Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Meaning of Ailey

Shelter. Photo: Paul Kolnik
It’s already been six years since Robert Battle took over as artistic director of the Ailey company. Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations (1960) is still on just about every program over the month-long City Center run (through Dec 31), making the late choreographer’s presence feel disproportionately prominent in the season’s repertory. There are five Ailey works being danced this season—one more than by Battle, who, all the while, has been adding or showcasing commissions and older repertory by interesting dancemakers. Gone are the “best of Ailey” medleys that both awkwardly showcased highlights and underscored how thin some of his dances can be. And on the rise are dances by company members, such as a premiere by Jamar Roberts and a reprisal by Hope Boykin.

As the company’s repertory has, through time, necessarily experienced a decrease in percentage of Ailey works relative to those by others, to me the Ailey name has shifted to signify less a choreographic style and more the Ailey dancers. Many members have long tenures in the company, and have developed big fan bases, even as turnover continues regularly. It’s not quite a cult, but at this point it is more about the performers than the repertory, which exists mainly to showcase these remarkable artist-athletes.

Battle has been quietly remounting older works he has done for his own troupe, or as commissions for other entitities. Seeing some of his classics, like The Hunt (2001), I’m reminded once again of his own stylistic roots which emanate more from Paul Taylor than Ailey. Battle was a long-time member of and choreographer for David Parsons Dance, and Parsons was a Taylor dancer for many years. The Hunt, for six men, contains direct—albeit brief—movement quotations from Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, such as inverted-curving arms and hunched shoulders rotating forward aggressively. In fact, The Hunt feels like a blood relative of Cloven; both feature men as barely tamed pack animals, alternating between hunting and societal rituals. It’s exciting, a crowd pleaser, and makes use of the dancers’ athleticism. Another Battle work that serves to spotlight physical prowess is In/Side, an emotionally expressive solo; I saw the amazing Yannick Lebrun perform it, funneling his energy toward a powerful finale. And Mass (2004) focuses ecclesiastical fervor into sheer kineticism, as the 16 robe-clad dancers move en masse and form geometric shapes and lines. Chalvar Monteiro distinguished himself with a charismatic presence.

Clifton Brown and Glenn Allen Sims in The Golden Section. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter (1988) counterbalanced The Hunt in terms of gender (six women, although it is performed by a male cast at times) and theme (the prevalance of homelessness in a wealthy society). The spoken text, including poetry, felt slightly didactic at first, but the varying movement dynamics and invention quickly became the driving force. The dancers planted themselves in grounded stances and threw their legs up in high, hatchet-like kicks. The clustered nervously, a wary communal unit on the defensive.

In high contrast was Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section (1983), to David Byrne’s score. Few companies could handle the breakneck speed and technical demands, and Ailey essentially fares well; a little good humor offset any panic induced by the challenging choreography. The production was refreshed in 2006, but Santo Loquasto’s gold lamé or mustard velveteen pieces still encapsulate 80s glam. Belén Pereyra-Alem was notable for her precision and focused energy.

As for Revelations, it continues to bear up well after constant performance and viewing. There was a time when I didn’t relish seeing it yet again, but now, I look forward to it greatly. Its array of juicy roles are vehicles in which to discover new faces, or see tenured ones try something new. I was greatly heartened to watch Clifton Brown, who returned to the company after a break, in “I Wanna Be Ready,” displaying his amazing gift for delivering maximum emotion from minimal kineticism. And his heartfelt smile in “Rocka My Soul” was truly moving; a prodigal son was back home again—or had he brought a piece of home back to me?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Trisha Brown—Seeing the Old Anew

Groove and Countermove. Photo: Stephanie Berger
A side effect of the sad loss of Trisha Brown is that in recent presentations, her mid- to late-career work has been overlooked in favor of remounting her best-known dances. Audiences may never get enough of Set and Reset or Opal Loop, but at the Joyce this week, it was bracing to see some dances that were new to me. It was a rediscovery of sorts of Brown's technically rigorous style. While all of her choreography has an underlying rigor, the outward expression of that rigor is often suppressed in favor of a organic silkiness. Less so in the three dances presented at the Joyce. 

L'Amour au Théâtre (2009) is among a group of Brown's work set to early music—in this case, a recording of Hippolyte et Aricie performed by Les Arts Florissants. The regular rhythmic structure of the music perhaps inspired Brown to experiment with structures built with bodies. Dancers counterbalance each other, bracing one anothers' arms, then place an elevated foot on her partner's shoulder. A man lifts a woman in a circle, her legs and feet flexed as if ready to cycle; horse and rider motifs followed, and in a sole literal gesture, a woman mimes a hunter firing an arrow. The pace is quick, the action athletic. The backdrop was painted by Brown—charcoal arcs and circles inscribed on white by the span of her limbs.

In stark contrast musically is the flute score by Salvatore Sciarrino for Geometry of Quiet (2002), played on stage. Its dynamic and phrasing are shaped literally by the breaths of flutist Sato Moughalian, lending a humanism and intimacy. The movement is no less challenging than L'Amour. Two women penché deeply, balancing for long counts. Pairs interleave legs and squat, resting on their partner's knee; they totter off locked in that position. The pace is deliberate and slow; the action continues as the curtain lowers. 

The final dance, Groove and Countermove (2000), is leavened by Terry Winters' witty paintings and Dave Douglas' score, featuring sax and guitar. Brown seemed inspired by the jazz music to create jaunty, loose-hipped moves, injecting moments of absurd humor, as when a woman falls into a split and stares at us to satirically flaunt her skills. Perhaps most notable was the return of Leah Morrison, a longtime TBDC dancer and the only company member who danced with the group while Brown was alive. While all of the new company members are impressive, Morrison has an unforced ease and liquid quality, whereas some of the others seem to be exhibiting their technique more. The multi-hued costumes were reminiscent of Merce Cunningham's Second Hand; when lined up in a certain order, both casts create the colors of the rainbow.

While we are immensely grateful and relieved that the company continues to perform, it is different. To state the obvious, we all miss Trisha, but are glad for the gifts she gave us.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Renaissance has a, well, renaissance

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome).
Archers Shooting at a Herm, 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 in. (21.9 x 32.3 cm)
If it was ever out of fashion, the Renaissance seems to be having another big moment. Besides Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, at the Met Museum, Walter Isaacson (who wrote Steve Jobs' riveting biography a few years back) has just published a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, who was 30 years older than Michelangelo. And Christie's is auctioning a small da Vinci painting: Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500, which was only determined to be painted by Leonardo in 2011. (Dr. Carmen Bambach, curator of the Michelangelo show, has concurred with the attribution.) The lot is dubbed "The Last Da Vinci," and is part of, oddly enough, the Post-War & Contemporary auction on November 15

Shows at the Met, such as Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, are reminders of how lucky we are to have access to such a literal treasure trove, and to the exhibitions it has the resources to put together. Collections tapped for the Michelangelo show range from international museums to the Queen of England's private cache.The exhibition, organized by Dr. Carmen Bambach, a curator at the Met, is primarily composed of 128 drawings, with supporting paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo, but also his mentors and colleagues. 

Many of the drawings are small-scale and informal in feel—the sort you might find done on a napkin or perhaps done idly while daydreaming. The imagery sometimes shares paper with handwritten notes, or can occupy both sides of a sheet of paper. Of course, there are larger, more formal drawings as well. But part of the charm of the exhibition is this focus on process, on lively renditions of parts that unite to compose a larger whole.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome.

Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Drawing, 1542–46

Black chalk and charcoal; 8 ft. 7 9/16 in. × 61 7/16 in. (263 × 156 cm)

Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples 398
A major focus of the show is an illuminated reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Below it are displayed studies for figures in the mural, with a key showing the corresponding finished part above on a small, gridded diagram. It is a thrill to see up close the sketch of the two hands reaching toward one another in The Last JudgmentAs a teen, Michelangelo studied with Ghirlandaio, who also has several works on display at the Met. The most engaging compositions are not formal ones, such as portraits either full-length or cameo—but bodies in motion: twisting, pulling, advancing. A large drawing, Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of St. Peter, shows a mass of bodies from the back. You feel like you're amid the scrum of men surging forward.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome)

Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)

Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study (recto); soft black chalk, or less probably charcoal (verso). Sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924

I coincidentally just read the novel The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, which revolves around a small (fictional) painting by Antoine Watteau that finds its way to a junk shop and is bought for a song by a young woman. The painting holds a deep, dark secret which is revealed throughout the book. It is eventually put up for auction, and along the way  captivates numerous prospective bidders as a priceless symbol of pure love. While the central artwork derives from the Rococo period, it's another story of the power of art to endure through time, making immortal human emotions and artistry. 

The story of the Leonardo up for auction now seems like the perfect fodder for a novel about the timelessness of art. And yet it's real, another episode in the painting's sixth century on earth. On it goes as we watch for a brief time.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Red Shoes—Devilishly Entertaining

Photo: Johan Persson
If you're familiar with Matthew Bourne's theatrical productions, you expect a story told without text, only through movement, gesture and music. Oh, and scenery. In fact, the sets, by regular collaborator and designer Lez Brotherston, are so key that they virtually become another character in the cast. This is certainly true for The Red Shoes at City Center, in which a proscenium-within-the-proscenium seems to have a clever mind of its own by the end of the production, and even more possessed with spirit than the eponymous toe shoes.

The story, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, revolves around a love triangle between Victoria, a young dancer, the object of affection from both struggling composer Julian and impresario Boris Lermontov, who gives Vicky a pair of red pointe shoes when she is cast as the lead in his new ballet, The Red Shoes. The set design for the ballet is a modern, all-white construction of nesting arches which together comprise a surface to catch video projections (by Duncan McLean). All of the costumes and set elements for this sub-show are in striking black and white except for Vicky's red shoes, which represent the blurring between reality and fiction. While Vicky's success as the lead in the ballet is celebrated, Lermontov becomes jealous of her relationship with Julian, and drives Julian to quit, taking Vicky with him. Although torn, she ultimately chooses to return to the ballet, and in a delirious state, is struck by a train.  

Tackling the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with music by Bernard Herrmann, is an ambitious task. Obviously, film is without limits as far as settings and editing go. But Bourne and Brotherston do amazing things with Proscenium, spinning it to take us back and forth between Covent Garden in London, and Paris, flipping our points of view between watching the stage, and watching the audience and foregrounded backstage antics. With other scenic changes, we jump to Monaco, the south of France, a dance studio, a salon. At one point, the proscenium's curtain is pulled half open, revealing Lermontov's study (with a kitschy bronze statue of a foot in a toe shoe); it rotates simply and brilliantly to reveal a shabby flat where Vicky and Julian restlessly pace.  
Ashley Shaw and Dominic North. Photo: Johan Persson
I caught the cast with Ashley Shaw and Dominic North as the young couple, and Sam Archer as Lermontov. (In some celebrity casting, Sara Mearns alternates as Vicky in New York shows, and Marcelo Gomes as Julian throughout the show's tour.) Shaw impressively evokes the spirit and bearing of the film's star, Moira Shearer. Perhaps more than most of Bourne's past productions, The Red Shoes demands ballet technique of its female lead, although I had to remind myself that most of the ballet is a caricature. It also requires Broadway worthy charisma and projection through physical means alone. And, unlike film's ability to show a close-up (and therefore emotion), we are never very close to Vicky's face, so her body must do the talking. 

While it is greatly entertaining, there are some weak spots. Character development is hasty and somewhat shallow (in part due to the lack of language), which provides the audience with less reasons to become as empathetic as when watching the film. The front of a locomotive is ferociously frightening in the end scene, if somewhat tonally jarring. And City Center's stage felt somewhat too small for the production, but Bourne is a master of creating high-impact movement with limited breadth. Dancers perch on furniture and stamp, clap and twist, which is echoed in spots around the stage. He uses vertical space as much as lateral, compressing a huge amount of action into a compact cubic area.

Bortherston also designed the costumes, flattering 1940s influenced fitted and flared dresses and high-waisted trousers. But it is his Proscenium that steals the show—swiveling, sliding, revealing and hiding the cast members, who dart through it and around it to unravel the story. The Red Shoes is another entry in Bourne's sui generis canon, one that we New Yorkers can only wish to see more of.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

ABT's Fall 2017 Season—the Farm Team Flourishes

Roman Zhurbin and Hee Seo in Elegy Pas de Deux. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
ABT continues its evolution into a home-grown company with fewer and fewer international guest artists, and lots of talented young dancers who’ve come up through the ranks. In the two shows I caught during the brief 2017 fall Koch season, there were some memorable appearances by dancers I’ve watched for years, but who are now being given, and seizing, the spotlight. It was also the first season in memory when Marcelo Gomes did not perform; he is on tour with The Red Shoes, by Matthew Bourne, although the ABT season did include David Hallberg, who I managed to miss.

One notable revelation was the casting of Roman Zhurbin with Hee Seo in Elegy Pas de Deux, by Liam Scarlett. Zhurbin, a soloist, has long been the go-to guy for berobed male power-character roles, such as paternal or kingly figures, the monster version of Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, etc. Here, he bares his usually covered muscular torso, and is allowed to simply dance. While that involves lots and lots of lifts and overhead presses of his Seo, it was a revelation to see his confident, sensitive performance purely as a dancer. The standing ovation he received shows that others felt the same way.

Seo has proved remarkably diverse as a dancer, too, although she excels in abstract roles rather than dramatic ones. Her line is always perfect and elongated. Gillian Murphy has become perhaps the most reliable and versatile female principal. I saw her featured in Robbins’ Other Dances, a duet with Cory Stearns; both were superbly nuanced and tender in this romantic work. And as the lead in Her Notes, Jessica Lang’s 2016 ode to Fanny Mendelssohn, she was paired with Thomas Forster and articulated each pose perfectly. Forster was also cast in numerous highly visible roles, including Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions. While Forster has been steadily rising through the ranks (he is a soloist), his strengths have been his shapely feet and his height, but he has been filling into his tall frame and has developed his partnering.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III in Songs of Bukovina. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Newish principals Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland, and Christine Shevchenko have taken on their fair share of lead roles, with great success. Shevchenko led Songs of Bukovina, the Ratmansky season premiere, dancing with Calvin Royal III. I still have yet to get a full sense of her style, but she is so fundamentally sound technically, and clean of line, that no doubt many her assured future roles will bring that into focus. Royal, now a soloist, has such gentle confidence and fluidity, and is given to heartfelt smiles now and then. The two were also matched in Symphonic Variations, a fascinating 1946 Ashton opus on form, line and detail. Soloist Joseph Gorak was born to dance such works by Ashton, and he shone in a repeat role in Plato’s Symposium as well. Another outstanding performance in that work was given by Tyler Maloney, a corps member; he acquitted himself wonderfully in Bukovina as well.

Other corps dancers caught the eye. Gabe Stone Shayer's exuberant personality and love of dancing distinguish him in everything, which included Bukovina and Her Notes paired with Misty Copeland. Catherine Hurlin has shown great range for a youngster, with remarkable polish and magnetism. Zhiyao Zhang danced with clarity and vim in both Plato’s Symposium, and subbing for Alex Hammoudi in Thirteen Diversions.

Ratmansky produced Songs of Bukovina for the 2017 fall season, to live piano music by his frequent collaborator, composer Leonid Desyatnikov. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a half hour or so, if not breaking new turf for the prolific Russian choreographer. After a section of divertissements by the four couples, one pair is featured—Shevchenko and Royal, who acts as a sort of emcee, gesturing to individual dancers to begin their solos and duets. Dynamics range from allegro, skipping and darting, barely touching the stage, to grand gestures such as pirouettes with the leg in second. Details such as wagging heads and flexed feet feel somewhat disconnected to the primary movement. But it’s a decent vehicle for 10 dancers, and with just one pianist needed to produce the music, it’s sure to be included in future seasons. Ratmansky has thus far spoiled us with one dance after another, producing such gems as Plato’s Symposium. But it would be wise to remember that even Balanchine couldn’t produce a creative breakthrough every time. We are thankful for every dance we get from Ratmansky.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

NYCB's Fashion Gala 2017

Pulcinella Variations. Photo: Paul Kolnik
When costuming dance nowadays, rehearsal type clothes are becoming fairly common. And why not? The price is right, the dancers can move freely, and really, we usually watch for the movement or story more than anything. But New York City Ballet’s fall “fashion gala” shines the spotlight equally on the fashion designers for the premieres, in this season’s case, of four ballets. Some of the costumes succeeded wonderfully, in addition to some of the dances. The premieres were unveiled at the gala, devoid of intermission as well as Peter Martins’ Chinoiserie study, The Chairman Dances (memorable for the wrong reasons), which will precede the four premieres in repertory in the coming weeks.

With 11 ballets now in the company’s repertory, and a number for other companies, Justin Peck could be excused for running out of ideas in such a short time. But his Pulcinella Variations demonstrates further artistic growth. Other than Alex Ratmansky, there is perhaps no classical ballet choreographer making such musical, flowing phrases organic to the vocabulary. If you think of ballet as a language built of letters, words, and phrases, these are full-blown paragraphs, properly punctuated. He knows the company’s dancers in and out, as well as their capabilities. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Variations is a delightful choice, offering seven movements in which to showcase the varied skills of his peers. Most notable are Indiana Woodward, Anthony Huxley, and Tiler Peck (dancing with Gonzalo Garcia). All dance lucidly, imaginatively, and expand and collapse time with their superb command of technique. Tsumori Chisato designed the surreal, eye-popping costumes with huge eye and floral motifs, and while these are among the most memorable couture in recent seasons of NYCB's fashion galas, the dance itself is just as notable.

The Wind Still Brings. Photo: Paul Kolnik
When young choreographers receive big commissions, it’s not a surprise that their tendency is to use all the amazing talent they have to work with in big, showy ways—kind of like flooring the Ferrari to see how fast it accelerates. But as a viewer, that can be wearying; it’s good to see Troy Schumacher taking a deep breath and infusing his new work with some contemplative moments.

Schumacher (recently promoted to soloist), with his premiere The Wind Still Brings to music by William Walton, shows artistic maturity and emotional generosity to augment his usual youthful, athletic style of movement. There are large group passages (he employs 14 dancers here) in which bodies pour on and offstage, coalescing and dispersing, with the requisite duets and solos. But it’s the dreamlike middle section that makes an impression. The dancers spread out over the stage and lie down. A woman wanders on and lies down beside another, who rises seemingly in response; the first woman then also stands. The pair moves to another pair, and thus all four are on their feet, and so on, like a message spreading steadily through whispers. It’s quiet, thoughtful, and feels like many private moments strung together. Jonathan Saunders designed the varied, striking peach and blue costumes; each design is worn by a man and a woman, including skirts and tunics, and the mens’ hair is slicked back, lending a fascinating overall feeling of androgyny.

Composer's Holiday. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The 18-year-old Gianna Reisen, an apprentice at the Ballet Semperoper Dresden and a graduate of School of American Ballet, choreographed Composer’s Holiday to music by Lukas Foss. Although 12 dancers perform, there’s an intimacy to the proceedings that makes it feel like a smaller group. There are striking pictures: a woman is carried aloft in the opening scene; a couple leaps over a line of dancers, trying to touch; another woman walks on mens’ backs like stepping stones. The classical style contains challenging flourishes and quirks (a woman is carried off, slung over a man’s shoulder fireman-carry style). Virgil Abloh designed the costumes; the womens’ tutus evoke Degas’ above the knee length skirts, the men wear dark patterned tops.

Not Our Fate. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Not Our Fate, by Lauren Lovette, features a pairing between Taylor Stanley and Preston Chamblee, in addition to eight others. All the men wear timeless white t-shirts and slim black pants, designed by Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim. The women sport fitted black jackets and voluminous white scarf skirts that show movement, but overpower their bodies and lines, in addition to feeling archaic, especially in contrast to the men. The score, by Michael Nyman, is typical of his flowing, repetitious phrasing, which after awhile feels like the relentless noise from a jackhammer down the block. Nonetheless, Lovette creates inventive formations, such as when the group forms perpendicular lines around a featured soloist, moving to each stage quadrant. And a motif is memorably repeated in the final scene, when Stanley alights on Chamblee’s shoulder. We're not quite used to seeing same-gender couples, but we're well on our way. And how refreshing is it that including a female choreographer or two is no longer newsworthy.

New York City Ballet's season runs through October 15.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Many Sides of Tharp

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Even though Twyla Tharp, 76, has been creating dance for decades, seeing it performed recently by her company at the Joyce yet brings revelations. Her style varies for the occasion. Some of her classical ballets—such as In the Upper Room, in the repertory of ABT—are among the most technically challenging and rigorous that exist. Her Broadway shows, including the smash Movin’ Out, are stocked with crowd-pleasing, jazzy numbers, but always grounded in the ballet lexicon, even if it’s not obvious. And there is her early post-modern stuff—boneless noodling, contact improv, full of wit and quotidian delights.

The Joyce program (which runs to Oct 8) comprised two 1970s pieces and two premieres in a three-week run. The Raggedy Dances (1972), to ragtime music and Mozart, features Matthew Dibble, Kara Chan, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Kellie Drobnick, and Daniel Baker. A pair enters from the right, bobbing, darting, advancing and retreating, and exiting left. This repeats several times, which is kind of funny because they have to cross the stage by running around backstage, out of view. A bare-legged woman with a lace shawl does an alluring short solo, ending with a demi-hinge and a pelvis bump. Various patterns and pathways are trod in the multi-song work, marked by the loose virtuosity for which Tharp is known.

A far more strident and crisp approach is taken in The Fugue (1970). There is no accompaniment, simply percussion from the dancers’ stampings and footfalls. Chan, Gilliland and Tankersley, wearing all black shirts and trousers with red accessories, crack out beats with their hard-soled shoes, and punch the air like martial artists. You barely miss music in this play on rhythms and the potential for humans to make noise. A beautiful lighting scheme (by Jennifer Tipton, who lit the program) featured a house-shaped projection of light on the bare upstage bricks.

Entr’acte (2017) is fascinating as it involves Tharp herself onstage, first giving a lecture-demo of a rehearsal, then herself interacting with longtime muse John Selya, who at one point picks up Tharp upside-down on his back, and spins rapidly. I feared for the fearless choreographer, who obviously trusts her life to Selya (who starred in many of her shows over the years, and before that was in ABT). Her dancers flit around her like so many skilled birds and devotees, but Tharp retains an aura of tough love. And lest you think she lacks humor, she tosses in some lines: “If you think you have something to say, speak your mind... The language of dance has always eluded me.”

While Tharp is a remarkable formalist, it’s pop songs that seem to spark her creative heart. The final work and premiere, Dylan Love Songs, is in the jukebox mode of her Broadway shows (and connects with the short 2006 run of The Times They Are A-Changin’, to Dylan), with a string of seven numbers, each shifting in dynamic and emotion. John Selya lurks around the stage perimeter in a black coat and hat, a sort of shaman or dark spirit, dispensing hats other garments like pixie dust. Reed Tankersley picks up a strewn striped sweater, doing creative things with it—skipping over it, pulling it taut with his foot, wrapping it around his waist or head. A couple falls in and out of romance’s spell; another pair roughhouses, one flipping over the other’s back. Dynamics range from rat-a-tat phrases to lush and lyrical, most succinctly embodied in Kaitlyn Gilliland’s dancing. She has internalized Tharp’s mysterious essence, and combined with her NYCB chops, could be Twyla’s dream personified—a quite different, yet similarly skilled embodiment than another early Tharp ideal, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Acro-Cats: Purr-fection!

The Acro-Cats are in Brooklyn through this weekend, and if you're a cat lover, you can't miss them. Seriously. They perform through Sep 10 at the Brooklyn Music School, which is adjacent to BAM's stage door.

If you live with a cat, a lot of what the Acro-Cats do will look familiar. They jump on furniture, walk along narrow, high surfaces, and paw at stuff. But to see them do it on request, in an organized fashion, in front of a big crowd of strangers, is nothing short of miraculous. And hilariously cute! The cats are joined by a chicken, a groundhog, and two rats, who all have their own special tricks.

Samantha Martin, the ringmaster and the force behind the Acro-Cats, gives a running commentary throughout the show. She talks of having fostered more than 200 kitties along the way, and describes each cat's personality and theatrical skill. They push shopping carts, ring concierge bells, jump through hoops, climb vertical poles, clamber across a horizontal pole while hanging below it (and stop for a "just hang in there" photo op, hanging from her front paws). Between acts, each cat returns to its carrier upon the toot of a whistle. 

The finale is The Rockcats, in which a number of cats (and a chicken on percussion) each take up an instrument, including keys, guitar, trumpet, chimes, and of course, cow bell. After the show, you can go onstage and visit with the kitties. It's a completely delightful theatrical experience, and so refreshing amid an abundance of great (but mostly serious) performance. And Martin's description of how she trains the cats gives us cat-servants hope, albeit distant, for channeling our own furry friends' tendencies!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

It's all about the people

Alex Hammoudi and Devon Teuscher in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone
I've compared ballet to baseball before. This time, it’s about how the basic framework, or vehicle, remains fairly constant—nine innings played in a proscribed area; a three-act romantic ballet—but what makes a game or a dance interesting are the ever-changing personalities passing through. (I'll admit it: baseball is fundamentally boring without the varied characters at work.) They all bring strengths and weaknesses; it’s this essential humanity that gives the proceedings drama and makes it palatable to watch the same format repeatedly.

The revolving cast at ABT this season suddenly feels homegrown again, after years of importing guest artists from around the world to pop in for an R&J or two. And with the recent departure of two Russian ballerinas who represent opposite ends of the spectrum—Diana Vishneva, a fiery, precise mover, and Veronika Part, statuesque and lush—it would seem that an era is ending. Not a decade ago, dancers from Spain and Latin and South America dominated the ranks, such as Carreño, the Corellas, the Cornejos, Gomes, and more, alongside the Russian contingent (add to the above Beloserkovsky and Dvorovenko, who since her ABT retirement has notably distinguished herself as an actor in The Americans).

The season-end promotions were just announced, and all four named have risen through ABT’s ranks, in the wake of last season’s promotions of Stella Abrera and Misty Copeland, among others. This year, new principals are Christine Shevchenko (Ukrainian, but mostly raised in the US); Devon Teuscher, who already seems to have an rich inner life to convey along her interpretations; and Sarah Lane, who has largely toiled as a soloist for nine years, with a brief celebrity turn as Natalie Portman’s body double in the movie The Black Swan. Promoted from corps member to soloist is Calvin Royal III, who since 2011 has frequently bobbed to the surface in featured roles and who seems to be on a sure-fire path to prince-dom, assuming some other company doesn’t lure him away. (Case: at NYCB, principal Ana Sofia Scheller, little seen in recent seasons, recently moved to San Francisco Ballet where, presumably, she will get more roles.)

The three women promoted have put in solid principal work already. Teuscher was luminous and deeply empathetic in Swan Lake, Lane sparkled in the premiere of Ratmansky's 

Whipped Cream paired with Simkin, and I heard she was fantastic as Giselle. Shevchenko subbed capably for Gillian Murphy and Part as the female lead in Le Corsaire, doing overtime with four performances. So while these promotions are not a given, it does seem more a formality in the wake of slots opening up with retirements.
Calvin Royal III and Luciana Paris in Don Quixote. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Other notable season performances and higher visibility dancers include soloist Cassandra Trenary, who seemed to have prominent roles in nearly everything (e.g., The Golden Cockerel, Onegin, and Aftereffect), besides flashing her social dance chops at Midsummer Night Swing; soloist Blaine Hoven, in Whipped Cream and Mozartiana; corps member Catherine Hurlin, whom we recall as little Clara in The Nutcracker a few years back, with growing poise and technique. Jeffrey Cirio danced often; notably in Don Quixote with Misty Copeland, where alongside Calvin Royal III as Espada, it dawned on me that the top three roles were filled by non whites. Stella Abrera had a grand season, seemingly flourishing as a principal after seasons of injury and recovery; she sparkled as Princess Tea in Whipped Cream, and was a heart-wrenching Giselle on the anniversary of Gomes’ 20th anniversary with ABT.

Joseph Gorak has earned to be seen frequently, with his pristine, artful lines and innate épaulement. He reminds me of a young David Hallberg in many ways—also (unfortunately) in the need to build upper body muscle to be able to hoist women overheard, as he failed to do in the final exit of an otherwise crisp Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Isabella Boylston. Speaking of which, Boylston hit her stride this season, endearing herself further with audiences with her courage, commitment, and excellent form; she also seems to have found her match with Lendorf as a frequent partner. I saw them perform Aurora’s Wedding, an augmented act from Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. While they performed laudably, the piece itself—considered a company premiere—is a lopped off triumphal pageant that carries little of the hard-won dramatic bearing leading up to it, though much of it is still fun to see.

And there’s the return of Hallberg, after two years rehabbing a terrible foot injury, after making front-page headlines by joining the Bolshoi, which defied conventional knowledge and tropes about that company’s style, versus his own, more Mariinsky-like classical sensibility. Seeing him in action again was like seeing a unicorn. His flexibility and ballon remain remarkable, his line exquisite, his upper body strength now reliable. And he inhabits his roles more, rather than wearing them externally. Perhaps the injury did have a silver lining, by causing some soul searching and retraining. In fact he is writing a book on the topic, so we can read firsthand his thoughts.

While one dancer’s departure means another’s entrance, some dancers, like Hallberg, simply cannot be replaced. At least we can look forward to more performances by him, as well as the numerous advancing dancers who have risen through ABT's ranks. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

LA Dance Project, Evolving

Hearts & Arrows. Photo: Laurent Phillippe
The LA Dance Project, under Benjamin Millepied's artistic direction, continues to evolve and move forward, while giving annual performances in New York so we can see what they're up to. With Millepied's full attention, the company recently announced that it will renovate a space in LA's arts district to house headquarters and a small theater. Additionally, New York City Ballet alum Carla Körbes and Janie Taylor joined the company, at least for a brief period (Körbes has accepted a teaching position at Indiana University). The troupe performs at the Joyce Theater through this weekend with two programs.

The June 17th performance I caught included two works by Millepied, plus Yag by Ohad Naharin. (Unfortunately, In Silence We Speak, a duet for Körbes and Janie Taylor by Millepied, was repaced with his Orpheus Highway.) In both of Millepied's works, the movement is a contemporary version of ballet that takes a more relaxed, muscular approach to its basic vocabulary; the dancers wear either jazz shoes or sneakers. At times, the casual formality is reminiscent of Jerome Robbins, as well as some work by Justin Peck.

Hearts & Arrows has striking b&w costumes by Taylor, who has clearly hit her stride as a designer after retiring from NYCB. PUBLIQuartet, a string ensemble, plays live Philip Glass' Mishima. The movement flows easily, elastically, with a hand diminishing the energy of a phrase. The five sections build in dynamic, crescendoing in big movements that feel fun and liberating. Formations include spiraling flowers and chains, framed by four lighting towers; Roderick Murray designed the lighting.
Hearts & Arrows. Photo: Laurent Phillippe
Janie Taylor was featured in Orpheus Highway, a premiere to Steve Reich music played live. Taylor has always danced with a coolness and distance, but there's an shy intensity to her that remains intriguing. Millepied utilizes just enough gesture to imply key plot points from the myth. Live dancers are backgrounded by filmed elements; the moves sometimes coincide, and a different lead dancers in the film gives it a certain removed feel. Millepied contributed not only choreography, but co-lighting design (with Jim French), video direction, and costume design (street-like clothes). While it doesn't break new ground genre-wise, you get a sense of the American West and his company's place in it.

It's interesting to see Naharin's work on a company other than Batsheva (Now defunct Cedar Lake is one other example). Not surprisingly, it feels different than on his native dancers—less innate and unconscious. In Yag, the same basic story revolving around a family is told—verbally and movement-wise—from different points of view. A luminous orange panel occupies a prime spot center stage; at first, it's difficult to tell whether it's a portal or door; positive or negative space. A man wearing all brown (turtle neck, jacket, pants) and eye glasses transfers his costume to a woman, piece by piece, disrobing behind the panel. The dance is Naharin's slippery, alien gaga style, which is handled well by LADP.

The company is composed of some of the super-skilled, ballet-trained generalists that abound today and could likely handle most anything thrown their way. Sandwiched by the two Millepied dances, Yag was a nice bumper and completely antithetical to a classically-based style. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ballet & Baseball—Injuries and Breakthroughs

Christine Shevchenko in ABT's Le Corsaire. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
It's that time of year again when ballet and baseball seasons overlap. This year, the commonality is injuries and ingenues. Not a day goes by without a new team or company member needing to be replaced—often by a first-stringer, but sometimes by an up-and-comer being given a chance to shine.

For ABT, at least last week, Christine Shevchenko stepped it up to sub in four Corsaires, taking the place of both Gillian Murphy and Veronika Part as the lead, Medora. She danced admirably and flawlessly with Alban Lendorf in the performance I saw. Not to sell her short, but I still don't have a sense of her full gifts and her individual personality, but she comes across as the dancer in class or rehearsal who always knows the correct counts and steps. Becoming acquainted with these dancers, whom we grow to know and love, takes time, and also their being cast in ever more visible roles. Just as with Shevchenko.

Switching over to the baseball diamond, specifically the snake-bitten Mets, we have Michael Conforto in the Shevchenko mold. Since finally making it to the majors a couple years ago, laden with tremendous expectations, he pretty much underperformed, zigzagging between minor and major leagues stints, depending on the health of other older, better paid teammates. However, this year, he finally made himself invaluable, with one of the best batting averages on the team, and healthy (until a couple days ago, when his back bothered him enough to force him to rest). He rose to the reputation that preceded him.

Then there are the key performers who, when they go down, leave gaping holes. At ABT, we had David Hallberg gone for two years with a serious foot injury, after making such a splash in the news by joining the Bolshoi, in addition to being one of the most beloved ABT principals. His absence made space for newcomers such as Jeffrey Cirio and Alban Lendorf. And in terms of principals of his height, Corey Stearns and James Whiteside stepped it up.
Matt Harvey, thinking about it. Photo courtesy New York Mets
Over in Queens, Matt Harvey had been flavor of the day after his major league debut in 2012, striking out 11 and getting two hits. The next season, at first he fared so well that he started in the All-Star game, which happened to be held at Citifield, his home stadium. Fast forward, and he had to undergo Tommy John surgery at the end of 2013, which required him to sit out 2014. He returned in 2015, pitching well, and the team made it to the World Series, but was held to a pitch count due to concerns about his long-term health. The next season, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and needed surgery to remove a rib. He has pitched again this year, but with very mixed results, and was just put back on the disabled list with a scapula injury, out for at least several weeks. (Not to mention that he was suspended for three games for missing practice.)

In his stead, Noah Syndergaard supplied the fireworks last year, plus filling the publicity vacuum, and now he's out for a lengthy rehab on a lat. Steven Matz provided some spotty strength before himself succumbing to still-undiagnosed elbow pain, but he's finally back in the rotation, as is Seth Lugo, after some time off after exerting himself in the World Baseball Classic. (Their continued durability remains to be seen.) Jacob DeGrom has persisted, if spottily, and Zack Wheeler returned to the lineup after undergoing TJS as well. Oh, and can't overlook the young, appropriately long locked, gum-chewer Robert Gsellman, who has basically proved his mettle. Bartolo Colon, where for art though? (Though he actually went on the DL in Atlanta recently.)

Then there's the huge absence of team captain David Wright, who has coped for seasons with numerous issues with his back and neck, and then shoulder, and was recently shut down again after starting to throw. Not long ago, he seemed such a sure, long term thing that the team didn't have any viable minor leaguers to fill in at third base. Now they're throwing guys there who aren't at ease, such as Jose Reyes, basically Wright's contemporary. And so it goes.

Personally speaking, I think ballet is one of the toughest things to do. Every part of the body is stretched and pushed to the limit, and when you're the lead in a 2-1/2 hour ballet, there's no respite. In baseball right now, pitchers basically unnaturally overtax their throwing arms and shoulders to the point of near-certain failure. How long this will continue may depend on how many talented young hurlers think it's worth the gamble, and huge salaries nearly guarantee that there's no end in sight.

When major injuries happen to fan favorites, we are devastated. But hopefully, talent will emerge, even if it takes time and enduring rough patches. Life goes on, but memories endure.


If you haven't watched any coverage of the America's Cup sailing regatta taking place in Bermuda, you're missing one of the most amazing spectacles ever. It's about strategy, of course, but it's the technology that is most impressive. The vessels—it's hard to even call them boats—foil, or fly, above the water. They're even marked by percentage in the air, with 100% not uncommon. We may still not have flying cars, but we have flying boats. The finals begin today, between the USA (Oracle) and New Zealand (Emirates), which is powered not by guys producing power by with their arms, but by "cyclors," guys on bikes. On top of flying boats. Enough said. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

NYCB's Spring 2017 Premieres

Odessa: Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz with company. Photo: Paul Kolnik

by Alexei Ratmansky

New York City Ballet's spring gala program on April 4 at the Koch Theater, while modestly celebratory, lacked the electricity generated in the company's now-annual fall fashion galas. In addition to the crowd pleasing, if super-familiar, After the Rain and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the company danced Martins' Jeu de Cartes, with festive costumes but little else of interest, and the highlight of the evening—the premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Odessa.

Odessa is among Ratmansky's "Russian dances" which employ music by Russian composers (here, Leonid Desyatnikov) and are flavored with elements of folk or indigenous dancing from the pseudonymous location. But the choreographer has been extremely busy, creating ballets for companies outside of New York, in addition to projects such as Whipped Cream for ABT, where he is resident choreographer, which has its New York premiere soon across the plaza at the Met Opera House. (At least he doesn't have to run far between company residences.)

Odessa finale. Photo: Paul Kolnik
However, his dispersed attention might be reflected in Odessa, which is handsome, passionate, and at times pops with big steps. But it surprising for its general lack of innovation and movement invention, for which Ratmansky has become reliable. It's structured around three couples: Sara Mearns/Amar Ramasar, Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley, and Sterling Hyltin/Joaquin de Luz. The latter couple doesn't click at first; she shies away from his advances, which is a main source of narrative drama within the piece, later slapping him before they reconcile. A corps of 12 shadows the couples who trade the spotlight back and forth, providing spatial and patterned texture. Desyatnikov's music moves from bold slide trombone to tangoesque sections that provoked Ratmansky into creating some phrases of stylized tango, seemingly a rite of passage for many choreographers. Keso Dekker designed the gem-hued costumes—skater dresses for the women, slinky striped shirts for the men.

Particularly in the wake of viewing Ratmansky's Russian Seasons and Namouna by NYCB in a previous week, Odessa feels slightly formulaic. There are no oddities that mark these previous works, such as a "cigarette dance" or breaking the fourth wall. The corps is somewhat smaller in Odessa, and doesn't evince the kind of organic hivemind that we've seen in other dances by him, where 24 dancers might shimmer like water or move as one. It certainly merits revisiting, but perhaps he has spoiled us with prior strokes of brilliance and unattainable expectations.  

The Decalogue. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The Decalogue by Justin Peck

New dances by Justin Peck have been gaining in anticipation with each season since he began choreographing just a few years ago. This season's contribution, which I saw on May 12, gained added importance, being just the second brand-new work next to Odessa. They were featured in a hyped series called Here/Now which features 43 dances made for NYCB since 1988, some of which haven't been seen in a long while.

The Decalogue is Peck's second collaboration with indie/classical composer Sufjan Stevens, who here contributes a score for solo piano. Despite fears that it might not be full enough to support a 10-part dance with 10 dancers, its expressive, impressionistic passages provide ample emotional and dynamic variety. Peck mixes long-legged company stars Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlin with dancers from all ranks, including other capable principals who often elude the brightest spotlight, such as Jared Angle and Gonzalo Garcia. In fact, Garcia is given the full ballerina treatment—he is partnered by three and five women in different sections; they support and lift him. At other times, men are guided by other dancers in the manner in which women traditionally are.

After dabbling in a heady mix of dance styles in last season's exciting premiere The Times Are Racing, Peck returns to ballet, and pointe shoes, for The Decalogue. The dancers have signature passages which are repeated in the preliminary sections, and are all tossed together in the finale. Mearns enters first, luxuriously unfurling her leg to the sky, doing a little flutter kick to punctuate a jump. In a duet, Mearns is restrained by Angle; she pulls away and seems uneasy in his embrace. Later, Rebecca Krohn moves even more slowly, extending her leg glacially as the piano notes sprinkle like raindrops.

The Decalogue: Tyler Angle and Rebecca Krohn.
Photo: Paul Kolnik
The dancers form a rosette, then peel away, as if in bloom. Other crisp tableaux are formed —a group clusters, each dancer posing at a different level; a column of dancers curves upstage, as motion passes from one dancer to the next in a chain reaction; one couple forms an arch that passes over the snaking line. Peck finds clever twists on the conventional phrases by orienting them differently, or flipping them spatially.

Stevens' score, played movingly onstage by Susan Walters, at times murmurs dreamily, courses powerfully, and skips lightly, almost like an additional character. It's clear Peck and Stevens have a strong artistic rapport. (It might have helped that it contrasted with the three works preceding it, which used early music.) Peck also designed the costumes—for the women, Balanchinean square-necked camisole leotards in subtly varying grey ombré; the men, dark unitards with pale blue yokes. That the young choreographer is also a company soloist and a talented costume designer comes as no surprise. It seems like he could do anything he sets his mind to.