Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines—Acknowledging Trisha Brown

Glacial Decoy. Photo: Sarah Silver
It's hard to believe that Stephen Petronio founded his company 32 years ago. While he has always sought out collaborations with trending artists and designers, his movement invention has eluded any timestamp. It no doubt helped that many of the previous generation's choreographers themselves innovated new languages and concepts—many of whom are acknowledged in Petronio's Bloodlines project. Petronio absorbed influences from these predecessors, rather than utilizing a codified language such as ballet or jazz as exemplified in Alvin Ailey's work.

Stephen Petronio Company embarks on the second installment of Bloodlines from March 8—13 at the Joyce Theater. Of the several "heritage projects" underway in the world of modern dance, including variants from Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, Bloodlines is the most integrated and logical. It's perhaps because Petronio is honoring work by those he has considered mentors or influences on his own, rather than the other way around. 

This year, his company will dance Glacial Decoy (1979) by Trisha Brown, with whom he danced from 1979—1986 before forming his own troupe. With sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, it is one of the landmark works of Brown's considerable choreographic output, and is danced by a female cast. Since Petronio's own movement was influenced by his work with Brown, it will be fascinating to see the keen combined muscular knowledge of the dancers.

Middlesex Gorge. Photo: Sarah Silver
From Petronio's repertory, Middlesex Gorge (1990) will be performed 25 years after it premiered. To music by Wire, with costumes by H. Petal, this dance, with movement both urgent and highly collaborative, takes impetus from the choreographer's late 1980s involvement in ACT UP. This highly effective organization formed to draw attention to AIDS, the pandemic that devastated, in particular, the arts community.

Petronio's new work this season is Big Daddy (Deluxe), based on thoughts about his father from his recent memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict. The dance began as a solo which debuted at the American Dance Festival in 2014, and here is expanded to a group dance, to music by Son Lux, with costumes by H. Petal, and lighting by Petronio's longtime collaborator, Ken Tabachnik. The dance offers a new personal note on a smart program balanced with movement heritage and company history.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Most Incredible Thing—Abundantly Stuffed

Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley lead the company in The Most Incredible Thing. Photo: Paul Kolnik
With The Most Incredible Thing, Justin Peck has been given the opportunity by New York City Ballet to push himself far beyond what he's accomplished thus far in his still young choreographic career. This 45-minute ballet, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, is his first attempt at narrative. It has a widely rambling score by the National's Bryce Dessner, and visuals and costumes by Marcel Dzama, and a cast of 56.

If it sounds like a lot to keep organized, it is, and that is one of the main issues with this ballet. The format—12 short sections, in accordance with the hours of a clock—are bookended by scenes depicting a competition between the Creator (Taylor Stanley) and the Destroyer (Amar Ramasar) for the Princess' (Sterling Hyltin) hand. As you might guess, each of the 12 dances is (mostly) populated by an according number of dancers; it begins to feel like sitting through the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a checklist of tasks that need to happen for us to reach the end.
Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring as Eve & Adam. Photo: Paul Kolnik
This isn't to deny observed degrees of invention. Dzama's costumes look rich—creatively, but also cost-wise—with lavish attention to detail. The two-man king walks as if in a three-legged sack race, but then splits in half like a gate to safeguard, or release, the princess. The Cuckoo's wings look like actual feathered wings, although this elaborate costume may have weighed down the spritely and typically steadfast Megan Fairchild (in the cast I saw) as she hammered through the too-rapid allegro steps, at one point slipping. Even birds fall.

The most dazzling and effective costumes were given to the Nine Muses—tutus with black spirals, and The Seven Deadly Sins or The Seven Days of the week (the name/s alone indicate the kitchen sink ethos), who wore flame-hued, patterned unitards. Poor Daniel Ulbricht, as The Gambler, was outfitted in a domino-patterned horizontal tablecloth and bare legs. Adam and Eve (Adrian Danchig-Waring and Rebecca Krohn) pulled off flesh-toned unitards scattered with leaves, and danced one of the more stately and fluid duets, ending with a bite of forbidden fruit. Three Kings were the unrecognizable Jared Angle, Daniel Applebaum, and Gonzalo Garcia, under samurai-like metallic armor. And 11 adorable children sported Hershey Kiss-shaped tunics and silver leather shoes. (As they tossed silver confetti in the air, I could only think that it might have reminded fellow audience member Mark Morris about his own Waltz of the Snowflakes in The Hard Nut.)

The Seven Deadly Sins, or The Seven Days of the Week. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Oh, about the dance itself, which feels like an afterthought—one of the problems with such an encrusted production. Stanley is perfectly cast, a valiant prince worthy of his dashing red cape, moving with a proud athleticism, sternum forward at all times. As he contracts slightly, his arms cushion pillows of air; he whips his leg in slashing arcs, eating up space. Hyltin's role isn't very memorable, but she pairs well with Stanley. Ramasar, who only appears at the end, has fun with his club, cartoonishly whacking and stabbing any nearby dancer. The three kings carry horse-headed staffs and incorporate them in various moves.

The carnivalesque atmosphere is enhanced by two slides—like you'd find at a playground—down which several dancers enter throughout the ballet. Dzama's painted flats evoke a kind of Weimar-era garish noir; his art is also installed in the Koch's grand atrium, giving the Park Avenue Armory's jarring installations some competition.

In recent years, Dessner has experimented beyond his rock band roots into classical and opera-esque evenings, but in Most Incredible Thing, it feels as if he deferred heavily to the movement and visuals. Surging chords and xylophones, medieval clarinet lines, mellow, lyrical swells, Glass-ian shimmers, and propulsive beats are thrown in the overwhelming mix. It didn't help that the premiere capped an already long evening of last year's fashion gala premieres plus Chris Wheeldon's 2010 Estancia, as much musical-theater as dance, and indicative of his now proven sure hand at Broadway. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dada Masilo's Swan Lake

Photo: John Hogg
Dada Masilo's Swan Lake (2010) at the Joyce Theater is a giddy reimagining of the classic ballet. It walks a tightrope between homage and satire, and it's entertaining, funny, and touching. The South African choreographer uses blocks of Tchaikovsky's original ballet score, supplemented by bits by Saint-Saens, Part, and Reich; The Dying Swan is performed twice. Many of the ballet's group dances become occasions for a raucous and riveting choreographic blend of African dance and ballet, all done barefoot with the exception of one male on pointe, as Odile.
Photo: John Hogg

Masilo follows the most basic storyline of a love triangle. But in her version, white swan Odette (Masilo) falls for Siegried (Songezo Mcilizeli), who then becomes enamored with male black swan Odile (Thamsanqa Tshabalala). But first we are introduced to the wedge of swans: women and men in tutus (the men barechested); white feathers festooning their pates. The tutus (by Masilo and Suzette le Sueur) are designed to flop and flare according to pelvic movements; they become almost like pom-poms, shaken with great vigor.  

Khaya Ndlovu, as Odette's mother, gives a monologue about ballet, describing it in laymen's terms: seaweed arms, virility splits, twiddles, fireworks, and weight lifting. It's a hilarious digression that doesn't quite fit within the story. But Ndlovu's comic timing is spot on. 

Most impressive is that Masilo manages to create fluent phrases of movement from the jerry-rigged assemblage of bits and pieces from various genres. She subverts mime into contemporary uses, making it more a tool of dialogue than a means of passive communication. When Siegfried is pushed to marry Odette, he stamps and twirls violently to say "I can't do this!" But then simple body language will do—while the group celebrates, Siegfried mopes about the periphery, deflated. He and Odile have a tender pas de deux; Tshabalala is every tall inch a regal ballerina to Mcilizeli's poignantly innocent Siegfried.

Despite the finale's "swanicide," the takeaway is terrific kinetic fun. It manages to poke at ballet while reassembling it for audiences apart from the traditional. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wagner's Precious—The Ring Cycle

Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905), Costume design for Brünnhilde, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Figurinen, Berlin: Berliner Kunstdruck- und Verlags-Anstalt, 1889, Chromolithograph. Gift of Hester Diamond, 2012. The Morgan Library & Museum.
It's practically unfathomable today to understand the popular impact of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle when it premiered in 1876. It is more rightly compared to the latest Star Wars or, more analagously, Lord of the Rings premiere than any modern opera. Or it's possibly comparable to the current publicity tsunami of Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton on Broadway. But none of those merited a series of newspaper front-pages dedicated to reprinting segments of the score or script, as the Ring Cycle did in the New York Herald. We're talking about major real estate, not simply one of 10 articles or photos.

Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Letter to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein including the closing measures of Das Rheingold, signed and dated Zurich, January 16, 1854. Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection, 1968. The Morgan Library & Museum.
Of course the 26-year build-up to the premiere, in Bayreuth, Germany, is the stuff of legend itself. This story is told at the Morgan Library's Wagner's Ring: Forging an Epic exhibition, on view through April 17. The trove of artifacts ranges from many letters and scores hand-penned by Wagner; a royal decree; costume designs; books; the aforementioned newspapers; an ivory, bejeweled conductor's baton; and a series of etchings showing Joseph Hoffman's scenic designs. Of particular note are a copy of Wagner's own score with his notes and remarks, and compositional drafts that would form the basis of the final opus.

Lilli Lehmann as Woglinde in Das Rheingold.
Bayreuth production. Photograph by J. Albert, Munich,
1876. Metropolitan Opera Archives.
As it goes for artists, Wagner needed money to fund his vision. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a young monarch with a passion for Wagner's music, stepped in when the wealthy composer Franz Liszt declined. Lest we think it was an easy ride, Wagner—who, fleeing creditors, had to be tracked down by the king's agent—signed a contract promising a finished score within three years; it would then belong to the king, and in return Wagner's debts were erased and he was given a salary and housing. 

Sounds pretty sweet, right? But Wagner decided he wanted it to premiere in Bayreuth rather than in Munich, as agreed upon by contract. This entailed designing a theater (Festspielhaus) to his specifications and raising the money for construction. In addition to the royal stipend, this meant leaning on private societies founded to support Wagner's work, a kind of precursor to Kickstarter. 

The exhibition shows what an institution like the Morgan does best. It draws on its own collection, but many objects are on loan from the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth. It's interesting to see what all the fuss was, and continues to be, about.