four dances and their requisite personnel—prime among them the composer, hard at work—make this scale of presentation a rarity. 

Pite's Polaris was easily the most popular piece on the bill, deploying 66 black-clad NYU students in mesmerizing shapes and formations, through which energy rippled and parted, like "the wave" done by fans in a baseball stadium, or magnetic filings being drawn to and fro. It is set to the pseudonymic 2010 composition by Adès, which includes a wondrous, yearning piano line, shades of a Bach symphony, and fractured notes coalescing into harmonic, organized order in the finale as the crowd looked up in anticipation, as if greeting ET's ship. 

In one scene, the dancers look like praying mantises, crouching low to the floor, elbows up; the insect evocation recurred in roiling swarms and mind-hive behavior. Kudos to lighting designer Tom Visser, who created an atmosphere of eerie moonlight and darkness, and Jay Gower Taylor's plowed-field-textured backdrop augmenting the alienscape feel. Pite's fluid and incredibly well-drilled piece would not be out of place on So You Think You Can Dance, or in an Olympics opening show, and it was a welcome addition on a highbrow slate.

The Grit in the Oyster. Photo: Andrew Lang
Alexander Whitley is a British choreographer who has spent time with the Royal and the Birmingham Royal Ballets, but whose work is rarely seen in New York. For The Grit in the Oyster, he chose Adès' 2000 Piano Quintet, which the composer played onstage with the Calder Quartet. Dancing were Natalie Allen, Wayne Parsons, and in particular the pliant and warm Antonette Dayrit, who led off and finished with an absorbing solo passage. Whitley's style is informed by ballet, but it's performed barefoot. At no point does any movement appear to be catalyzed simply for its own sake; the impetus arises unbidden and is carried through the dancers' bodies and limbs organically. It comes across as unaffected, muscular, and feline in its elegance and innate physicality. He frequently integrates floor work, building upon it with deeply planted lunges and triangular braced limbs; lifts include diamond- or scissor-shaped leg formations. The music begins with a dark piano line, and grows as all five instruments join in—fractured violin lines, warm cellos, darting rhythms, plucked and sawed strings. 

It's in contrast to McGregor's phrasing in Outlier (2010), which feels abound with random starts and stops. His ballet looks effortful and self-conscious, decorated with mannerisms and oddities. Adès' Concentric Paths violin concerto (2005) shocks from time to time with a seismic "boom" chord, threaded with keening or tumbling melodic lines. The dancers of McGregor's company wring the most out of his inside-out, hyperextended vocabulary but apart from its impressive athleticism, it fails to move.

The fourth work stands apart for its literary derivation: Armitage's Life Story (1999) which uses the same-titled composition by Adès and poem by Tennessee Williams. Ruka Hatua-Saar and Emily Wagner take the stage in front of Adès on piano and soprano Anna Dennis. The narrative ponders the aftermath of a feverish romantic encounter, apparent in the dancers' brisk flirtations and forthright exchanged gazes. Armitage injects wit and sassiness into the duet, which mirrors the character of the aria—vaulting octaves with free abandon in dialogue with the piano part, and in turn, in dialogue with the dancers. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Two Sides of Twyla

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp-Coppula in Preludes and Fugues. Photo: Ruben Afanador

Twyla Tharp has always been slightly ahead of the curve and outside of the pack. She has forged an unconventional choreographic career, along the way treading post-modernism, jazz, ballet, Broadway, vaudeville, and myriad points in between. Her current run at the Koch Theater, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation, draws from all of these genres to embody her fluid, pigeon-hole resistant, utterly distinct style.

The two premieres mark the complexity of her dances, and a reduced version of the duality of her creative output. Preludes and Fugues, to Bach, is the more balletic and classical of the two. The women are in soft slippers, already a radical idea given their pedigrees (two hail from New York City Ballet), because pointe work is an irresistible tool for so many choreographers, given the chance. But it gives the women a better chance at dealing with the speed and torque that Tharp builds into her restive passages that explode from a hovering stillness into sheer kineticism in a split second.

Tharp doesn’t shy from traditional gender roles that basically acknowledge physical size differences—men slowly pressing women overhead, showing the brute difficulty of the move, or a man swinging a planked woman to and fro between his legs. The NYCB women—Savannah Lowery and Kaitlyn Gilliland—are as tall most of the company’s men. But when her style veers toward the pugilistic, the men appear far more comfortable, as it is less of a stretch for them to spar and jog athletically than the women, trained to never be ungraceful.

Amy Ruggiero, John Selya, and Ron Todorowski in Yowzie. Photo: Ruven Afanador
The action morphs from pairs to groups to solos, driven by an irrepressible energy that rides atop the shifting dynamics of Bach’s short compositions, or sometimes beside it or underneath. Sometimes it’s literally, as when they pogo-hop to a bouncy line. To layered piano arpeggios, the company splits the stage in half in mirrored symmetry, pealing out of lines like petals blooming. Bravura moves end in suspended releves, and small gestures add a touch of humor to these skilled show offs, who wear Santo Loquasto’s gold and jewel-toned outfits. They can leap offstage in a split, or dissolve a similarly heroic passage in a relaxed walk, as if in rehearsal. Tharp’s sheer audacity is mind-boggling, not to mention the level of technique and precision, or sometimes casualness, demanded of her dancers.  

Yowzie is the flip side of Tharp, bringing into play drunkenness, mayhem, and clashing colors to a suite of American jazz tunes (recorded, as was the Bach). A fragile romance between Rika Okamoto and Matthew Dibble may have been the result of beer goggles, and we see them wobble woozily through the infatuation phase before parting ways. Okamoto, spurned and presumably regressing, adapts simian behavior, revealing a comic gift (her dejected full-body slump is hilarious). All the dancers in this piece get the chance to display their rubber-limbed best, bouncing off one another or dropping with dead weight into splits. Ron Todorowski, sporting glasses, slices precisely and thrillingly through Tharp's challenging steps. The exceptions are Gilliland and Lowery, wearing midi dresses and sun hats, who swan as elegantly as possible through the riff raff. Loquasto’s costumes here are riotously colored and tie-dyed, and topped off with headpieces. While he certainly knows how to fit and finish costumes for these dancer-athletes, I suffered from visual overload, in addition to a quasi-psychedelic backdrop.

But the program’s mix of high- and low-brow certainly showed off Tharp’s imaginative and sui generis choreography. Chances are if you liked one, you cared less for the other. But a full evening of premieres is a rare, choice chance to glimpse one of the best hard at work, doing her own thing. Twas ever thus for Tharp.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Au revoir, Sylvie

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper
The mature, modern prima ballerina can express her artistry in so many ways apart from wishing to be cast in the repertory of her choice. These days, customized, or vanity, “projects” are not uncommon. In New York this week, Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress, at New York City Center, celebrated her farewell to American stages at the age of 50. Nowhere in sight were toe shoes or plucked feathers; rather, she chose repertory by leading modernists Akram Khan and Mats Ek, with a duet by William Forsythe danced by guest artists from his company.

Khan’s Technê, a US premiere, featured Guillem squat-walking in a circle like an animal around an oddly uncredited, sculptural mesh metal tree, touching it as if it were an interloper, to live music by Alies Sluiter. This study of odd slinky moves punctuated with an occasional whipped spin or leg gave Guillem chances to show off her extension and feet (but not her copper hair, covered by a brunette cropped wig).

DUO2015 by William Forsythe, with score by Thom Willems, was danced by two of his company members, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both superb translators of his humorous, torqued style. Unfortunately, in this program designed around Guillem, it proved to be the most kinetically interesting. Careful poses, at times contortions, mixed with bursting phrases; they retreated upstage into the dark, and then darted forward in spins and quick tours. It was a reminder of how well-suited Guillem is for Forsythe’s contemporary style, which relies on a foundation of ballet around which to build anti-balletic shapes. Memories would have to do.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: Bill Cooper
Guillem returned with Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant’s Here & After (also a US premiere). To Andy Cowton’s mystical, pulsing strings, the orange-clad duo was bathed in similar shades of striated light. They swept their arms in ovals and around one another’s head, crafting swirls and curves in synchronicity, clockwork-style. An exercise in style and timing, it didn’t reveal much about the two dancers.

The finale was suitably titled Bye, a reprise from Guillem’s 2012 stint at the Koch. It’s understandable why she would want to include it—a symbolic farewell that shows her stepping into, or returning to, another life. Its dramatic emphasis allowed Guillem to strike some singular poses to show off her lines, but the frumpy costume (by set designer Katrin Brännström) did her no favors. The packed house applauded heartily as it bade farewell to Guillem the dancer. But given her curiosity and resourcefulness, who knows in what capacity we might next encounter her?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gimme a Capital E

Cory Stearns (center) in AfterEffect. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
By Susan Yung

Receiving a choreographic commission from one of the large ballet companies is no small matter. Even favorite children—that is, popular principal dancers—such as Marcelo Gomes, are not assured the resources to do such a thing without providing some kind of proof. Gomes has created a few “pièces d’occasion” for ABT in recent years, including one from two years ago titled Aftereffect, and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie obviously saw enough to entrust Gomes with more.

The result is a major dance of the same title, but with another capital within: AfterEffect, with a painted mural by François Gilot, to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Op 70, which premiered in the company's short fall Koch Theater season. It employs 27 dancers, in Reid Bartelme/Harriet Jung’s color-brushed white leotards and flattering handkerchief skirts. This allegorical dance, with Tudorian part names (The Man, His Loss, His Hope, The Community), is not a radical departure, but it feels substantial enough to merit a recurrence in the repertory.

What makes it feel different is its language, which emanates from Gomes’ body. He is among the most beloved of ABT’s current men. He is clearly gifted, but he does not possess great height, stretch, or hyperarched feet, as, say, David Hallberg does. He has maximized his physical gifts, compounding this with superb emotional expressiveness and peerless partnering skills. He has worked extremely hard to make the most of what he has been given.

This translates into movement that feels cyclonic, but on a human scale; extensions and spins quickly withdraw, only to lash out again. There is a consistent elegance and plushness—pliés sink deeply, the body twists elegantly in opposition, and even powerful moves ease into place, as we have seen Gomes himself do for years, even in the most persnickety allegro passages. It’s not humorless, though—witticisms include waggling hands and arms that flap like chicken wings. Cory Stearns (Man) ends the first part by jumping up as the lights blackout; the second part opens with him ostensibly landing from that jump. 

Cassandra Trenary kisses Cory Stearns in AfterEffect. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
The Man is restless and distant from those nearby. When he is still, the crowd roils around him; he also plants himself downstage to watch the Community bustle about. Cassandra Trenary (Loss) literally flies on with the help of a male gang, dipping to kiss Stearns. Joseph Cirio (Hope) makes a fleeting cameo as well, spinning and imbuing Stearns with some understandable optimism—as in, I can’t wait to see more of his verve and snap in future roles. Gomes handles groups adeptly, and one couldn’t blame him for having taken notes on how Ratmansky moves the corps, nor for noticing his humor and musical treatment.

Would I rather see Gomes dance than watch his choreography? Right now, yes. But he holds promise as a dance maker when he hangs up his tights. Joining Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher as an active dancer/choreographer, and one with a huge Prince workload, he should be proud of all the hard work that obviously was invested in AfterEffect. And ABT's spring Met Opera House schedule already seems less populated with Gomes' name, which is sad. All the more reason to cherish his moments onstage when they arrive next summer.