Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Rennie Harris' Lazarus Lifts the Ailey Company

Lazarus. Photo: Paul Kolnik
On Dec 11, City Center turned 75, and this season is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th. They celebrated together with a program featuring not only Ailey’s finest, Revelations, but also longtime City Center artists Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. The evening showcased Ailey Company’s strengths and weaknesses underlying its artistic model.

The late Paul Taylor’s work might seem a fine fit for Ailey, but its “cover” of Piazzolla Caldera merely skims the surface of this rather dark dance. Its two most important characters are the first male solo and the spurned woman (done respectively and most memorably in recent years by Taylor’s Michael Trusnovec and Annmaria Mazzini). The man leads the group of men, moving first and slicing and attacking like a toreador. Jamar Roberts performed this role for Ailey, and lacked the necessary ferocity, thereby diffusing any dramatic tension. The female part was danced by Jacqueline Green, who also presented very little of the built-up angst and desperation of the character, who is cruelly rejected by every man on stage. Both Roberts and Green are tall, lithe, elegant dancers, but in this case lack the grit and aggression that roil beneath the surface of this deceptively shadowy piece.

The Taylor lexicon also might appear easy from a technical point of view. Stag leaps, low jetés, and chassées comprise its core. The Taylor company obviously renders these moves constantly in Taylor’s repertory, thus they are consistent among performers. The Ailey company doesn’t perform these daily, and each dancer does the moves slightly differently, resulting in a lack of visual cohesion. When you watch the Taylor company, there are passages when these synchronized sections whir and click like a Swiss clock’s movement, creating visual harmony. I missed this tuned, symphonic sense with Ailey’s interpretation.

Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section is a signature work by this uncategorizable, prodigious choreographer, and a very challenging one to perform. It’s not easy to appear as if you’re carefree and louche while doing super hard steps that require great coordination and precise timing between dancers. That said, Ailey has been performing this on and off for many years, and it looked better synced than I remember. David Byrne's jaunty score, which hasn't aged a bit, does a lot of heavy lifting by moving the action along.
Kairos. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The program on Dec 18 offered highly contrasting works. Wayne McGregor’s Kairos (2014), a company premiere, offers more of the British choreographer’s affinity for exaggerated positions and ballet shapes. While Ailey’s dancers are obviously accomplished in many styles, they aren’t strictly ballet dancers, and so many of the lines that might make sense on point, or on exaggeratedly balletic bodies, here feel blunted. Idris Khan’s set—scrims with graphics resembling musical staff lines—make the dancers appear like musical notes. But this somewhat promising metaphor is diluted with the use of Max Richter’s version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a by-now clichéd composition that elicits thoughts of background  car commercials. McGregor’s athletic, balletic style may be tempting to set on Ailey for many reasons, but for me there is an emotional void at its core.

How wonderful then to follow this soulless work with the world premiere of Rennie Harris’ Lazarus in two acts. A central character (Daniel Harder) falls and rises several times in the piece, a motif that could be seen through various lenses in civil/human rights—racial, economic, despotic—or even as a metaphor for an artist and his life and work. The beginning of the piece feels like a dream (or nightmare) scape, with a soundtrack mixing words and sounds (barking dogs) accompanying seemingly discrete scenes featuring a group working or praying. They support Harder as he coughs and collapses, and in a harrowing scene that elicited gasps, lynched bodies achieved through the simplest of gestures—a listing head and small twists of the body on the balls of the feet. 

Jamar Roberts supports the stricken Harder, who then does an arduous phrase, falling forward with the body folded, rear leg aloft. The pace quickens to Michael Kiwanuka’s “I’m a black man in a white world,” and the costumes shift from old fashioned cotton blouses, skirts and pants to more modern garb. The group claps, skipping and crossing their feet, but then appears to be sprayed with fire hoses. Jeroboam Bozeman, wearing only jeans, symbolizes modern man acting with individual intent. The corps, lying down, transforms from a sprouting field, to waving grass that subsumes Harder’s body, to cresting waves.

In the second act, the dancers sport LA Laker-inspired purple and gold tunics. The movement is less trance-like and more rhythmic, clicking and snapping crisply. Harris’ choreography is less reliant on the hip-hop in which he made his name, with more strands of upright fast footwork and joyous space-eating steps. (It feels very connected to Ron Brown’s style.) The pure joy of dancing is rapturous and contagious, and the dancers literally dust off their heels, shaking off the historical luggage and issues of mortality to simply live. Harder walks toward the light, and the audience departs on a cloud.

A couple of notes on dancers: Clifton Brown looks truly joyous and inspired in Revelations, after so many years performing it on and off; his power and stasis in "I Wanna Be Ready" are particularly moving. Vernard Gilmore has been with the company for 21 years, and has gradually (for me) developed into its emotional center with his unshowy, grounded approach in a company of spectacular dancers. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Tharp, Pared Down

Eight Jelly Rolls. Photo: Ian Douglas
If Twyla Tharp had failed at choreography, which she obviously hasn’t, she could’ve become a professor. Half of Minimalism and Me, the Twyla Tharp Dance program at the Joyce Theater (Nov 14 to Dec 9), features Tharp at a downstage lectern recapping the ideas behind works between 1965 and 1971, accompanied by priceless video footage of original company members and live performance segments by current dancers. It’s an excellent primer on a less-known period in Tharp’s prodigious, multifarious career which is best known for Broadway smashes and symphonic ballets. 

She traced her path through minimalism, citing simple concepts: the body at a right angle, standing in releve in a star position for 2+ minutes (demonstrated by an implacable Kellie Drobnick), placing one foot in front of the other, and putting the performers behind a wall. Tharp placed an emphasis on learning, not presenting; and going for shock and not entertainment. These experiments were done mainly without a large audience, although for the purposes of the demonstration, a small group sat on folding chairs and conveyed puzzlement or comprehension. 

Twyla Tharp and Rose Marie Wright at the Met
Museum. Photo: James Kravitz
Then a group of rising choreographers—including Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, besides Tharp—were collectively featured in a program on Broadway, and public became an increasingly important component. This led to Medley, a flash mob in Central Park, and a piece at the Met Museum, and the realization that a dance was a commodity. (A group of volunteer performers helped to show the gist of these happenings at the Joyce.)

In the wake of that epiphany came The Fugue (1970), an excerpt of which Kara Chan, Drobnick, and Reed Tankersley performed. It’s full of experimentation and invention, blending numerous forms of dance genres such as tap, modern, jazz, gesture, and body percussion, and solos and intricate interplay among the trio.

The second act of the evening comprised the 1971 opus Eight Jelly Rolls, in which the previous dancers were joined by Matt Dibble, Ron Todorowski, and Mary Beth Hansohn. It’s looser, more playful, and presumably takes cues from the accompanying music, by Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Luke. Tharp expands the kinetic ingredients from The Fugue to include more ballet, vaudeville, quotidian and gestural movement, giving each individual dancer sections that correlate with each one’s character and strengths, as she has always done. Chan has a standout solo done as if tipsy; Jennifer Tipton’s lighting features Chan in white hues while the upstage dancers are bathed in blue to create a background. Drobnick—lanky, fluid, and magnetic—has a quieter passage of poses, small moves, and stasis, echoed by five others.

In a coda, Tharp pokes fun at her aging self, skipping and running after her young brood, and being lifted and spun rapidly, held by her heels (a repeat trick from a recent past Joyce run). While her company is technically stellar, when Tharp is onstage at the Joyce—whether teaching or moving—there’s no doubt who the star is.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

NYCB's Fall Gala—Revolution in the Air

The Exchange. Photo: Paul Kolnik
By Susan Yung

In a sense, it was business as usual at NYCB’s fall fashion gala, “the most important night of our year,” as Teresa Reichlen put it in pre-show remarks at the Koch Theater on Sep 26. Somehow it felt more trite than that in the wake of the departure of Peter Martins last spring, and more recently three male principals, leaving the company in limbo both leadership-wise (currently four company members share that role) and with a shortage of tall leading men. Three new dances focused around fashion designs were hardly the headline.

Reichlen’s speech alluded to the departures: “We won’t allow talent to sway our moral standards.” There’s no dispute this is moral high ground, and yet who among them—us—are unimpeachable, morally? And yet in the face of powerful figures falling each day, the high ground seems to be the only safe spot.

Those remarks set the tone for three premieres which felt, as the evening passed, increasingly what the future will look like for new repertory for NYCB, apart from by now stalwarts Justin Peck and Chris Wheeldon. Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange seemed to pit the old against the new, or conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. atheistic, etc. In any case, a group of rule-bound people (the women in Gareth Pugh’s Martha Graham-esque long red gowns; the men in drum major reds and blacks; all wear red chiffon head covers) move in an orderly fashion, before the rebels (in short tablecloth, diagonal-drape dresses; the men in strappy harnesses and gaucho pants) move in and shake things up. The Dvorak accompanying it set a mostly solemn tone, with hints of Slavic dash.
Lauren Lovette & Preston Chamblee in Judah. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Still just 19, Gianna Reisen’s second work for NYCB, Judah, is set to John Adams’ frenetic score. Four dancers began the piece by walking onstage in front of the curtain, which then parted to reveal staircase segments on each stage side (an allusion to Apollo, intentional or not). Perhaps because Reisen is a woman who performs, sometimes on pointe (with LA Dance Project), she pushes the capabilities of NYCB’s women, who are astounding athlete-artists. An indulgent arc of piqué turns, or an arabesque “nailed” after running to a spot, or finishing a pirouette with an extended leg rather than a planted foot are examples of such ambition, rewarded. Alberta Ferretti designed the costumes—scarf-draped dresses and unitards with, oddly, silhouettes of dancers printed on them. Reisen uses the stair elements as perches and launch pads; Lauren Lovette leaps off of one into Preston Chamblee’s arms. Harrison Ball showed his power and magnetism in a featured role. Reisen packs a lot into the piece, which sometimes feels frenzied, but merits another viewing.

Taylor Stanley in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway promised to be the mystery of the program since he had never choreographed a ballet. The curtain rose to reveal Taylor Stanley (in a black and white romper, by Giles Deacon) in a solo that began and ended with him slumped over and blossoming like a flower. It perfectly showed his absolute precision, nuance, and impeccable line, and which blended ballet with Abraham’s richly varied lexicon, from break to club to voguing. Unfortunately, Deacon’s costumes for some of the other dancers, mainly the women, were baroque and overwrought; headpieces with big side extensions looked ridiculous and rendered the women unidentifiable.

Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, & Ashley Bouder in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The mixed soundtrack ranged widely from Nico Muhly to Kanye to Jay-Z, and perhaps the sound of hip-hop and rap in the Koch Theater felt like the most revolutionary thing about the night. At the same time, it adrenalized the dancers and created an interesting tension with the tradition and classicism associated with the institution and theater itself. Despite the contemporary music, the ruffles, feathers, and crinolines used by Deacon created a courtly atmosphere. Punchy solos were danced by Ashley Bouder (in a flapper mini) and Georgina Pascoguin, who shed a bulky skirt with a sassy toss reminscent of Ratmansky’s fourth wall-breaking asides. 

In some ways, Abraham’s fluid, heady mix of styles evoked William Forsythe, who has underscored the physical intelligence of dancers to transform them into incredible alien beings. In the end, Stanley resumed his bowed position alone. Fittingly, the work began and ended with him, currently one of the most exciting dancers in a temporarily depleted troupe that is facing revolution on several fronts.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Paul Taylor, 1930—2018

James Samson, Michael Trusnovec, and Sean Mahoney in Brandenburgs. Photo: Paul B. Goode
We mourn the loss of Paul Taylor at 88. As a choreographer, he was a shapeshifter. How else to explain the fantastically varied body of work he produced over his nearly nine decades of life? His work ranged from conceptual and rebellious; slap-stick humorous; dark and psychologically probing; wartime based; stories; and formal with patterning, often to classical music, for which he is probably best known. 

Some favorites:

Beloved Renegade (2008)
Michael Trusnovec perfectly portrays the Poet facing death, tenderly interacting with his friends and being led mercilessly out of life by the Angel, Laura Halzack.

Promethean Fire (2002)
A masterpiece in patterning and coordination, but also a gut wrenching paean to human bonds through a 9/11 lens.

Brandenburgs (1988)
The odd-numbered groupings, with passages for women that are as powerful as the mens', plus a wonderful hero solo.

Sunset (1983)
Old world gentility, romance, poignant war motifs, a moving male duet, Alex Katz's simple and beautiful set. 

Lost, Found and Lost (1982)
Antipathy and apathy to elevator music, done in elegant rhinestone-studded catsuits and veils.

Le Sacre du Printemps: A Rehearsal (1980)
A funny, scary story dance done in Taylor's flat Egyptian style, plus socialist demagoguery.

Profiles (1979)
A quartet related to a section of Sacre, and one of the most challenging short dances requiring incredible strength and coordination.

Polaris (1976)
Amid Katz's simple cube of tubes, two casts perform the same sequence to skew time and space.

Cloven Kingdom (1976)
Societal norms butt up against primal instincts in both movement and music. The male quartet among the fiercest and rousing passages in Taylor's oeuvre.

Esplanade (1975)
Walking, running, and hurtling through space, plotless but elicits all range of human emotion.

Junction (1961)
Elemental sculptural, modern, abstract shapes made by the dancers' bodies, spiced up with Katz's color block costumes and set elements.

Three Epitaphs (1956)
Caveman style walking—slumped over, effortful—and windmilling forearms by dancers in mud-colored catsuits with mirrored accents, to a New Orleans brass line. Breaks so many norms.

His dancers were his clay to mold and create sculptures. They inspired him and their great abilities and courage fueled his demanding choreography. So the current company members are the last ones to work personally with Taylor, which in the near future will perhaps be compared to Balanchine's last stable of dancers. The company goes on under the artistic direction of recently appointed Michael Novak (recent interview here), but no doubt it is a new era in modern dance. We are richer for Taylor's output, but sadder for his loss.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sarasota Ballets Gifts of Ashton and Gomes

Victoria Hulland & Marcelo Gomes in The Two Pigeons Act II. Photo by Frank Atura
Sarasota Ballet’s visit to the Joyce Theater last week brought things I have been wistful for of late—the repertory of Ashton, and the performing of Marcelo Gomes. The August 19 show led off with There Where She Loved, a suite by Christopher Wheeldon from 2000, to music by Kurt Weill and Chopin performed live. The seven sections featured small groups—four men and a woman, a trio, duets—emphasizing the difficult and sometimes knotty partnering that the choreographer endlessly explores. In the quintet, Ryoko Sadashima’s toe shoe-clad feet rarely alight as she is hoisted, flown, and manipulated in myriad ways by her four squires. (The main theme is danced by the men in shirts and pants, and later without shirts.) Some moments feel awkward: a couple lies head to head, holding hands, and rolls upstage; a woman scooches backwards offstage, seated. The singers (Stella Zambalis and Michelle Giglio), accompanied by pianist Cameron Grant, add luster.

Works by Frederick Ashton comprise the rest of the program. Monotones I & II are performed periodically by ABT, but on the larger Koch Theater stage. Each is done by a trio in yellow and white unitards with sparkles and toadstool headcaps. The three often move in unison, or in canon, or the two women partner one man, and vice versa. The pace is stately and even-paced for the most part; abrupt moves might include a jump into fourth position, or a sissonne into a low arabesque. The close proximity at the Joyce adds even more possibilities to scrutinize off timing or bobbles. But the company essentially fared well under pressure.
Ryoko Sadoshima, Samantha Benoit & Alex Harrison in Monotones I. Photo Frank Atura
Four wide-ranging Ashton miniatures closed the bill. La Chatte, a study of a cat woman, features cliched air-clawing and ear cleaning gestures, and a comedic loud meow at the end; it shows Ashton’s earthy sense of humor. Les Patineurs pas de trois demonstrates Ashton’s fluency with capturing the essence of expression, in the case of ice skating. Elongated chassees and strategic hops impressively create the effect of the real thing, and the simple joy skating evokes is conveyed by the dancers’ luminous faces. Méditation from Thaïs is a more traditional pas de deux with “exotic” costumes of orange and apricot, and numerous technically difficult lifts and partnering maneuvers.

It was only when Marcelo Gomes appeared at the start of The Two Pigeons that I was reminded of how great stage presence can be relayed even while simply walking (albeit with a live dove on his shoulder). Lost in thought, it’s clear he is consumed with emotion as he tenderly places the dove on a chair. Victoria Hulland enters, settling into a “dying swan” pose; he impulsively plunges his arms around her waist to pick her up. It’s during such elemental moments, and not necessarily bigger moves, when Gomes is most moving—like he has created a backstory and lives that character. As they dance together, absorbed in romance, another dove flies onstage and joins the first. The poetry of the parallel pairs carries great pathos and reminds us of the power of theatrical ballet, of which Ashton is exemplary. And also of the recent absence of Gomes, one of his generation's finest performers, but the glimmer of hope that he will periodically return.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Gabe Stone Shayer in Whipped Cream

Gabe Stone Shayer as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gabe Stone Shayer, a corps member of ABT since 2012, made his debut in the lead role of The Boy in Alex Ratmansky's Whipped Cream on July 4, dancing with Sklyar Brandt as Princess Praline, and alongside Gillian Murphy (Princess Tea Flower) and James Whiteside (Prince Coffee). While Shayer is perhaps a bit larger in frame than the role calls for, his fresh youthfulness and exuberance are entirely appropriate.

Fittingly for the holiday, there were fireworks onstage as Shayer soared and leapt high, with his outstanding ballon and scissoring legs, and spun breezily, showing his solid balance. Besides his technical ability, honed by years studying and performing with the Bolshoi, the Philly native has a magnetic personality and an infectious enthusiasm that has won audiences’ affections. He dances with tremendous confidence and with a relaxed joy more commonly held by far more experienced dancers. (This relaxed attitude unfortunately applies to the carriage of his arms and hands, which could be crisper and might convey less flourish.)

Whipped Cream finale. (Gabe would be in the gold shorts suit at left center; this cast featured Herman Cornejo.) Photo: Gene Schiavone

He has been steadily garnering meaty roles at ABT, notably performing the lead pirate recently in La Bayadère and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie announced season promotions recently. Zhong-Jing Fang (at last!), Catherine Hurlin, and Katherine Williams are now soloists. I was half expecting Shayer to receive a promotion this season; no doubt it will follow soon given his abilities and appeal. I'm looking forward to seeing him in even more primary roles.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mark Morris Dance Center Shows—Welcome Home

Pacific. Photo: Nan Melville
Mark Morris' choreography captures the full breadth of being human. For him, music elevates the quotidian into art. We can all walk or run to get somewhere, but when his dancers do so in time to music, it becomes a spirit-lifting pleasure. A jaunty tune provokes a hand gesture that can appear inelegant, but it's what the music asks for whether you're a professional dancer or a little kid. By the same token, a soaring melody can be visualized by a gravity-defying leap or an ecstatic leg extension that take full advantage of the years of dance training by each of Morris' dancers. 

The two 2018 spring programs performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group showed the choreographer's range, in scale from intimate to large. Solos, Duets, and Trios (Program B) was a survey of smaller cast pieces and excerpts that fit naturally within the cozy studio venue. Lou 100: In Honor of the Divine Mr. Harrison (Program A) comprised another solo suite plus some large cast pieces to music by Harrison.

Little Britten. Photo: Nan Melville
Each program had one (more or less) premiere. Little Britten is built on a solo suite made by Morris for David Hallberg for last year's Fall for Dance. The Isaac Mizrahi toga-over-t-shirt is now worn by Lesley Garrison; she is joined by Brandon Randolph, sporting gym shorts, leg warmers, and a long chiffon scarf, and Aaron Loux, in a cropped bee-striped unitard. To piano studies by Britten, each song featured a movement motif, from a simple tendu with open face palms, to turns with an upper back arch, to exuberant extended-leg jumps. Morris has the ability to play with both quotidian and balletic movement, and is able to divine a relatable essence. 

On Program A, Numerator was a New York premiere using Harrison's fascinating Varied Trio for violin, piano, and percussion. Six men wearing brightly-colored camp shirts crawled on their bellies, crawled, and rose up to standing, like an evolutionary chart. Much of the piece uses big movement that eats up space. A man pretends to pass something to another; there are many lifts and partnering feats. The dynamic flicks between controlled and untethered. The pace builds until they're all moving swiftly and powerfully, their individual energies humming in a kind of spatial harmonic.

Grand Duo. Photo: Nan Melville
The older repertory included the beloved and audacious Grand Duo. It is perhaps too large for the studio, but seeing it so close gave me a new appreciation for the hard work, speed, and machine-like cooperation on behalf of the dancers, whose precision prevents whacking one another. The mysterious opening features a double row of dancers crowding the apron, their semaphoring fingers shot with light, and the rousing, wheeling "Polka" finale invariably makes me want to jump onstage and join in (See? It's that thing he does, making you think you could do it!). Pacific, which opened the Harrison program, was made for San Francisco Ballet in 1995; the vocabulary is thus more classical, with lots of sweeping arabesques and turns (performed in soft ballet slippers rather than the usual bare feet). Serenade featured Garrison in a kabuki-like outfit moving through a series of seated and kinetic studies—just the arms and upper body, shoveling hands, and dense, detailed moves that echoed the guitar, percussion, and castanets (by Morris) played live onstage.

In Program B, Morris put his castanet chops to further use in From Old Seville (2001), the only dance in which he performed in the run. This hilarious trio pits Lauren Grant—sleek and assassin-serious—against Morris in a faux flamenco dance-off. Morris seems more interested in the frequent drink breaks (poured by Noah Vinson) than the dancing, but never have more evil eyes been thrown in a modern dance. One Charming Night (1985) was another anticipated revival; Morris originally performed the role of the vampire, which this season was taken by his contemporary doppelganger, Dallas McMurray, dancing with the elegant (relative newcomer) Sarah Haarmann. Its lengthy bout of neck-biting seems a bit overly literal for Morris, but it showed McMurray's suavity and plush movement.

These "studio shows" toe the line between full-out proscenium productions and more casual events. What is perhaps most appealing about them is the family-style atmosphere, with Morris and his staff and ex-dancers greeting people warmly, and down-to-earth technical director giving the pre-curtain "phones off, exits are there" speech as a bus driver might announce the next stop. In a good way, of course. And last but not least, kudos to the six fantastic musicians led by Music Director Colin Fowler, who accompanied every minute of the two programs.

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,

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!


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


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

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


The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro


America's Cup

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