Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ballet Hispánico Brings a New Norm

Línea Recta. Photo: Paula Lobo
A number of mid-sized ballet companies exist in the US, and even in New York alone, but Ballet Hispánico stands out for its dedicated focus on the work of Hispanic artists and themes. The program at the Joyce through this weekend is also remarkable as all three choreographers are women, a refreshing change. Each of the three works that comprise the evening are quite distinct in form and content.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who created Línea Recta, was in the news last fall for her intriguing commission for New York City Ballet, Unframed. The dance for Ballet Hispánico takes as a foundation the style and attitude of flamenco. A barefoot Melissa Fernandez wears a red dress with lace bodice and a long, narrow, flounced train that whips and winds around her limbs; four men, bare-chested, wear high-waisted red pants and red socks. Without the heeled, leather soled shoes typical of the genre, the stamping is more attitude than striking force, but there are plenty of gravity-bound deep pliés to convey an earthbound feel. Fernandez dances a duet in which she chafes and strains against the embrace of her partner. She's joined by three women; they all wear shorter versions of the original dress. Eric Vaarzon Morel wrote the original guitar compositions, which move through an array of emotions. The dance captures the general flavor of flamenco in a modern vehicle. 
Con Brazos Abiertos. Photo: Paula Lobo
Michelle Manzanales' Con Brazos Abiertos ("With Open Arms," made with artistic collaboration by Ray Doñes) is a high-spirited take on growing up as a Mexican in Texas. Manzales is the director of BH's school of dance. The costumes, by Diana Ruettiger, feature flattering white halter tops to which were added high-waisted lurex pants, and finally flouncy circle skirts for both the women and men. The score is a playlist of charming ballads in Spanish, spoken word (including a joke about Mexicans taking Spanish and getting Bs), and even a cover of Radiohead's "Creep." In one section, everyone wears large sombreros which hide their faces from the audience, raising the idea of group identity, or the lack of an individual one. It pays homage to Mexican tropes with tongue firmly planted, refreshingly, in cheek. 
3. Catorce Dieciséis. Photo: Paula Lobo
The program ended with 3. Catorce Dieciséis, Spanish for the numerical equivalent of pi. Choreographed by Tania Pérez-Salas, it is a study of kinetic patterns and shapes, danced to a medley, with an emphasis on early music. The style feels similar to a number of post-classical choreographers working today, if perhaps a bit less fluid syntactically. Tossed leg extensions and hyper-extended torsos and arms are used frequently. One hallmark was to creative passages of movement that move perpendicular to the audience, rather than the typical, dramatically effective diagonal or lateral crossing. But it was a taste of global contemporary ballet to cap an all-female creator program remarkable for being, in a sense, all in due course. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scottish Ballet Debuts with Flair

Ten Poems. Photo: Andy Ross
The Scottish Ballet showed its artistic breadth and technical fortitude in a program of three diverse dances at the Joyce. It is Scotland's national company, begun in 1969, and is led by artistic director Christopher Hampson, who contributed Sinfonietta Giocosa to the program. This crisply structured neoclassical ballet, bookended by a tableau of two taut columns of dancers, is full of virtuosic leaps and turns. It's a work with great dynamic flair to match the music by Bohuslav Martinu.  

The highlight of the slate was its closer, Ten Poems, to said poetry by Dylan Thomas read on a recording by actor Richard Burton. It sounds somewhat dry at the outset, but Christopher Bruce's occasionally mimetic gestural movement ebbs and flows gracefully with the text's lyrical phrasing. He mines the emotion of the poetry without being too literal; rectitude might translate as upright posture and right-angled arms, childlike joy by jaunty, darting leaps. While there is no outright narrative, as each section is performed one or more new characters are introduced, culminating in a ensemble section. Marian Bruce designed the nostalgic streetwear costumes.

Sophie Martin and Victor Zarallo in Bryan Arias' "Motion of Displacement." Photo by Andy Ross.

Bryan Arias choreographed Motion of Displacement, a contemporary take on ballet that shows possible influences from Complexions and NDT, where he has danced; he currently is a member of Crystal Pite's Kidd Pivot. The dancers pose downstage, each in a varied shape but touching one another, and energy snakes through them. Shapes morph from curvilinear to angular, everything feels pushed and extruded, attenuated. A tall woman pairs with a shorter man; the rest watch, indifferently shifting their weight from leg to leg. Body parts are isolated, and they change levels from planks on the floor to strongly resisting gravity in pulled-up attitudes. They all start by wearing socks (thanks, Mr. Forsythe, who seems to be another influence); some women don toe shoes for duets. Arias also designed the handsome costumes: white tops with pale grey trousers, sometimes removed. While one can admire the strength and fluidity of the dancers, the piece, while full of style and formal ideas, felt emotionally bereft, particularly in light of Ten Poems.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

New York Notebook

Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Cheryl Mann
How much fiddling can a stalwart ballet like Romeo & Juliet take? Turns out, quite a bit. In Krzysztof Pastor’s 2008 production, presented by the Joyce Foundation at the Koch Theater recently, the action takes place in three eras over the last century to underscore how history repeats itself. It’s an intriguing premise that mostly succeeds, supported by the designs by Tatyana Van Walsum and the sturdy Prokofiev score.

Pastor’s style of ballet tends toward expressionistic, with clean lines, twisting torsos, and limbs pulling in opposition. It’s most effective in the meaty group scenes featuring warring factions or ballroom dances. The character of Romeo (Alberto Velazquez) felt slightly undersketched; he came across as callow, rather than a soul-sick poet. Juliet (Amanda Assucena) was portrayed as bold and stronger than the traditional character of a child-woman. The role of Paris is greatly diminished in this version; at one point several men have a sort of speed dating meet-up with Juliet, who winds up with one, but it's more a metaphor of the dominance of the authoritarian ruling party than individual choice. For the balcony duet, Juliet is cleverly suspended above the stage in a small elevator, which lowers her to the ground to dance with Romeo. The level of technique is honed, with dynamic performances given by Derrick Agnoletti (Mercutio) and Edson Barbosa (Tybalt). 

Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Cheryl Mann
The overall metaphor of the effects of war is at times depicted as taking place between authoritarian figures—the ruling family and attendant police—and the people, as in the 1930s setting. In the first act, the differing dark vs. light costumes clearly distinguish the factions until the ball, where everyone wears black and white except the lead couple. They wear pale blue in every act; Juliet a camisole dress with a short skirt; Romeo a jacket over shirt and pants, reminiscent of terrible prom tuxes. In the final act, Juliet wears lingerie—an ill-fitting camisole and shorts, and Romeo cheap-looking shirtsleeves. The costumes undermined the stage power of the romantic couple, to a distracting extent.

In the act set in the 1950s, the palette becomes red and black, the background imagery full of Vespas. A window colonnade separates the inside from outside; people pass by the windows as fleeting shadows. The scene in the 1990s is set in Juliet’s room, now a sleek apartment building. Clever sculptural panels descend and rise to give texture to the austere basic set. Unfortunately, by lying in front of her, Romeo obscured Juliet from view in the death scene, which could be prevented. And after the first action-filled scenes, the finale dragged in pace. But overall, i
t was heartening to see that the Joffrey has flourished after departing New York for Chicago decades ago.

Anna Chirescu and Gianni Joseph in Place. Photo by Charlotte Audreau.

Cunningham via France

It seems almost cruel that the primary home for the choreography of Merce Cunningham is in Angers, France with the Compagnie CNDC under the guidance of longtime Cunningham dancer and steward Robert Swinston. After all, we in New York enjoyed the regular performances of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its hometown over the course of his lifetime. But yearly visits by CNDC will help to assuage some of the emptiness from the disbanding of MCDC. 
(And Lyon Opera Ballet just performed Cunningham's Summerspace with Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.) 

The company recently brought to the Joyce three works of great variety. Inlets 2 (1983) is time-stamped by its pastel leotards of milliskin, very shiny lycra, designed by Mark Lancaster, who also lit it. The John Cage composition Inlets was played on sea shells, some giant conches, with water, making trickling and burbling sounds. The movement is one of Merce’s nature studies, mostly unhurried, or with quickened paces ebbing and flowing. Small groups move together and break apart amid the ice-hued lighting schemes. Legs cross and bend, like birds, but these organic postures are mixed in with the geometry of ballet.

Alexandre Tondolo and Adrien Mornet in How to Pass, Kick, Fall and RunPhoto: Charlotte Audreau
Place (1966) is far more dramatic. Gianni Joseph slowly, muscularly, strides centerstage into a pool of yellow light (Beverly Emmons, who also designed costumes and the wooden palette decor) and drops to a pinwheel. Several women wearing tinted plastic tunics join him, spinning rapidly and rocking in second position relévé, and then a few men wearing plain brown. Later, dancers enter one by one, fabricating a modulating tableau. Joseph slides two multi-sided lit orbs upstage, perhaps a kind of time tracker. A man carries a woman wound, front side out, around his torso like an expressive sculpture; she then lies face down, suspended on his thighs. There’s more lifting than in your average Cunningham dance—cruciforms, splits, and more. Joseph digs out a translucent plastic sack and, legs inside it, struggles across the stage.

For How to Kick, Pass, Fall and Run, two readers sit at a table, stage left, reciting short anecdotes about random topics. The dancers wear black tights, white stirrups, and bright tops. In this athletic dance, they bound, jump in x-shapes, twist, and leap full-out. Standing legs bent, they crisply développé the other leg to the side and front. The viewer’s attention is torn between understanding the speakers’ stories, and giving full regard to the movement. No doubt John Cage (who provided the text, Stories from Indeterminacy) was smiling as one of the spotlights in an upstage string of them blew, sparks showering onto the stage before those fixtures were turned off. Truly, anything can happen in live performance.