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. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Highlights from Disguise at the Brooklyn Museum

Gola Helmet Mask with Raffia Costume,
20th c. Gift of William C. Siegmann
Masks are associated with ancient rituals, frequently of passage or transformation. The images conjured by the word are often carved wooden pieces of African origination. Now at the Brooklyn Museum in Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, many fine examples of these old world artifacts (or at least traditional in style, as many are from the 20th century) are on view, alongside contemporary renditions of masks, whether literal or more figurative. It's a stirring juxtaposition and a showcase for some intriguing young artists, many based in Brooklyn.   

Pieces from Liberia, Nigeria, and Cameroon exemplify the traditional type using materials organic to the geography, such as wood, straw, and leather. They can evoke animals, and are often meant to be fierce, intended to veil or erase one's identity. 

The works by current artists play on the varied themes and functions presented by masks, adapting them with an eye to contemporary issues of identity and security. Many of the artists have moved to New York from African countries.    

Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008, printed 2015
Photograph sheet: 35 3/4 x 36 in. (90.8 x 91.4 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Among the most compelling is Nandipha Mntambo, who focuses on bullfighting. She transforms herself into not only a toreador, photographed in costume, waving a red cape in a bullring, but also an intimidating bull with horns. In another fascinating work, she takes a cowhide and shapes it into a relief of a woman's backside, bridging abstraction and representation.
Walter Oltmann, Razor Brush Disguise, 2014, aluminum wire
Walter Oltmann of South Africa creates bristling body suits of razor wire and metal spokes, like modern versions of suits of armor. While obviously threatening, they manage to be endearing, in the way of a hedgehog.

Brendan Fernandes, From Hiz Hands, 2010, neon, glass.
Brendan Fernandes makes masks out of modern materials such as neon tubing and plastic, and sets them upon underlying, shadowy text, or, engrossingly (and disorientingly), on decoys of deer. He raises questions about the human need for disguise, and how it often is enacted for psychological reasons, rather than simply for the basic need to survive. In As One, he filmed ballet dancers posing in relation to African masks, juxtaposing symbols of divergent traditions.

Brendan Fernandes, Neo-Primitivism II, 2007—14, plastic masks, deer decoys, vinyl. Photo: Susan Yung
Zina Saro-Wiwa's photographs are striking because they show a woman in contemporary fashionable dress grappling with a giant mask/headdress, paralleling how descendants deal with the acts and histories of their predecessors. She also elicits questions about feminism, as traditionally predominantly men participate in rituals with large and heavy masks. 

Zina Saro-Wiwa, The Invisible Man: The Weight of Absence, 2015
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art , which originated at the Seattle Art Museum, is on view through September 18. Also in the lobby is an installation by Tom Sachs of his Boomboxes over the years, constructed of found or repurposed objects.  

Photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum unless noted.