Friday, April 20, 2018

V.4 Dance Festival—Innovations from Eastern Europe

Guide, by Vera Ondrasikova
Mini-series such as Skirball Center's V.4 Dance Festival are good for navel-gazing New York dance-goers as they remind us of innovations taking place in dance-theater abroad, specifically Eastern Europe, which we wouldn't likely see in New York otherwise.  

April 19's program, curated by Laurie Uprichard (ex-director of Danspace Project), led off with Guide, by Czech native Vera Ondrasikova. The first eight rows of house seats were blocked off, presumably so the lasers and fog wouldn't bother audience members as much. The two elements combined to create some mesmerizing effects. Lighting technology has advanced so that light can be emitted in very precise shapes, and manipulated into planes that undulate, so when the light captures floating fog, it looks eerily like an ocean wave; or the beam can be shaped into a precise box, forming a pyramid around a performer. Two dancers, largely seen in silhouette due to the overall darkness, appeared to push the light, and also break the plane. It evoked some sort of sci-fi scenario about passing through a portal into a different realm.


Pawel Sakowicz in Total, by Dawid Grzelak
The second piece on the program was Pawel Sakowicz's Total, for which the crew laid down white marley during intermission. While Guide relied on technological advances to transform the theater, Sakowicz, of Poland, performing solo, simply utilized his moving body, a lecture-like monologue, and a small notebook which he consulted at times. His lecture involved virtuosity and the different ways people value it. The piece consists of four parts, each beginnning with a challengingly cerebral intro, followed by a section of movement. Sakowicz spoke of "eco-virtuosity," and minimizing energy output in a given dance phrase. As he demonstrated, the range of his limbs and amplitude diminished until he was using merely his eyes to suggest direction. 

Another topic involved imagining one cell undertaking the basic range of bodily functions, delivered while doing a chain of poses on his knees, accelerating each time through. He polled us to see if we wanted to see him dance his own choreography (we did), which turned out to be a section by Merce Cunningham, most recognizable in bent torso stag leaps. Finally, he said that for himself, there is no virtuosity without an audience present. While I wished he would have danced more, his intellectual musings were certainly thought-provoking and performative in their own right, delivered with wry wit and charm. 

A second program of V.4 is tonight, including Wow! by Debris Company (Slovakia) and Timothy and the Things: Your Mother at My Door, by Emese Cuhorka and Laszlo Fulop (Hungary).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Martha Graham Dance Company—Sacred/Profane

Leslie Andrea Williams and Lorenzo Pagano in Embattled Garden. Photo: Melissa Sherwood
It's remarkable to see the Martha Graham Dance Company standing relatively strong, 92 years after its founding. It has survived the death of its founder, an ensuing legal battle over her creative output, moving its headquarters, then flooding which destroyed much of its costumes and sets, and the inexorable company turnover as time moves on. Yet at City Center on April 11, as part of Sacred/Profane, the company and its supporters gathered to celebrate its survival, and indeed growth, albeit as a limb off of a big trunk.

So often Graham's classic works are accompanied by taped music, and the recordings tend to sound tinny and worn, old as they are. So it was a pleasure that the opening performance of Embattled Garden was elevated by the use of live music, written by Carlos Surinach, and performed by the Mannes Orchestra. Noguchi's sets remain singularly sculptural and functional; here the downstage piece becomes a safe harbor and a lookout point, the upstage the pseudonymous garden of Eden. The young cast of four (Anne O'Donnell, Lloyd Knight, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Lorenzo Pagano) was well-balanced; the men look as strong as the women, who in this company have often drawn the gaze. 
Laurel Dalley Smith and Ari Mayzick in Histoire. Photo: Melissa Sherwood
The evening marked the premiere of Lucinda Childs' Histoire, an expansion of a 1999 duet to music by Krzysztof Knittel. Laurel Dalley Smith and Ari Mayzick perform the duet, a kind of abstracted tango in which they face one another, arms angled like goalposts, and move about the stage at a fixed distance, as if there was a force field between them. Childs' signature arabesque spins and extended-leg lunges punctuate the dance. Knittel's synthesized, recorded score evokes the bandoneon that soon accompanies the next sections, playing two of Astor Piazzolla's songs. (They will be familiar to Paul Taylor audiences from his Piazzolla Caldera.

Three other couples, in grey, populate the stage; the couples' interactions are more physical and in keeping with how tango is usually done. But there is tension between the passionate, warm music and the rectilinear, formal attitude of Childs' choreography. In a sense, this sense of tension is not unlike when you watch traditional tango, in which sensuality simmers beneath a social veneer.
Leslie Andrea Williams and So Young An in
Legend of Ten. Photo: Ani Collier

Lar Lubovitch was awarded the Martha Graham Award, which, as Artistic Director Janet Eilber joked in a brief onstage presentation, Graham would never give to another choreographer while she was alive. Lubovitch created The Legend of Ten to Brahms' Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. In the first sections, the choreographer's signature fluid, looping movement is on full display; a repeating hook features the dancers tap-stepping and rolling their heads side to side, arms rippling softly. They form various patterns, shapes, and tableaus, which Lubovitch excels at. 

In the work's later movements, the dynamic becomes more percussive. Folk steps strengthen the sense of community. The dancers face inward, form a circle, and hold hands, stomping and kicking their legs back. They gesture as if strewing seeds, and mock clap and stamp their feet, cossack-style. This sense is underscored by their elegant boots; all genders wear the same elegant blouses, tights, and obi costumes in pewter, designed by L. Isaac with Naomi Luppescu. 

No one can match Lubovitch in creating beautiful, seamless movement. The shift in Legend from this pure beauty into a version of a functioning group, be they workers or soldiers, provides some welcome narrative structure. Incidentally, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company will perform at the Joyce next week and celebrate its relatively young 50th season; the Graham dancers will dance Legend of Ten in a guest spot. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

New York Notebook—Giselle and Symphonie Fantastique

Giselle. Photo: John Hogg
By Susan Yung

Dada Masilo's Giselle

Dada Masilo has come up with a way to make classical ballets relevant and meaningful to audiences who are both interested in the romantic canon, and likewise concerned with contemporary dance and ideas. Her Giselle at the Joyce Theater draws on basic plot elements, characters, and musical themes, but reinterprets the essential story line to hew to a more satisfying, feminist ending in which the guys get their comeuppance.

As she did with Swan Lake in 2016, besides tweaking the plot, the dance is freshened in inventive ways. Foremost, the movement mixes snippets of ballet with steps from African and contemporary dance. Each scene's emotional temperature, or message, receives a different treatment of this mixture. So when Bathilde, an aristocrat, moves haughtily through a group of workers, her group's primary language is balletic; the same goes for Albrecht, her two-timing beau. Their costumes made of bright white fabrics and navy brocades. The corps members, comprising the company of 12, wear peasant-style blouses and beige skirts, and when Albrecht poses as a peasant, he slips off his bright white leggings revealing beige ones.

While many of the key plot points from the traditional Giselle remain, Masilo pivots in several places. Giselle (Masilo) attracts Albrecht's (Xola Willie) eye; they flirt and dance hungrily, enraging the hapless suitor Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) who bears flowers for Giselle. The Wilis appear in a prevision; led by a fierce and terrifying Myrtha (Llewellyn Mnguni) as a Sangoma—a traditional healer—bearing a whip, and thrashing his long hair as well. The mixed-gender Wilis, in maroon dresses, evoke bitter vengeance with a more violent intent than the originals, who merely danced men to death. Giselle is humiliated and ostracized— not shown as being mentally and physically weak, as is traditional—but by being stripped nearly naked by her mother in one scene, and later by baring herself before taking the whip to Albrecht. She tries to cover her bare body in shame, but she also uses it as a strength, to show her true state of mind and her pure, strong self. Giselle undoing her hair and flinging it about typically signifies the passage into insanity, but the bald-pated Masilo instead communicates only through her movement (and the occasional vocal exclamation).

Traditional African beliefs, embodied in the Wilis, stand in opposition to more Western ideology, represented by Albrecht and Bathilde, in their European-style garb. At one point, Giselle is offered a book—presumably a bible—and rejects it. This tension is parlayed into a debate between preserving South African cultural traditions and adopting Western forms, which Masilo's work deals with. The score, by Philip Miller, combines pulsing percussion overlaid with musical themes from Adolphe Adam's original score for Giselle. Artist William Kentridge created the artwork for the backdrop, a charcoal drawing of a marsh with splashes of color. (Masilo choreographed and appeared in Kentridge's Refuse the Hour at BAM in 2015.) Masilo questions and revamps icons of dance while paying homage to them, and greatly expanding potential audiences.

Photo: Richard Termine

Symphonie Fantastique

Hard to believe it's been two decades since Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique took New York by storm, running far longer than thought possible. The production is back at HERE Arts Center, its original venue, presumably freshened with updated technology (well, LED bulbs anyway), but otherwise using the same analog techniques to visually illustrate Berlioz's passionate piano score, played live by Christopher O'Riley. The "puppets" that the performers move through a 1,000 gallon tank range in materials from sequined fabric, glittered circles, tinsel, and bunched fabric, with "screen wipes" made by rising bubbles and cross-swept flags. Drama is created in the musicality, and the shifting lighting adds emotion.

O'Riley plunges wholeheartedly into his piano-playing, coming across as a thespian-like character brimming with emotion. The theater remains tiny, and the tank itself is no bigger than a big large-screen tv. They give backstage tours after the show; it's miraculous how tiny the workspace is, and how many dripping wet props hang from every surface. But most incredible is seeing the banal items that come to life when mixed with music, water, and our ability to anthropomorphize sheets and bubbles.

It's worth revisiting Symphonie Fantastique, and if you missed it back when, tickets are available (albeit not exactly cheap) to see what launched Twist as one of our generation's most accomplished theater artists. Coincidentally, and simultaneous to Symphonie Fantastique, 

Note: Basil Twist's brilliant, tiny puppet person has come to life once again in a retrospective of Jane Comfort's work. Aided by four humans, it stars in Underground River through this weekend at La MaMa.

©️ 2018 Susan Yung, Ephemeralist.com

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Splendid Partnership

Arcell Cabuag and Ronald K. Brown. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
It's hard to believe that Arcell Cabuag is celebrating 20 years with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. He's the company's associate artistic director, and the steady on-stage soul of the troupe. His partnership with Ronald Brown was on display at the Joyce Theater on February 6, in the premiere of Den of Dreams, a duet created in tribute to Cabuag. He entered, slinky and prowling, moving slowly and fluidly. Brown joined him, and they continuously watched one another even as they moved apart and behind one another. At one point, they shook hands at centerstage, affirming to us the strong bond that obviously exists between these collaborators and friends.

The program was otherwise a mix of older works (the other programs contained another premiere). In Come Ye (2002), the dancers' feet kept in time to the complex drum rhythms, while the torso and arms elaborated on the darting melodic lines. A repeated motif of clenched fists held aloft signaled a call for unity as the company clustered, split up, and traced the perimeter of the stage. Excerpts from Lessons: March (1995) featured Annique Roberts and Courtney Paige Ross moving to a recording of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; he said in essence that having money doesn't make you rich, and that there are no superior or inferior races. It's a somewhat futile task to match in movement the power of Dr. King's oration, but Roberts and Ross are both engaging and dynamic presences. 

The Feb 6 program closed with Upside Down, an excerpt from the 1998 work Destiny. It embodied many of the signature elements for which Brown is known and loved—a relentless, pulsing rhythm delineated through movement; a communal experience marking a passage; and the increase in dynamics to a feverishly ecstatic apex. A recumbent Cabuag is carried off, aloft, by the others; it might mark yet another nod to the decades of service that he has given to the company. And well deserved.          

Friday, January 5, 2018

#MeToo, from a viewer's standpoint

Andrew Veyette and Sterling Hyltin in Everywhere We Go, by Justin Peck. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The fallout of #MeToo has been surprisingly swift, with no end in sight. It seems that there have been abuses in every field, wherever power is there to wield. The seemingly genteel world of dance has not been immune, most prominently with the resignation of Peter Martins at NYCB. Past accusations of spousal abuse are public knowledge, but the list of aggressions to dancers and students lengthens each day, not to mention the DWI's that Martins has received, including last week's.

I don't mean to diminish the charges brought to light in recent weeks, which are shocking to hear about, much less live through. But I bring up another sort of abuse of power that has simmered throughout the two decades I've been watching NYCB, and that is from a viewer's standpoint—the commandeering of resources by Martins to create new work for NYCB over the years, and the continuing imposition of that repertory on audiences despite lack of critical support. 

The company's website says he has made over 80 dances, most for NYCB, in four decades. Add up all the hours of time, and bags of money, invested in the creation and presentation of these dances, and no doubt it would be staggering. Dancers, rehearsal directors, composers, musicians, set/costume designers/fabricators, administration to support it all. But audience time as well, for not only do ticket buyers pay a premium price for their seats, but their time is valuableespecially in New York where there are dozens of dance events a week from which to choose.

A few of his dances hold up to scrutiny, including his first, Calcium Light Night. But nearly all of Martins' choreography that I've seen is unremarkable, roughly in the manner of Balanchine, but with passages of absolutely rote ballet that any competent teacher might put together in ballet class as an exercise. Some of it is truly pointless. I've often felt angry after being forced to sit through his dances if I wanted to see works by some of the other far more talented choreographers in repertory. It's like he's flaunting his power at the world—"I don't care if it's any good, or if you like it; I'm the one in power and I can do what I want." When no one stops him, why shouldn't he?
The Wind Still Brings, by Troy Schumacher. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Another kind of arrogance is seen in, perversely, his blind belief that NYCB's nonpareil dancers are able to perform too many steps, joined together clumsily, done too fast, and come out unscathed. As often as not, they fail. Why make these top-notch dancers look foolish? Is it a kind of challenge to them from Martins, like "bet you can't do this"? He himself was an accomplished principal, so perhaps he is measuring everyone against his own skills. I also recall silently cursing the ubiquitous partnering where a man lugs a woman around, flipping her in various ways. Of course Martins is not alone in this tendency, but when the choreography is so consistently tepid, these things tend to stick out even more.

With the advent of the Fashion Galas, begun in 2012, lavish costumes were created by Valentino and numerous other name designers. Certainly these galas have raised enormous amounts, but the expenses have likely been proportionately high. They have been notable events, but in a certain sense, the dance took a back seat to the fashion (although less so in recent years with the recruitment of emerging designers).

In the near past, with the emergence of such talented choreographers as Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and Peck, the number of Martins dances in season repertory has seemed to dwindle. However, he has not been above inserting an existing work of his on a program before eagerly anticipated commissions by younger choreographers, even at the last minute. You got the sense that he knew he had a captive audience that had no choice but to sit through Bal de Couture once more to see Justin Peck's latest work.

Martins had plenty of merits to be allowed to remain in his post for so long. He is to be credited for fostering the talents of the men above, as well as founding the Diamond Institute in 1992 to develop younger choreographers. Commissions have included a number of women recently, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Lauren Lovette, and Gianna Reisen. The technique has remained at a high level, with a whole new generation of accomplished principals emerging in the last decade. The company looks fantastic in repertory by Peck and Ratmansky, who craft interesting and challenging movement without making the dancers look as if they can't handle it. As a long chapter in this illustrious company comes to a close, we look forward to the future, which has in a sense already begun. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017—What Stuck

Dorrance/Van Young at the Guggenheim. Matthew Murphy
Just some of the things that impacted me in 2017... most for the good. Happy 2018!

Books

A Body of Work, David Hallberg

The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell

Endurance, Scott Kelly

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan

The 12 Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti

Borne, Jeff Vandermeer

The Leavers, Lisa Ko


Dance

NYCB
Justin Peck: The Times Are RacingPulcinella Variations, Koch Theater

I used to love youby Annie-B Parson, Martha Graham Dance Company, Joyce Theater

Ten Poems, by Christopher Bruce, Scottish Ballet, Joyce Theater

Layla and Majnun, by Mark Morris, White Light Festival, Rose Theater

Michelle Dorrance: Guggenheim Works & Process (with Nicholas Van Young), Guggenheim Museum; Fall for Dance, Myelination, New York City Center

ABT
Whipped Cream, by Alexei Ratmansky, Met Opera House
The exit of Marcelo Gomes; the return of David Hallberg


Film

The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro


Sports

America's Cup

The abject terribleness of the New York Mets and the New York Giants