Saturday, March 19, 2016

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance week one premieres—Surface, and what lies beneath

Eran Bugge, Rob Kleinendorst, and Michelle Fleet in Dilly Dilly. Photo: Paul B. Goode
On its surface, one of Paul Taylor's New York season premieres, Dilly Dilly, seems to be a charming, nostalgic view of Western rites and social pleasures. All of the participants—in Stetsons, colored tops, and black daisy dukes (the gals) or jeans (the guys)—flirt and eye one another while square dancing, or playing innocently, imitating horses. A chorus might stand in a line, framing a central pair or solo before exiting, such as Rob Kleinendorst as he's harangued by one or more "Blue Tail Fly," as the song depicts—women rubbing their palms together like insect antennae. 

For such an outwardly cheerful dance, set to folk songs sung by Burl Ives, a lot of people wind up blotto. They are victims of what might be termed "domestic violence," lovers facing the consequences of embroiled emotions. T
o "Frankie and Johnny," the song title's characters pair up with others, leaving Johnny (Michael Trusnovec) plum dead.The hats and cowpoke posturing give subterfuge to fatal actions, resulting from the presence of passion and guns. It has echoes of current events—the recent takeover of federal land in Oregon, with its protagonists brandishing the requisite equipment plus a lot of martyr-like bluster and swagger, or random shootings that wouldn't have happened without the presence of a gun.

The dance is set before a vast painted backdrop by Santo Loquasto (who also designed the costumes) of angular, abstract shapes on a yellow background. It seems to have little to do with the rest of the dance's pieces, but the objects appear to hang ominously over the dancers, threatening to ruin a typical night of fun and fatality. (The title derives from "delightful.") The finale is a perfect cheerleader style pyramid, an example of one of the tableaux at which Taylor excels, and the presumed subject of the accompanying song, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." The movement in Dilly is as much storytelling as dance, and it's simple, clear, and fresh. There's a quiet and spaciousness, even anomie, to the tone and look of the dance that add to its distinctly American feel. 

In Dilly, as in many of Taylor's "social dance" works (among them, Marathon Cadenzas, Piazzolla Caldera, Cloven Kingdom, even Big Bertha, to an extent), the premise of social dancing serves not only as movement source material and cultural context, but also as a structure for the more bestial behavior that simmers, then boils over the confines of accepted rituals, or just plain consumes them. 

Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh in The Weight of Smoke. Photo: Paul B. Goode
There is that premiere (one of two new works by Taylor for this company this season), and then there is another brand altogether: The Weight of Smoke, by Doug Elkins, to Handel/beat mix by Justin Levine/Matt Stine that at moments recalled the music for Cloven Kingdom. It's the first commission by an outside choreographer set on the Taylor company. It's kind of a revolutionary idea, as this troupe has been so keenly devoted to one man's vision for more than 60 years, even as members come and go with time. Their bodies are instruments finely tuned to one key, so to see them stretch their legs is a bit shocking. Touches of hip-hop—rippling torsos, turtle spins—are sprinkled throughout. In the partnering section, the couples lock lips and proceed through several phrases that way; Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh outlast the three other pairs. 

It's no surprise that Elkins refrained from using the more extreme hip-hop moves that he employs on his own company; these can be the most memorable moments of his dances, and so what's left feels less distinctive. The Taylor dancers could also use a bit more time finding the rubbery looseness, sometimes even awkwardness, that grounds his uncodified style. He mentioned in a talk about the commission earlier this year that he aimed to nod at the physicality, flat style, and partnering in Taylor's choreography. In the absence of a clear narrative, it is helpful to know this to give some mental shape to the dance while watching.

The stage didn't truly become electric until the very end, when three men vogued, moving downstage and anchored by Michael Novak. The dancers seemed to suddenly wield the power of their physicality in a different way—no holds barred, aiming to dazzle as if dancing at a club. It contrasted with the dance's more introspective earlier sections. Appropriately, it also seemed to pick up the social dance thread left dangling by Dilly Dilly.

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance continues through April 3 at the Koch Theater. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Recycling at its Best—The Met Breuer

Van Eyck, Saint Barbara, 1437. Metalpoint, brush drawing, oil on wood.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen 
Emerging onto the fourth floor of the Unfinished: Thoughts Made Visible, in the newly opened Met Breuer (the old Whitney building on Madison), at first feels like coming home. By habit, I turned left, and saw a jade-green series by Cy Twombly, which felt organic in the space. Past a partition dividing the main space, is a beautifully installed room of sculptures. Here, a study of hands by Louise Bourgeois sits near The Hand of God by Rodin. 
Paul Cézanne. Gardanne, 1885-86, oil on canvas.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Franz H. Hirschland, 195
Of course I had gone through the show backwards, from most recent to earliest works. So from then on, things only became more surreal, with true old masters next to 20th-century ones. Blue chippers like De Kooning, Manet, Cézanne, and Van Gogh are relative newcomers compared to Renaissance and early luminaries such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Van Eyck. The plenitude of heavy hitters is almost comical, as if it was a fictional Museum—like the Met—only not the Met.

Unfinished Thoughts is the result of the work of several of the Met's curators, and includes not only art from its collection, but on loan from collections around the world, a reflection of its institutional power. It's the perfect kind of catch-all theme that can cross centuries and media, which this show does. It showcases not only incomplete works, but those made intentionally obscure or mysterious, or—as in Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself (Violin), a paint-by-numbers canvas, inherent to its subject matter. 

Unfinished: Thoughts Made Visible, fourth floor. Courtesy Met Museum
In recent days there has been a lot of coverage not only of this exhibition, but of the justifiability of the Met in leasing the Breuer for eight years at a fairly large cost. One obvious reason—because it was there. It's a wonderful building that shows art beautifully, and the materials with which it is built are richly textured, mostly natural materials, or concrete. While not perfect—the sunken courtyard never seems welcoming, more a defensive moat—but the human scale of, say, the staircase, makes a mundane task pleasurable. Clearly, by naming the repurposed building after its architect, the Met is acknowledging its importance.

Louise Bourgeois. Untitled (No. 2), 1996, pink
marble on steel base.

Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth

Auguste Rodin, The Hand of God, 1907, marble.                 
Gift of Edward D. Adams, 1908 
It also extends the Met's ability to showcase contemporary art, as it has done with its dedicated second floor to the work of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937—1990), an Indian artist who focused on abstraction. It's powerful support for an artist who had never before received a solo New York museum show. The delicacy and system-based approach of her work is, however, quite overshadowed by the big guns upstairs.

In the ground-floor gallery, Vijay Iyer, on piano, played with saxophonist Mark Turner. It was a taste of an 18-day residency by the composer, whose live performances will be interspersed with guest turns by other artists and recorded events and films. Iyer will also give performances which relate to the Mohamedi exhibition.

Andy Warhol. Do It Yourself (Violin), 1962, synthetic polymer paint and Prestype on canvas. Private collection.
The Met Breuer brings to mind recent expansions of two other New York art institutions—MoMA and the Whitney. Both have enlarged their premises to accommodate a boom in tourism, and have accordingly become perhaps less appealing to New Yorkers, at least this one. MoMA's terrifying atrium may create a forum for unprecedentedly large-scale works and performances, but it's soul sucking. And the Whitney's open arms policy, with its outdoor staircase and terraces and direct access from the Highline, has conflated it in my mind with the Meatpacking District and the unpleasant overcrowding of the Highline.

Sacre bleu!
The Breuer opening roughly coincides with the debut of a new logo for the Met, which has received mixed reviews. It's kind of hilarious that a logo—albeit one that must have withstood the scrutiny of hundreds of pairs of eyeballs—has summoned such vitriol and attention. But it shows you how possessive New Yorkers are of this keystone institution.

The Met itself is so immense that it can absorb thousands of people, with crowding only in special exhibitions. But the Breuer might also fall prey to its own popularity, particularly with such well-known artists on view. Still, it's a welcome outpost for the city's biggest museum, which is pedaling furiously to catch up to its more modern contemporaries, and just made up a lot of time.