Monday, December 5, 2016

Retracings—Cecily Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Bruce Springsteen

As much as we seek out the new, there are moments when retracing becomes essential. In the past week or two, I've experienced work by three artists of different genres who have retraced in wide-ranging ways.

Untitled (Paradise), 2014
Cecily Brown: Rehearsal

In what is, unbelievably, her New York museum debut, 80 of artist Cecily Brown's watercolors and sketches comprise an exhibition titled Rehearsal (from the French word "rehercier"—to achieve understanding or mastery by retracing) at The Drawing Center through Dec 18. This highly focused show, curated by Claire Gilman, is a collection of reworkings by Brown of source material, including Goya, Brueghel, animal bestiaries, and even a Jimi Hendrix album cover. In the process of her retracings, she can isolate subjects or clusters, creating intriguing incomplete compositions; add sheets of paper when she runs off the page; and even work without glasses, or with low resolution imagery, to blur perception and and allow an absorption of general massing and color balance. Seeing her "rehearsals" of the album art for Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (in one example, she overlays it with another artwork), provides some insight into her painting compositions, which seethe with unspecific, irrepressible life.

Canto Ostinato. Photo: John Sisley
Lucinda Childs: A Portrait

Childs' dancers can perform a passage, and then etch and re-etch the same, or similar, one again and again. Each phrase is beautifully crafted to move the dancer in a direction, or back, swiftly and with an effervescent flow. A quickly extended arabesque can be counterweighted by arms tossed overhead, effectively braking the impetus. The repetition can be hypnotic; a sudden change of direction or added move lends unexpected drama (not unlike such a musical shift in a composition by Philip Glass, a frequent collaborator). A Portrait, at the Joyce, was composed of eight repertory dances spanning the decades since 1963, when she created conceptual works such as Pastime—consecutive brief vignettes, including one in which a seated dancer, enfolded within a stretchy length of ecru fabric, assumes a sculptural position, straightens her body langorously, and shifts angles. Radial Courses (1976) features four men walking rapidly in circles; two break apart to leap and turn, and rejoin the circuits, or turn to head the opposite way. In a work from this year, Into View, an intense light pierces through the upstage scrim, like the sun cutting through fog. The dancers pair up for a change of pace, the women doing fanning leg lifts or ducking under their partners' arms. Childs is a master of retracing, using it as a framework for her intricate, mesmerizing movement structures.   

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Another type of retracing is telling a life's story. Springsteen's autobiography, Born to Run (Simon and Schuster), recounts his path to becoming one of our generation's biggest rock stars while maintaining a strong connection to his working class New Jersey brethren. I confess that I've never bought an album by him—a consequence of his music being ubiquitous in life, whether on the radio or blaring from someone's stereo loudspeakers. Nonetheless, I do seem to have unconsciously absorbed the words to many of his songs, and some of their rough-hewn poetics reverberates in his book's prose. He knows how to write, and the ease of the syntax makes the book a pleasure to read (plus, he drops in title or lyric quotes, a kind of game within the story). A bonus of retracing a musician's life in the age of Spotify is being able to play, and doubly appreciate, the songs being read about. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New York Notebook—Vail: ReMix & Minter/Iggy Pop

Lil Buck, Michelle Dorrance, Robert Fairchild, Melissa Toogood. Photo: Erin Baiano
Last week, the Vail Dance Festival manifested itself at City Center in ReMix NYC, put together by renowned long-time NYCB principal Damian Woetzel. We New Yorkers who haven't made the pilgrimage to Vail for this festival were given a glimpse at what all the chatter's about, though I'd imagine the experience is far more energizing in an outdoor setting, far from the dance world's American locus (and from where many of the performers are based). That's not to say that City Center wasn't abuzz—it was, particularly with Woetzel as the most enthusiastic viewer, tapping his foot to the music and running around at intermission. His ardor is felt in the varied programming.

ReMix featured stars of NYCB and ABT, plus Carla Korbes (late of Pacific Northwest Ballet, and now associate artistic director of LA Dance Project), Lil Buck, Fang-Yi Sheu, Matthew Rushing, and others. Wendy Whelan showcased her recent collaboration with modern tinkerer Brian Brooks. Gabriel Missé and Carla Espinoza performed a charged tango with bandoneonist JP Jofre and band. And BalletX and Keigwin + Company bookended Saturday's performance, representing some of the foremost American contemporary/ballet troupes.

L-R: Eric Jacobsen, Yo-Yo Ma, Lil Buck, Kate Davis, Sandeep Das. Photo: Erin Baiano
The programs were stuffed full; both I attended were more than 2-1/2 hours. Live music was paramount. Kurt Crowley (music director of Hamilton) led a pit orchestra when musicians were not seated onstage. Lil Buck and Ron Myles had an extended suite which featured Sandeep Das on tabla and later, Yo-Yo Ma playing Saint-Saens' The Dying Swan—one of Lil Buck's famous, and surprisingly moving, solos (although truth be told, his even more riveting lead-up to it involved bonelessly gliding up and down a staircase and slinking from one platform to another). The work that was on both programs I saw, and which received the strongest ovation, was Christopher Wheeldon's The Bitter Earth, done by Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III, both coming off of a fantastic ABT season.

Carla Korbes. Photo: Erin Baiano
Part of the point of ReMix, it seems, is to allow these outstanding dancers to experiment outside of their normal genres. In that respect, Robert Fairchild shone brightly, displaying his double threat skills in ballet and tap, lending a relaxed virtuosity to the former, and a taut verve to the latter. He shifted from filling in for an injured Herman Cornejo as Apollo to hoofing alongside tap wiz Michelle Dorrance as Lil Buck jooked, and Cunningham star Melissa Toogood performed some modern phrases, around them, to mixed effect. 

Sara Mearns performed Ratmansky's Fandango, in which she was inspired to do some flamenco-ish phrases in response to the musicians' rendering of Boccherini. Sheu's duet with Ron Myles was somewhere in-between modern and jooking, with the its signature "tossing" of energy between dancers. (I missed Korbes in Martha Graham's Lamentation, Sheu being one of Graham's fullest interpreters.) Tiler Peck and Jared Angle were reliably superb in various ballet duets, and it's always heartwarming to see her dance with her husband, Fairchild; they were sublime in Jose Limon's joyous Suite from Mazurkas. Korbes performed a moving rendition of Balanchine's Elégie, recreated from a videotape and last done in the city in 1982, the year of its creation. Utlimately, Vail: ReMix was a great deal of fun, even if in the wake of Fall for Dance it felt like an embarrassment of riches.

Marilyn Minter, Smash (still), 2014. HD digital video. Courtesy of the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

Marilyn Minter and Iggy Pop

The Brooklyn Museum opened Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty last week. The artist is known for her outsized close-up paintings of body parts—often tongues, eyes, and grotty feet clad in heels—dripping with metallic liquids in states of splattering and coating. She paints on metal with enamel, giving the work a candy-coated hardness. Early works include 1970's "boudoir" shots of her mother, which exude Minter's penchant for providing more intimacy than is comfortable. A series of kitchen paintings show her fascination with the depiction of metal surfaces, even as banal as a stainless sink or a sheet of aluminum foil. A later series of food porn, and then porn, lead to her best-known paintings that both fascinate and repulse.

Also on view is Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller, a fascinating exhibition of life drawings by New York Academy of Art students. Deller invited rock star Iggy Pop to model without informing the class of his identity. The results are shown juxtaposed with artworks of male nudes from the BMA's collection. It's an exhibition idea that is both rewarding on a conceptual level, while providing access to some of the museum's stellar collection, such as an Egon Schiele drawing.      

Monday, October 10, 2016

Quadrille—Facing Four Ways

        Jason Collins and Victor Lozano in Sequenzas in Quadrilles by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
It may have been the simple addition and subtraction of some seats, and the construction of a floating platform that bridges the house and the stage, but these relatively minor renovations qualify as tectonic shifts in the life of the sole New York stage devoted to dance, the Joyce Theater. Pam Tanowitz's company was the first to take the spotlight in the Joyce Theater's New York Quadrille, a series of four companies chosen by choreographer Lar Lubovitch. (Work by Roseanne Spradlin and Loni Landon completed the series.) Tanowitz recently was given the Juried Bessie Award, which is chosen by a select panel of three, rather than the standard selection committee of 40. 

Tanowitz has been innovating for years, delving into every aspect of dance theater: parsing the forms of ballet (including on point) and Cunningham modern, site-specific work, the interplay between movement and design, and formal spatial exploration. All of these come into play in Sequenzas in Quadrilles at the Joyce, for which musicians (including a harp) of The Knights play selections by Berio and John King live, scattered in various spots on the mezzanine. Davison Scandrett designed the lighting and Suzanne Bocanegra designed the set (including, presumably, a set of small cards with vintage looking landscapes with the dance's geometric lighting scheme depicted, distributed to each audience member).  

The movement flowed on and off the platform from the wings. From my seat onstage, I could see the backstage area and the dancers prepping to enter, or managing not to crash into things as they exited. Tanowitz's work draws strong comparisons to that by Merce Cunningham (MCDC alum Dylan Crossman danced in Sequenzas); she was mentored by Viola Farber, mainstay of Cunningham's company for years. Generally speaking, the style is based on turned out positions of fifth and fourth; the limbs move about these open forms to create geometric volumes; the torso tilts and twists on top of a stable base. 
Victor Lozano, Lindsey Jones, Sarah Haarmann, Jason Collins and Dylan Crossman in Sequenzas in
by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
Tanowitz's dancers have worn toe shoes in past performances, but here they are barefoot. They wear multihued unitards with patterns reflecting those in the Joyce Theater's deco scheme, with chiffon scarfs draped around the midriff in the early sections. Cunningham's dancers often related to one another the way animals might—looking at one another to check distance and intention—and Tanowitz's performers have the same feel, as much animal as human. They dance solo, in pairs and trios, and as a group, although they may split in half, drawing the gaze in two directions. The phrases are densely packed. The music emanated from solo instruments placed throughout the house on the mezzanine level. 

Tere O'Connor's Undersweet, a duet for Michael Ingle and Silas Riener, seemed to go with the series' quadrille theme, implying a form of social dance which, in itself, consists of given forms and expected behavior. The use of Lully's Atys fomented this external gloss, beneath which course primal urges and emotions. The pair began by hewing to pathways on the square stage's periphery, or diagonals, prancing, keeping good posture, heads held high. Yet O'Connor's spare costumes—brown tights for Riener, navy t-shirt and shorts for Ingle— lent a casualness. As the dance evolved, their interactions became more personal and intimate; at one point, they kiss suddenly. Lully's music is mixed with other sounds (also by O'Connor), paralleling the surficial and underlying dynamics. Riener, a Cunningham alum and kind of rock star in modern dance, is never less than riveting to watch.

Riener also danced in Transcendental Daughter with Eleanor Hullihan (another rock star) and Natalie Green, with music by James Baker. This work showcased O'Connor's broadly inventive movement language which encompasses quirky, banal gestures with balletic grandeur. He attracts superb dancers time and again, itself a testament to the seriousness and rigor of his technique. The in-the-round stage set up is not foreign to O'Connor, who has performed at Danspace Project previously (as has Tanowitz), with its option to transform to any configuration. But at the Joyce, such a stage design feels more like a boxing ring, with its slightly raised height and strictly defined edges. Both dances have a seamless fluidity, and the dancers skillfully projected outward, rather than simply to one side. It's invigorating to see the Joyce experimenting with what would seem to be an intractable traditional proscenium design. It was also fun to sit onstage for once. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Collective Rituals—Mourning and Debate

Photo: Miami Herald

Around this time of year, if you’re a baseball fan, you sometimes wonder—why. Why am I watching these overpaid grown men try, with unimaginable difficulty, to hit or catch a small ball and then run around some dirt? What meaning does it have in my life, this artificial drama that consumes so much time and can often be completely frustrating? Especially compared to the presidential debate, which took place in a parallel time slot to the Mets at Marlins game last night. The balance of the world’s fate, versus a trip to the playoffs. No contest in terms of import, right? Nuclear football and all that.

And yet. Backing up to Sunday morning, in a terrible tragedy, Marlins’ ace pitcher José Fernandez was killed the previous night in a boating accident in Miami, along with two others (not star pitchers, since I don’t think I’ve heard their names; in fact their deaths seem sadly incidental). Fernandez, just 24, as a teen had tried to escape from Cuba three times before succeeding, in the process receiving a year in jail, and another time, rescuing his mother who had fallen overboard. Once in the states, his quick elevation from class A to the big leagues underscored his pitching skill, but apparently he was the warm heart of the clubhouse as well.

Fernandez was supposed to pitch in last night’s game (Sunday’s was canceled), lending even more poignancy to the setup. The Marlins had multiples of Fernandez’s #16 jersey fabricated for the whole team, and they scrawled JF and RIP on their black caps with silver sharpies. For their part, the Mets (led by Yoenis Céspedes, a fellow Cuban) taped up a specially-made Mets Fernandez jersey in the dugout, fixing the tape and taking care to keep the jersey smooth.

José Fernandez. RIP. Photo: WABC
The pre-game ceremony included a somber tribute to Fernandez, including a haunting solo trumpet version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a color guard salute, and the anthem, sung by a children’s chorus. I would be surprised if there was a dry eye not only in the stadium, but among the millions watching on tv. Even the empathic, but always professional, SNY announcer Gary Cohen choked up as he was trying to narrate the scene. The Marlins’ players were visibly sobbing, their faces contorted with the pain of true grief. Both teams went on the field and all the Marlins hugged all the Mets. Céspedes is nothing if not stoic, but he was the one who lingered the longest, and seemed to hug the hardest to mourn the loss of his fellow countryman.

The game dutifully began, feeling like a sodden chore, although its outcome was of prime importance to the Mets, who barely lead the wildcard playoff standings. With the usually steadfast Bartolo Colon pitching, Marlins’ lefty hitter Dee Gordon stepped to the plate batting righty, and wearing Fernandez’s helmet, both in tribute. He whiffed, turned around, and jacked a towering homer into an upper deck—his first of the season. He was suspended 50 games earlier in the year for using banned substances, and by his slight frame and nearly childlike stature compared to Bunyanesque teammates like Giancarlo Stanton, you can almost understand why. But the homer was like a scene out of The Natural, when some supernatural power took over and carried the ball to heaven. Literally, that’s how it felt. Cue more heart-rending emotion as Gordon ran around the bases, sobbing, tears streaming down his face. He was embraced and bear-hugged in the dugout after this cathartic act that seemed to release the Marlins from their frozen state of grief.

Turns out Colon didn’t have it in a rare, short outing in which he allowed seven runs. No matter, the Marlins felt almost fated to win, being forced to play this game in the face of a horror. The game ended, and the Marlins surrounded the pitching mound, placing a lone ball and Fernandez’s glove on the hill. They formed a perfect circle, clutching each others’ shoulders, and Stanton—team leader on and off the field—spoke briefly. They bowed their heads, prayed silently, knelt to grab some dirt or even kiss the earth, and one by one placed their caps on the mound and walked off. It could not have been choreographed more perfectly as a collective grieving ritual that felt personal for the Marlins, and yet allowed the world to share the deep grief. (Adding to the strangeness was the José chant, sung to "Olé," and used for current Met (and ex Marlin) José Reyes, who no doubt knew it wasn't for him.)

Then I flipped to the debate (really, if you haven’t decided by now between the two, what would 90 minutes of basically avoiding a huge faux pas mean to your decision?). I saw Trump spew lie after lie, denying his own ludicrous statements and heinous actions, bellowing, gesticulating, sniffling, and interrupting Clinton every few minutes, a bully cornered in detention, snarling and lashing out. Clinton seemed poised, confident, well prepared, even good humored; her best tool was to allow Trump’s torrent of words to hang in the air and speak for themselves.  

It felt like the world was upside-down. What had felt like a life or death outcome to be “decided” by this debate was, in contrast to a ritual of pure grief and mourning, irrelevant. The game had become a metaphor for the evanescent joy of life and its painful loss, the debate merely motions to be gone through.

That said, ask me in two months, after the election and the World Series, how I feel about this. It may change.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Season of Second Chances

José Reyes post-homer de-helmeting Asdrubal Cabrera
Remarkably, the Mets are still in the race for a wild card spot in the playoffs, after losing much of their starting roster. This includes their vaunted young pitching staff, of which currently only Noah Syndergaard remains in the rotation (albeit with a minor elbow bone spur, elevated pitch counts, and unable to hold runners on base), with Jacob De Grom on ice for the next week or two (at least) with forearm pain, Matz on the DL with shoulder pain and a bone spur on his elbow, Harvey recuperating from thoracic outlet surgery, and Zack Wheeler, future unknown, dealing with complications in his rehab from Tommy John last year. 

The last man standing? 43 year old Bartolo Colon, who is fifth in wins since 2014—in the entire league. He has pitched in rotation in recent weeks with Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and Rafael Montero, who have all had good results and in addition to level heads, have showed great promise. They have been a contrast to the no decisions and losses tallied up by De Grom and Syndergaard, who coming into the season, you'd be crazy to bet against. Jeurys Familia remains reliable as the closer, despite an errant pitch now and again, and the bullpen has been productive despite nailbiters by Robles and cartoon-like thinness by Jerry Blevins. (Not a fault, just sayin'.) Catcher Travis d'Arnaud flashes his bat power on occasion, and rotates duties with Rene Rivera, who has become Thor's personal catcher.

And with Wright, Walker, and Lagares out for the season, and Duda out for a long spell but possibly able to return sometime this month, many bench players and minor league call-ups have filled in admirably. Kelly Johnson, sent to the Braves but reacquired, has shown power recently. James Loney has been solid at first base, if spotty with his bat. Wilmer Flores has played all over the diamond, and has been hitting to his potential, despite his weak running (today, he theoretically hit a double and triple but was thrown out both times in close plays; he also had a single). Also—he uses the Friends theme as walk-up music now. I mean, c'mon!

Rock solid Bartolo Colon.
A welcome source of energy in the dugout has been Asdrubal Cabrera (shortstop), who instigated the ritual of batting helmet removal when another player enters the dugout after a home run; he is dynamic and spirited in a positive way. Another has been José Reyes, whose reacquisition was roundly questioned due to domestic abuse charges. If you were a Mets fan a decade ago, you were probably highly conflicted about this, as Reyes conjures fond memories of the team's anticipated rebirth in the 2000s when he joined the team with David Wright. In any case, over the years there has likely not been a player as fun to watch as Reyes, whose uniform is often dirt-covered after the first inning, showing his hustle. So far, so good and the energy he brings is undeniable.

Back in the day, Reyes regularly hit triples from both sides of the plate and had special handshakes for just about every teammate. He had his own song—"Olé" x3, replaced with José—with which he was serenaded at each at-bat. But then he was traded to Miami, Colorado, and Toronto, which could not have suited him less both temperamentally and culturally. Rejoining the Mets this year, he seemed rejuvenated and buzzed with energy. He bleached his hair, a rally move that was repeated by Cabrera, and wears a canary warm-up sleeve, like Céspedes. He looks really happy.

Ironically, Reyes is now most regular at third base, where David Wright has basically lived for a decade plus. It's a new position for Reyes, who has mostly handled it adeptly. And yet it marks the beginning of the post-Wright era, which fans have denied every since his back and neck issues have brought it into focus. At least he now sits in the dugout with his teammates during his rehab spell, rather than in the bullpen to avoid hit ball avoidance maneuvers that might harm his neck after surgery. He can be spotted joking around with De Grom, sharing a laugh with the underperforming Jay Bruce, or shaking hands with his mates onfield after a win, small reminders of his foundational presence in the club.  

TC in his natural habitat
The outfield has been a game of musical chairs. The stoic, mysterious, and powerful Céspedes, since his joining the team a year ago to help push the team to the world series, has now moved back to his regular position in left field, from center, to make it easier on his balky quad. Granderson has shifted to center, which requires more agility and range, a bit of a task since he's in the latter part of his career. Bruce, acquired for his RBI skills (which have yet to emerge in New York) now patrols right field. Alejandro de Aza pitches in at center, and utility man Kelly Johnson is used as needed. Michael Conforto, once the rock solid bat of the future, has yo-yoed between Las Vegas and New York, becoming somewhat lost with his bat, then hot, and hopefully will continue this current streak. Matt Reynolds, Ty Kelly, Kevin Plawecki all wait on the bench for a chance to contribute.

These days, we may not recognize the names that comprise the lineup. And yet over the past couple of weeks, this team—cobbled together by Alderson, motivated by Terry Collins—has had a terrific record. The 2015 world series roster is but a fond memory, with its indomitable pitching lineup and Daniel Murphy. But in a season with diminished expectations, there are many reasons to admire and root for the replacements even as we hope for the stars to return, healthy.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Wheeldon's Beguiling Winter's Tale

Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of National Ballet of Canada
Christopher Wheeldon is becoming very skilled at total theater craft, as evidenced in his production of The Winter's Tale performed last week by the National Ballet of Canada. It was the sole dance fare in the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival, at the Koch Theater. Of course, the still relatively young Wheeldon (43) has been an ace choreographer for years by now, with many plotless and themed ballets in company repertories around the world, with a lion's share for New York City Ballet. 

He conquered Broadway with the charmer An American in Paris, for which he won a Tony. The tools used there—moving large set pieces, employing video projections successfully, quickly crafting deft characterizations—were put to use in Winter's Tale to create a quick-paced, unexpectedly entertaining rendition of Shakespeare's story. He is able to focus on all elements of the production and not simply the dancing, although that remains the keystone. 

The show's length, around 2:45, demands a lot of choreography, and much of it is lyrical and shapely with inventive touches and some contortions as well (in particular, a lift by the young lovers in which Rui Huang basically folds in half as Skylar Campbell cradles her and they kiss. Ouch.) He generally favors outstretched diagonal lines, such as in the photo below, and free flowing phrases.

Skylar Campbell and Rui Huang. Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada
With the exception of the petulant, brutal Leontes (Guillaume Côté, fierce and magnetic), the characters are subtly delineated. The main female role turns out not to be Hermione (Sonia Rodgriquez) but Paulina, head of the queen's household, danced incisively and with pathos by former Bolshoi member Svetlana Lunkina.  

Two tall portals move about the stage frequently. In one scene, a seemingly endless staircase foreshadows the impending death of the boy prince Mamilius, who descends it. Four statues that appear to be life casts sit on pedestals; uncovered, they imply pomp, and covered, stasis or death. The show-stopper is Crowley's magnificent and life-like tree in the second act, bedecked with ornaments. A flutist plays beneath it as the townsfolk spread blankets and climb ladders to add jewels to the tree's branches. An ensemble dance includes folk motifs of the Slavic sort, such as folded arms and flexed feet.

Bob Crowley's elegant costumes flatter; the men wear pieced tunic coats or kilt-like skirts over tights, connoting a tribal feel. The women are given sleek, flaring dresses with chenille vests to denote the outdoors. Huang and Campbell as the princess and prince injected joy and lightness into their lengthy duets and solos. The score, by Jody Talbot, is lyrical and perfectly pleasant, with dramatic swells and Gershwinesque horns. Perhaps with further viewings, notable musical themes might emerge. But it's a solid ballet with good bones, and a notable entry into the full-length canon.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Twyla Tharp, Tinkerer

Kaitlyn Gililland and Eva Trapp
Twyla Tharp is a dance pioneer whose work, by its incredible diverse richness, eludes simple categorization. She emerged in the 60s as a singular voice, parallel to and sometimes convergent with the Judson movement, at least in the rejection of classical forms of ballet and modern. Her work has dipped into jazz, ballroom, and even sports, but she has fully embraced ballet as well, creating monumental pieces such as In the Upper Room. Broadway beckoned, and she created a smash hit with the Billy Joel jukebox musical, Movin' Out, and the Sinatra-themed Come Fly Away.

For the last decade, she has also choreographed concert dances for companies such as ABT, which has also performed earlier repertory work by her. She has also dedicated herself to her own company, which she gathers periodically for performances such as the one at the Joyce last week (and where she has a creative residency). The run's title is self-explanatory—Twyla Tharp and Three Dances, culled from different decades.

Country Dances (1976) was done in her slinky, slippery, jazzy style that often reminds me of a pile of puppies playing. Tharp uber-veteran John Selya, and Amy Ruggiero, Eva Trapp, and Kaitlyn Gililland dance to a song list of country and folk. Santo Loquasto provided the costumes, which were modern twists on Western garb. (Though Selya's royal blue placket shirt more closely resembled Coach Taylor's windbreaker on Friday Night Lights than a cool pearl-snap shirt, but Gililland wore a neat backless orange halter with an overskirt and Eva Trapp's green dress with quilt accents was striking.) All manner of a quartet and its divisors comprise the dance, which is also dotted with moments of forced joviality that don't always hit the mark. Gililland demonstrates a haunting intensity in her stage presence that compounds her impressive physical bearing as a very tall ballerina (she is a guest and former company member of NY City Ballet). 

Reed Tankersley

The NY premiere on the slate is Beethoven Opus 130, featuring Royal Ballet guest Matthew Dibble. The prevailing style is more balletic, but happily, the women wear soft shoes. This immediately gives Tharp more freedom to push the shapes, attack, and speed of the womens' movement, and doesn't force everything to be about pointe work and form. (I love the lines myself, but it is no small tyranny in ballet choreography these days.) Norma Kamali, another longtime Tharp collaborator, designed the mens' batwing tops and somewhat unflattering high-waisted tights, the womens' rompers and, for Gililland, a gorgeous, sheer, structured dress. Valiant ballet moves popped up with regularity, displaying the technical chops of the eight top-notch cast members, and velocity played an important role as dancers flew and hurtled across the stage. Dibble has a seamless plushness to his movement that suits Tharp's style perfectly, along the lines of Baryshnikov, one of her muses.

But the heroic performance of the evening no doubt belonged to Reed Tankersley, who led off the third work, Brahms Paganini (1980), with an extended and exhausting solo. The feel of the choreography here is also predominantly ballet-based, mixed with a grab bag of other styles by tinkerer Tharp. She regularly uses endurance and fatigue as active elements, both on the part of the performer—Tankersley's crisp linen outfit by Ralph Lauren is damp and wrinkled by the end of his solo—and audience, stunned at his fortitude and by the requisite unerring observation. He's joined by four dancers (and a cameo by Gililland), who perform complicated, athletic lifts and duo passages at a frenetic pace.   
It is a joy to see Tharp, one of our time's true and diverse choreographic talents, continue to create and have the chance to present her concert work in such a suitable setting as the Joyce.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

ABT Moves Toward the Future

Isabella Boylston as Odette. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
The portion of ABT's two-month spring season—Sylvia, La Fille Mal Gardée, Corsaire, Swan Lake, and Romeo and Juliet—felt more stolid than ever, particularly in contrast to the other half, by Alexei Ratmansky. There will always be fans of these foundational ballets; no doubt the ironclad Swan Lake drew the largest audiences. But as noted in previous posts, Ratmansky is not only making new versions of classic ballets (his Sleeping Beauty winds up the season this week), but finding new (or new old) ways and forms in which to use the language of ballet.

Another evolutionary shift was seen in the rising popularity of homegrown stars, most obviously in Misty Copeland, whose presence in mass media is unprecedented by a ballet star, at least in recent decades. Stella Abrera finally got her turn in leading roles after 20 years. Gillian Murphy was probably the most reliable from a popular and technical standpoint, with Isabella Boylston and Hee Seo proving to be solid and versatile principals. Soloists Alex Hammoudi and Thomas Forster were given lead and major roles in most ballets, and alternated with Roman Zhurbin in some of the saucier character roles. Skylar Brandt was given prominent roles, and with her dash and presence, she showed us why. Joseph Gorak continues to impress with his elegance and noble line. Arron Scott seemed to be in every show, as did distinguished corps member Gabe Stone Shayer.

Some star power was lost with David Hallberg and Polina Semionova not dancing the season. Alessandra Ferri made the most prominent one as Juliet paired with Herman Cornejo. Marcelo Gomes is the most distinguished and reliable male principal, as he has been for years, but the transition door opened a bit further with his character role appearances, particularly as a bawdy Widow Simone in Fille. He adds this to his resume, which now includes several choreography credits.

Swan Lake
Isabella Boylston is asserting herself as one of ABT's most versatile and solid home-grown principals. On June 18, she danced Odette/Odile partnered by Gomes. Her confidence and boldness suggest that she might be a natural Odile. But as Odette, her skilled technique provided a serenity and precision that helped to define her solitude as the vulnerable swan. Gomes—smooth, powerful, and an unmatched partner—never flags from inhabiting Albrecht, even while standing on the side, observing others dance. Thomas Forster did justice to the suave purple boots of the human Von Rothbart. Like Ali the slave in Corsaire, it's a part with little stage time, but lots of juiciness. Forster's long legs and arched feet gave the phrasing polish and a knife edge.
Marcelo Gomes in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
Romeo and Juliet
I caught the Diana Vishneva/Gomes cast. It seems that she is dancing less than ever this season; perhaps it’s due to other obligations as her career is quite active apart from ABT, starting with the Mariinsky. But she shouldn’t be taken for granted in New York. She invests every move and gesture with a profound expressiveness. Combined with her wonderful technique and pliant back, she remains the ideal dramatic ballerina. It had been a couple of years since I’d seen Gomes as Romeo, and was delighted by his exuberance as the playboy and the depths for which he fell for Juliet. Forster made for a fierce Tybalt, and the sword fight between he and Romeo was the most convincing I’ve seen.
Fast dwindling are the days when the men of ABT were dominated by dancers from South America or Spanish-speaking countries. Those who have risen at ABT are distinguishing themselves, even if they aren’t among the globe-hopping stars who alight briefly for one or two roles. And the current company is lucky to have the chance to be raw material for Ratmansky, who is still young and clearly has fresh ideas to explore. It's an exciting time to be a ballet fan.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Books—LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

I was lucky enough to hit one of those holiday weekend/good book jackpots—a few days off, plus Louise Erdrich's latest novel, LaRose

The title character is a boy of 5 whose father, Landreau, "gives" him to the family of a same-aged boy of his closest friend Peter; Landreau shoots the child by accident. (Their wives, Emmaline and Nora, are half-sisters.) The unthinkably generous act is a reparation tradition in Ojibwe culture. Set in North Dakota, the story occasionally jumps back in time to unravel some of the complicated relationships between the family and community members. As can sometimes happen in life, the children poignantly become protectors of the parents.

LaRose is also name borne by four progenitors of the boy, all women. This legacy is given to the final child of a family, and so apparently inherited are his gifts of sensitivity and vision, in addition to being a good and loyal kid. Even when he's footballed between the two families—the Irons and the Raviches—he offers emotional salve and a raison d'etre in both homes for parents and siblings alike. The most extreme case is his foster mother, mentally imbalanced and suicidal. He and his sister Maggie share a "watching stone;" whichever sibling has it must try to make sure their mother doesn't try to kill herself. They systematically cleanse the house of bullets, rope, knives, even a chair used to try to hang herself.

This setting sounds gloomy, if profound, but the rewards of the novel come in Erdrich's plainspoken yet probing descriptions of quotidian life. The richest emanate, somewhat unexpectedly, from the doings of tough kid Maggie—how she schemes to be wicked to her new little brother, stabbing him with a pencil so the lead breaks off (he turns it into a badge of honor by calling the remnant blue mark a "tattoo", and she in turn stabs herself so they match); how she beats up a brutish gang of boys as revenge for their cruelty to LaRose; how she doggedly learns to make "kills" in volleyball despite being short and scrawny. 

Childhood bonds and teenage crushes among the parents' generation are also explored. Romeo, a wounded scavenger and leech, finds surprising sanity and physical redemption after failing in an attempt to build a CSI-like case against Landreau, only to be foiled by the childrens' "mother-guarding" the rifles. He even makes belated amends of sorts with his son, adopted by Landreau to raise after the boy's mother (whose name the child never knew) bolted.

While there's less traditional Indian folklore in LaRose than there was in Erdrich's wonderful novel The Round House, it illuminates daily modern life and coping in Native Americans' lives, showing how tragedy, redemption, and small successes happen all the time, just like in the rest of the country. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

ABT 2016—A Sea Change Underway

Gillian Murphy in Sylvia. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
May 9, Sylvia

In this season opener by Ashton, the company looked, unsurprisingly, a little rusty. The usually flawless Murphy stutter-stepped in a seeming lack of concentration, and corps members' limbs collided. Gomes, however, was polished and serene, his timing precisely clicking with the score. James Whiteside was forceful and charismatic as the bad guy, relishing the melodrama. Joseph Gorak danced with crystal clarity and luminosity as the Goat, making the most of a small "tail" role. This ballet ranks among the rep's lightest in tone and drama, augmented by Delibes' twinkling and sometimes saccharine score. It requires a focused delicacy and clear mindset, which were not quite present so early in the run.

May 21, Serenade after Plato's Symposium; Seven Sonatas; The Firebird

Alexei Ratmansky has already enriched ballet life in New York immeasurably in the decade or so that he's been here. But in Serenade after Plato's Symposium, he offers us a glimpse of a new facet of his work. The mostly male cast (Hee Seo has a brief cameo) showcases the new generation of men at ABT, led by veteran Herman Cornejo. Without women present, they need not worry about all their normal duties attendant in showcasing their partners: the requisite lifting (and getting a face full of tutu), spinning their partners, supporting, etc. Ratmansky has given them elegant, front-and-center roles of seamlessly flowing phrases. Each man (Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, Alex Hammoudi, Arron Scott, and impressive corps members Tyler Maloney and Jose Sebastian) presents his own abstract version of love. It allows these men to reveal a welcome softer side not always indulged in classical ballet.

The pseudonymous music is by Leonard Bernstein, and elicited curiosity, sadness, and playfulness, shifting toward the filmic in the latter part. Seo appears in an upstage portal as an angelic spirit, partnering with Alex Hammoudi for brief scenes, before exiting as she entered. At the end, she pops onstage from the side, beckoning the group from afar. Each of the men offers his own gifts, but Gorak seems most naturally suited to the precision and fluidity of Ratmansky's movement.
Serenade After Plato's Symposium. Photo: Marty Sohl

It accompanied the choreographer's Seven Sonatas and Firebird, both exemplars of different types of work within Ratmansky's deepening oeuvre. Sonatas (2009), to Scarlatti piano sonatas played live onstage by Barbara Bilach, while lovely, starts to feel repetitive after a few numbers, but there's an calming hermetic serenity to it. Firebird starred Isabella Boylston in the title role. There are many problems with this ballet that haven't faded since its premiere in 2012: Simon Pastukh's set is ugly and cluttered, taking up too much of the stage and diminishing the size of the dancers, and I wish that costumer Galina Solovyeva had given the Firebird at least one distinguishing element in her costume, which otherwise blends right in with her mates; and it's irksome that the Maidens all wear straw blond wigs that make them appear like clones, especially when their partners wear no such headgear. (This is a recurring costuming device in Ratmansky's ballets which in itself indicates an oddly retrograde attitude toward women.)       

May 23, Shostakovich Trilogy

This "Season of Ratmansky" at ABT includes two repertory programs, plus two full-length ballets by Ratmansky, including the premiere of The Golden Cockerel. It's about half of the two-month season dedicated to non-war horse ballets. This minor revolution is augmented by what feels like a sea change in the cast, which features young dancers who have been around for a while, but are now soloists dancing prominent parts that allow us to see their talent in full. Add to this newcomers, and injuries to a few key principals (Hallberg and Semionova, most significantly), and it's suddenly a new world at ABT. 

I recently read Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time, a fictionalized account of Shostakovich's life, thus when I watched the middle Chamber Symphony of Ratmansky's trilogy, certain passages had more impact than when I first saw it three years ago. These include: the man's (Jeffrey Cirio) weakness read as fatigue at combating the Soviet bureacracy; the pursuit of, rejection, and acceptance by women comprising his most important female relationships; and his moping exit symbolizing his failure through artistic compromise, which was misunderstood as artistic imperative.

The revelation in Piano Concerto #1, the final part of the trilogy and its most dynamic, was Skylar Brandt as one of the two lead women, alongside Christine Shevchenko, as well as their partners Gabe Stone Shayer and Calvin Royal III. Brandt is a fireball, radiating energy and explosiveness; Shayer, muscular and eager, matches Brandt in these qualities. Royal fits the princely mode, statuesque and elegant. It's almost an afterthought that both men are not caucasian, but in light of the headlines made in recent seasons by Misty Copeland's ascendance to the principal rank, not insignificant. In fact the entire make-up of the company seems to have shifted to become far more racially diverse in just a year. It's a welcome turn.
Cory Stearns and Gillian Murphy in La Fille mal gardée. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
May 25 matinee, La Fille mal gardée

To underscore this generational sea change at ABT, its leading male dancer, Marcelo Gomes, portrayed the drag character role of Widow Simone in four performances of Ashton's Fille, whereas this might have been unthinkable just a year ago. This role is usually important, but still secondary to Lise (Gillian Murphy) and Colas (Cory Stearns). But Gomes enthusiastically seized the spotlight, waggling his bustled bum and giving the hilarious clog dance some extra stompiness. 

Murphy and Stearns gave believable urgency to the lovelorn pair, prevented from uniting by Simone. The most difficult feat was handily accomplished by the fine balancer, Murphy—she promenades in attitude on pointe, acting as the axle for ribbon spokes held by corps dancers, who walk in a circle. I still have no idea how it's done. A couple of chicken ballets, a pony, and lots of farm implements add delight to this ballet buffa that hasn't been danced by ABT in a decade. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cunningham Treasures Restaged at BAC

Silas Riener in Changeling. Photo: Stephanie Berger
One of the most fascinating and vexing recurring topics in dance is that of legacy. We have watched as various companies and choreographers have grappled with the same question: when the creator is gone, how, or even should, the work live on? And as many of our generation's finest continue to age (how dare they!), the issue will only grow in prominence.

The cruelest cut is to stop performing the work, with some exceptions. This is essentially the path that the Merce Cunningham Trust has followed with Cunningham's oeuvre, dissolving the company after a grand last hurrah tour whose rich repertory and celebratory mode made the works' sudden absence all the more acutely felt. The last denizens of that troupe of course pop up periodically in their own projects, or in other companies, wielding their Cunningham technique like a superpower (incredibly strong feet and balance, a rock solid core and control of the limbs that radiate from it, a lack of self-consciousness, etc.). Some dances are performed by other companies, who enlist an authorized re-stager's help, but it will never be the same as his native dancers doing it.

A recent event at Baryshnikov Arts Center focused on a film from 1958 of three short Cunningham dances. The film was made by a German TV company, which archived it in a canister marked simply, "BALLETT." (Hear Marina Harss talk about it on WNYC.) It apparently took some persuasion to make the staff keep searching for the film when at first it couldn't be found. The black and white footage shows a spritely, riveting Cunningham in the solo Changeling, plus the duets Suite for Two and Springweather and People. The latter had been performed in repertory, but the first two dances had not been seen in many years.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The Trust, led by Patricia Lent, reconstructed those two dances, which were performed after a screening of the film at BAC. To our great fortune, Cunningham dancer Silas Riener took on Changeling; he wore a red facsimile of the original tattered green costume designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Riener seemed to blossom extraordinarily in a solo as part of Split Sides, performed at BAM in 2011 in Cunningham's Legacy Tour, and has since remained a standard-bearer of the technique, finding the elusive balance of fire and technique.

We see both of those qualities in Changeling, as Riener strikes a pose, his gaze burning past the theater's walls, and explodes into another one, twisting his body at angles that defy human mechanics. In the film, Cunningham's elfin features evoke a supernatural being, with piercing eyes and a compact, sinewy body. The opportunity to compare these two renditions side-by-side is one to treasure.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse perfomed the duet, full of Cunningham's experimentation and daring. The muscular Olk, with a raptor's focus, sported blue leotards, the top with Merce's signature pointed collar, and the lithe Knouse, a mustard unitard. And as gratifying as it is to see the final company members in performance, seeing these two talented dancers for the first time added a poignancy, knowing very few others will be performing in special events such as this. When they occur, pounce.

Monday, May 9, 2016

NYCB's Gala—More Dance Than Fashion

American Rhapsody. Photo: Paul Kolnik
In recent years, New York City Ballet's galas have often revolved around fashion, with big-name designers creating costumes that seemed to lead the ballet premieres by the nose. This week that changed a bit, reverting back to a focus on the choreography and dancers. The major premiere is Chris Wheeldon's American Rhapsody, a cousin of his huge Broadway success, An American in Paris. Both star Robbie Fairchild, whose return to the Koch stage is welcome news. The second premiere is Mothership, by Nicholas Blanc.

Preceding the curtain rising on American Rhapsody, the finale of the May 4th gala program, Wheeldon ascended on the massive orchestra elevator alongside guest conductor Rob Fisher, with whom he worked on Broadway, and the orchestra, of course. They proceeded to engage in a modified lecture-demo, akin to NYCB's "See the Music" series, discussing Gershwin's familiar musical lines and how Wheeldon thought about them in terms of movement. While informative, it perhaps tested the patience of the gown and tux clad audience. Finally, the orchestra descended and the haunting opening clarinet line rose, which Wheeldon described as a grin spreading across one's face, revealing Leslie Sardinias' sea urchinesque painted backdrop, and a group of dancers slouched over. 

That affect—a Bob Fosse loucheness—popped up now and again in Wheeldon's mostly balletic romance featuring Fairchild and wife Tiler Peck, with Amar Ramasar and Unity Phelan as the second primary pair. Limp paw hands and knocking and swiveling knees were jazzy notes among the classical phrases. NYCB ex-principal Janie Taylor designed the costumes in gemstone colors. The women wear fitted asymmetrical jackets over pleated pink skirts that were oddly unflattering, the men in similarly cut tunics. The lead couple wears bright green, which, while helpful in spotting them dashing through the corps in blue, is not the most flattering shade.

Comparing the dance to the Broadway show by the same team is perhaps unfair, but a short film spotlighting American in Paris which preceded the live segments pretty much forced the issue. The long dream ballet in the Broadway show succeeds in part because it's surrounded by song and dance razzmatazz. Essentially a pulled-out long ballet, American Rhapsody feels weaker as it isn't contrasted as such. 

Christopher Grant and Alston Macgill in Mothership. Photo: Paul Kolnik
And there's no doubt Fairchild is a leading man capable of charming the broader public;  he and American in Paris costar Leanne Cope had a smoldering chemistry that stemmed from her mystery and reluctance. But with Peck, there's little mystery, if a genuine affection and naturalism. There isn't really any doubt they'll wind up together (I mean, their costumes are the only green ones!) so there's little tension. In other pairings, Fairchild and Ramasar have wonderful stage chemistry; Ramasar would be a natural on Broadway as well, and he and Phelan dance with verve and swoop. Despite some of these minor quibbles, the dance is entertaining and rousing and far more rewarding gala fare than some of the costume-driven spectacles of recent years.

Nicolas Blanc's Mothership came about from his stint at the New York Choreographic Institute, which is affiliated with NYCB. The title is taken from the musical composition, by Mason Bates, in residence at the Kennedy Center. Its claim to fame seems to be that it was originally performed by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (did you know this exists?) and has gotten 2 million views. Its swelling lines recall what might accompany an Olympics highlight reel, and it propels the dancing by four pairs, all corps or apprentices. There are some unique moves that distinguish the classically-rooted vocabulary—a side step on point alternates with one on a flat foot, a man manipulates a woman's développé—but not much to distinguish it from numerous other dances. 

The program led off with Ratmansky's Concert DSCH, which remains packed with delightful flourishes and movement surprises. Anthony Huxley, sprightly and more expansive than ever, partners with Brittany Pollack and Gonzalo Garcia (at his best in this role) in the buoyant allegro trio. Sara Mearns assumes the role originated by Wendy Whelan, paired with the ever-smooth, strong, and debonair Tyler Angle. Ratmansky's flair for creating small dramas within the onstage communities he builds remains one of his strengths as his choreographic output increases and broadens over many major companies.

The opening section of the gala program was a video tribute to NYCB board chair Jay Fishman, whose company, Travelers, received a nod when a red umbrella opened at the end of an excerpt from Jerome Robbins' The Concert. It was no doubt appreciated by the ailing Fishman, even if it was the dubious intrusion of the corporate realm into the artistic.