Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dorrance/Van Young Transform the Guggenheim Into a Giant Instrument

Photo: Matthew Murphy
No other building in New York City can compare to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim. The spiral ramp that forms the rotunda may pose logistical problems when installing an exhibition, but who among us hasn't daydreamed of rolling from the top to the bottom on the ramp, ideally free of visitors? The museum is currently showing Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim, which is essentially a selection of core works elucidating the museum's mission, essentially the history of modern 20th century abstract art.
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, plus her company, were given free rein on Feb 16 to turn the rotunda into a giant instrument, with the full-house audience as participants. Dorrance is known for her imaginative tap choreography, but here the company for the most part wore street shoes (at least I think that's what they were, as I watched at a distance from the top level). As Dorrance whacked a drum, dancers pushed boxes on the ground (that comprised platforms when assembled), tracing figure 8s, and slapping or stomping on them to create sounds. A pair lay on the floor and posed in various shapes which read clearly from on high.

The performers hit together red plastic sticks, and mock dueled one another. A trio stood mid-level and sang out into the atrium. They then ran down the ramp for a circuit, repositioned themselves against the railing, and sang again. Just below me, a team with longer plastic tubes whacked them against the railing in rhythmic patterns. 
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Van Young stood at the ground floor's center and conducted us, the audience, in alternating rounds of claps, varying in speed and pattern. It was remarkable how quickly people picked up what he was doing, and what we needed to do in response. He and Dorrance hit some spheres floating in the small pool (which I always forget is there), creating yet more types of sounds. Wooden platforms for tapping were dragged in, and the dancers carried their tap shoes out, laced them up, and made a cacaphonous barrage of reports which bounced around the rotunda. Dorrance's ingenuity emerged not only in the tap routine she performed solo, but in the simple yet effective section where most of the company marched in a looping line, each step resonating loudly.

The event is part of the Works & Process Rotunda Project, which intends to activate the main gallery space. Dorrance/Van Young certainly left no area unused, showing the potential of the iconic space when in the hands of visionary creators. The next work in the series will be in September by ABT principal Daniil Simkin. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Punch and Judy, Refreshed

Anne O’Donnell and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

Choreographer Annie-B Parson and her company Big Dance Theater have frequently used existing narratives and texts as bases for their varied repertory. In I used to love you, a premiere for Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, Parson has succeeded in acknowledging an oddity of Graham's repertory while creating an intriguing new entry. And the Graham company, under Janet Eilber's direction, continues to evolve smartly while embracing its rich history.

Parson conducted a "conversation" with Graham in I used to love you, using a film of Graham's 1941 comic dance drama Punch and Judy as a starting point. Parson skillfully deploys her wry wit and conceptual curiosity, enfolding scratchy clips of the original with other footage (video by Jeff Larson) to create something completely new. The Greek chorus, a standard feature in many Graham dances, comprises Anne O'Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Laurel Dalley Smith. They're the first thing we see—posed on the apron, strikingly costumed in Oana Botez's beautiful, hot-hued, pleated crinoline and floral dresses, a nod to Graham's focus on couture as an important production element. They each sit on a white rolling office task chair and hold mics with color-coordinated cords, fan kick their legs, and roll on their chairs casually while a drum roll (music by Tei Blow) sounds, raising the level of anticipation. 

Anne O’Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, Laurel Dalley Smith, and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

The choristers utter phrases that seem random while making bits of sense (text by Will Eno), referencing the moment (reciting the date) or an action (tapping the mic). Judy (Xin Ying) and Punch (Lorenzo Pagano) appear, bringing onstage a rolling cot and a portable film screen, which they set up. They dance as baggage-laden husband and wife, alternately beseeching and violent, and always intense, as the chorus moves downstage in slow motion, revolving on their chairs. Their daughter enters (So Young An); she's cradled by her mother, and then is partnered by her father as one of the corps describes the action as "virtuosic lifts, conveying complex emotions." It evokes an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I must confess that at times I've wanted to similarly, and snarkily, narrate a war horse ballet like Swan Lake, just for fun.)

Ben Schultz then proceeds to steal Punch's affection. The two men strip off their shirts and perform a muscular acrobatic duet on the cot. There's a blackout, and we're informed that it represents the place where the original film broke. A stunning video of a giant moon appears on the backdrop. Judy dances a passionate solo filled with sweeping limbs and taut lines (Parson reinterpreted the original Graham choreography), and her face appears large onscreen. The kneeling chorus members pull their skirts over their heads and rock in a sort of physical keening as Judy hinges to the floor on her back. Martha's projected face looms over the drama, as the chorus moves to sit on the edge of the stage, their legs dangling. 

The February 14 program included works by Graham: Dark Meadow Suite (1946), an exercise in clear shapes and structures; the solo Ekstasis (1933), a snaky solo for PeiJu Chien-Pott; the bizarre, self-mocking Maple Leaf Rag (1990), plus Woodland by Pontus Lidberg, a work showing off his elegant, balletic phrasing.