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.