Thursday, June 20, 2019

Taylor + OSL + Bach

Michael Trusnovec in all at once. Photo: Paula Lobo

Most of us don’t want to think about mortality, but let’s face it—we’re all human. Paul Taylor Dance Company is no doubt keenly aware of this now. It is moving forward under the plan structured while Taylor (who died last year) was alive—to showcase older classics by his peers, and to cultivate younger modern choreographers while keeping his substantial repertory vibrant, creating a kind of continuing dialogue and context for the importance of Taylor’s work. This larger project is called Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

There’s another twist this year—the rescheduling of the main PTAMD season to Oct/Nov at the Koch, and the addition of three, all-Bach spring programs with Orchestra of St. Luke’s in the 2019 OSL Bach Festival, performed at the uptown Manhattan School of Music. (OSL performs music concerts at other venues.) Add to the mix the long-dreaded retirement of the peerless Michael Trusnovec after the OSL season, plus the exit of Parisa Khobdeh, Michelle Fleet, Sean Mahoney, Laura Halzack, and Jamie Rae Walker after the fall PTAMD season, and it’s a tectonic shift in a company that reveres tradition and longevity. Until the PTAMD project began in 2015, the troupe relied on strict programming formulas for its long season—up to 20 dances by Taylor, with three to a program; the dancers listed by tenure.

The Neidorff-Karpati Hall at the MSM may compare in size to some of the regional theaters in which the company performs, but it’s a far cry from the Koch, or even its predecessor, City Center, where actually Taylor’s work seems to fit best, stage-wise. But kudos to new Artistic Director Michael Novak and his team for adapting even the most trafficky and jam-packed dance, Promethean Fire, onto the diminutive MSM stage. It’s a testament to the company’s professionalism to maintain the emotional profundity, if not all the mystery, of Promethean at such close proximity. This protean work closed the first of three slates, which opened with Junction (1961), an exercise in sculptural stasis, wit, and visual punch, with Lego color-blocked leotards by Alex Katz. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the accompanying solo cello (excerpts of Bach’s solo cello suite), played by Myron Lutzke, sounded out of tune and muffled. It didn’t feel representative of the quality one expects from a featured soloist in a professional orchestra in New York, and which was otherwise delivered.

Pam Tanowitz’s premiere commission, all at once, was sandwiched in between. If Taylor’s plotless, abstract works compare to Bach’s musical forms that accompany the dances in this festival—fugue, toccata, chorale, concerto—then Tanowitz’s feel more along the lines of experimental poetry, with fragments of phrases floating freely, bumping up against other fragments, and echoing later on. Tanowitz, who has received a proliferation of commissions by numerous companies of late, tuned into Taylor’s vocabulary, quoting it respectfully and sparingly. Oh, the palm-forward arms from Musical Offering, performed deftly by Trusnovec, who dances the original on another OSL program! And the thrusting straight arms from Esplanade! Plus other movement evocations that pop up on occasion. It brings to mind what many artists have done in Martha Graham Company commissions—acknowledge the debt, and carry it forward. Costumers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, frequent collaborators with Tanowitz, designed the unisex sheer jumpsuits over pastel hued leotards.

Rewilding. Photo: Whitney Browne
The other PTDC premiere in the OSL festival, Rewilding by Margie Gillis, ponders the valuable notion that we need to reconnect with nature. The 16 dancers stand still, spread across the stage, until one begins to move, with all joining in, building in dynamic and range, like statues come to life. Gillis, known for her solo performances, has a fluid movement style, which after being sustained for awhile feels slightly forced. Santo Loquasto’s costumes, different for each dancer, resembled togas and genie pants, with elastic bandeaux tops (even for men) in burnished warm tones. Walker is given a long solo which displays her lucid lines and grounded humanity. Trusnovec initiates the first movement, and dances a substantial solo section. He wears one of the more flattering costumes in a shade of butter (actually, his costume in all at once is also butter yellow!), and with his retirement foremost in mind, I could only think of him as the sun around which all other dancers revolved, fading into the mist. (I doubt the thrust of PTAMD was to point up the choreographic skill of Taylor himself, but the new commissions can function that way.)

The Tanowitz was preceded by Brandenburgs, a well-made, solid study in formalism notable for its cast of three women and five men, and the unique recombinants therein. Again, Trusnovec performed the central romantic male role, who moves alone and with the women, and less so with the other men, who move faster and more forcefully. Surely other men will step into these leads which will be vacated by Trusnovec, but it’s hard to imagine. This bill ended with Cascade, a less-seen Taylor dance from 1999, with highly embellished chestnut, maroon, and gold costumes by Loquasto. Its tempo varies, but there are indulgent, super slow sections that evoke a peaceful state of mind—in particular, a romantic duet for Trusnovec and Heather McGinley in which they seem to hover over the floor, basking in each other’s auras. They have been less frequent partners, so it was truly gratifying to see this heart-melting duet.

The third program featured Musical Offering (1986), a bounty of metronomic rocking and precise flat-facing poses and formations. The dance is even more musically illustrative than many of Taylor’s works, whose dynamics and pacing often mirror that of the music. Esplanade (1975) completed this rare program comprising just two dances. Eran Bugge performed the featured female role, running and skipping gleefully around the other dancers. The dance has attained such iconic status, at least for me, that when I hear the Bach concertos, I can readily picture the steps—they are inseparable. Other than the solo cello suites, OSL sounded crisp and lively, as they have for numerous seasons as the orchestra accompanying PTAMD's long runs.

Regarding the sea change of company members, there’s no ideal time to have a mass exodus, but now makes sense. Of course the dancers retiring are getting older, and no doubt are coping with a laundry list of ailments, but they no longer have the opportunity of working in the studio as Taylor choreographs on them—an irreplaceable and cherished experience. Certain dancers will take on more prominent roles; I can picture McGinley assuming many of Halzack's, and Bugge, Khobdeh's. We’re already seeing talented new and recently added faces, such as Madelyn Ho, Lee Duveneck, Devon Louis, and John Harnage. We will embrace their gifts and watch as they grow, along with the repertory—just without any new Taylor rep, nor six dancers as familiar as old, extremely talented friends.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Reich Richter Pärt Mercado Little Spain

Reich Richter Pärt. Shown: paintings by Gerhard Richter, with singers mingling with the audience. Photo: Susan Yung 

With Reich Richter Pärt, the Shed offered a performative experience that differed from the abundant fare in New York. Practically speaking, this event could take place in one of the hundreds of large art galleries that dot the city, but it is the match-making at a certain level (in this case, by co-curators Alex Poots and Hans Ulrich Obrist) that differentiates the Shed event. The three collaborators—composers Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, and visual artist Gerhard Richter—make work that, to put it in mercenary terms, commands a high price, or is in great demand. It was a visual and aural immersion in work by these titans of contemporary culture, in a gleaming, sterile venue in a fancy-shmancy new neighborhood.

The 50-minute performance began in one of the two galleries housing Richter’s banner-shaped paintings made with a squeegee, and several renditions of such paintings woven into tapestries. (The use of an ancient textile process summons grand traditions in Europe’s once-powerful north—by the French, Flemish, and British—and burnishes the white male power structure of the project.) The audience, on foot, milled about, until the mingling, street-garbed singers began to vocalize (the alternating Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Brooklyn Youth Chorus). The viewers instinctually oriented toward the center, where most of the singers were, but they then wandered among us as they sang, dissipating the focus as they performed 
Pärt’s pleasing, madrigal-like harmonics, written in 2014.

After this relatively short segment—15 minutes?—the audience was herded into the next gallery, in which Richter’s horizontal stripe paintings covered the long walls above slatted wooden benches. We were told to find seats, either one of the folding camping stools being handed out or a bench seat; some sat on the concrete floor with pillows. The International Contemporary Ensemble (alternating with the Ensemble Signal) was situated by the far wall, and began to play Reich’s new commissioned score—a fairly gentle, ebbing composition for this composer whose driving, percussive scores have evoked trains and rolling thunder.

Reich Richter Pärt.
Shown: a film by Gerhard Richter & Corinna Belz. Photo: Susan Yung

On the opposite wall, a film by Richter and filmmaker Corinna Belz began. At the start, it resembled the gallery’s stripe paintings, but the pixels began to quaver slightly, and then at a higher frequency. Then the color field split vertically at center, with new imagery unscrolling from this seam symmetrically. The lines thickened, pulsed, and pulled to create ink blot type shapes that began to resemble animals, people, or furniture. (My mind scrambled to make familiar sense of the abstract.) It retrogressed, ending as it began in serene color stripes. The sum effect of the ½ hour film, plus the music, was mesmerizing, albeit almost too easily digestible given the challenging art that these creators are capable of producing.

The performance schedule, with tickets at $25—relatively reasonable for a live orchestra and choral work—broke with the standard once-an-evening-plus-a-matinee routine. Four performances each day were scheduled over two months, giving visitors a broad choice of times. The Shed just finished a run of Bjork’s Cornucopia in the McCourt, the arena-sized space under the sliding shell. On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, the Shed will present a slate of less-known, presumably local artists in Open Call. The performers each have a handful of time slots to share their work, primarily in the more traditional Griffin Theater, where Ben Whishaw and Renee Fleming performed Norma Jeane Baker of Troy recently. Tickets are free for Open Call; reservations are recommended.

After RRP, I wandered through Mercado Little Spain, José Andrés’ new food emporium in the Hudson Yards mall, comprising an impressive breadth of fast-food kiosks, wine bars, and restaurants. While somewhat sprawling, the atmosphere is friendly, lively, and conducive to walking and noshing. The focus is on authentic Spanish dishes such as bravas (potatoes), churros (fried dough), paella, jamon & queso (ham & cheese), with primarily food service stations, and a minimal grocery shop in the center. The prices seem reasonable, and it somehow fills a niche in a food-obsessed city with a billion places to eat. The Mercado is one of many eateries throughout Hudson Yards, the pop-up, luxe neighborhood (with not only the Shed as its architectural folly, but the Vessel, the shiny, copper shawarma/basket Escher Stairmaster) that seemingly landed atop the train yard and threw open its doors overnight.

That I felt compelled to "review" a food experience within a write-up of a show is indicative of the nature of Hudson Yards. While it isn't terribly inconvenient to reach, mentally, it feels miles distant from most of the city because for so many years, it has been the wild west. Hudson Yards has been built as an all-in-one destination where you get culture, Spanish food, expensive handbags, and million dollar condos. In that sense, it's simply a mirror held up to the city. Time will tell if we like what we see.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Martha Graham's 2019 Legatees

Charlotte Landreau, Lorenzo Pagano, Lloyd Knight, Anne O'Donnell in Untitled (Souvenir). Photo: Brian Pollock
Choosing Pam Tanowitz to choreograph a commission for Martha Graham Dance Company highlights Graham’s ever-growing legacy as it zigzags through generations. Tanowitz’s style is most often compared to that of Merce Cunningham’s—formal, angular, classically-based, rigorous. Before founding his own company, Cunningham danced with Martha Graham. And while their choreography differs in innumerable ways, he retained her senses of plasticity, theatricality, and purity of line. These elements can be found In Tanowitz’s new work, Untitled (Souvenir), seen at the Joyce Theater on April 11.

And like Cunningham, Tanowitz’s work is more cerebral, and less emotional and expressionistic, than Graham’s. Tanowitz really pushes form, articulating the limbs tautly, and inventing witty traveling steps that are simple, yet new, such as hopping on one foot with the other leg at 90º, foot flexed. Port de bras defy convention, and like Merce, the torso often creates odd angles with the pelvis and legs. It is not what you’d deem organic movement, but highly thought-out and experimental, given the same old human body. For all of Tanowitz’s formality—underscored by Ryan Lobo/Ramon Martin’s elegant, black & white columnar jumpsuits and pieces—the work is couched in humor. Those at rest observe the others dancing, as if in rehearsal. They gather and form a handsome tableau in the finale.

Deo. Photo: Brian Pollock
The other premiere on the program (there were three different slates) was Deo, by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith. In stark contrast to Untitled (Souvenir), the dance for eight women employed a highly expressive vocabulary. Leslie Andrea Williams, standing alone, flinched with increasing movement until she contracted deeply. The dancers lay on their backs but for their legs and heads, which floated off the ground listlessly. The women clumped together, with little space between one another, tottering across stage like a floating raft. One arrayed her limbs apart from her body, and resembled a spider. Low, wide squats and contractions lent a primal feel that summoned the power of Graham’s vocabulary. The beige/mocha-toned dresses (by Karen Young) evoked slightly more modest versions of those worn by Pina Bausch’s women in her Rite of Spring, and gave the similar impression of flesh. Deo created a hermetic world which made me feel as if I watched a private ritual that held deep meaning for its participants.

Laura Andrea Williams in Chronicle. Photo: Melissa Sherwood
The Graham works performed were Errand into the Maze and Chronicle. A willowy Xin Ying and brute-like Ben Schultz performed Errand, a concise and epic telling of the Minotaur tale; Isamu Noguchi’s spare but strategic set pieces are always thrilling to re-see. And Chronicle remains one of Graham’s high points, its urgency and rebel- summoning drumbeat as fervent as when it was created—as Graham refused an invitation by Hitler to perform in the 1936 Olympics. Williams danced the opening "Spectre" solo, a masterpiece portrait of an individual’s physical and spiritual strength danced breathtakingly well, plus a demonstration of Graham’s brilliance with costuming as drama. (The double disc podium she stands on seemed to be cleverly repurposed in Tanowitz’s work, albeit standing on its edge.) The stage-crossing “défilé” exercises have retained their speed and drive, and are a reminder of the light of perseverance hope in dark times—a useful notion at the moment.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hubbard Street's Crystal Pite Program

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Choreographer Crystal Pite harnesses the potency of the stage and all its components to create an atmospheric microcosm within each dance. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed three of them at the Joyce recently, giving New York audiences a concentrated, if bleak, dose of an accomplished choreographer whose work is primarily seen here in mixed repertory programs. The company, under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, also brought a program of work by Ohad Naharin.

In the first of two Pite duets, A Picture of You Falling, the lighting design by Alan Brodie is the de facto set design—the lamps, fixed on poles, are on rolling stands that form a semicircle upstage. Dancers move through and around them. Jacqueline Burnett and Elliot Hammans performed to a mellifluous voiceover by Kate Strong, Owen Belton contributed supplemental music. To the line, “This is the sound of you collapsing,” Hammans sinks, articulating each limb onto the floor; descriptive hand gestures are done with a theatrical flourish. The overall effect integrates the movement with the text/sound and lighting, creating the sense that one element could not be removed without subtracting substantially from the whole.

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The second work, The Other You, was also a duet, which alone is a quietly radical gesture in the world of modern dance. This is especially for an out-of-town company in New York, where there’s a tendency to pull out the stops with large ensemble works that vary in tone. It was performed by Michael Gross and Andrew Murdock, who appeared interchangeable at a distance, with the same buzzcuts and suits. One mimed pulling up his knees with invisible marionette strings. A found soundtrack by Belton of rain, traffic, dogs barking, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, accompanied the work, which also used the same lighting fixture semicircle. The second man joined; they mirrored one another in sync, seemingly two sides of a coin.

Grace Engine, which completed the program, premiered in 2011 on Cedar Lake, the New York-based company with which Pite most often worked, and whose ex-artistic director, Alexandra Damiani, restaged it. (Despite garnering lots of early negative juju for its Walmart empire-derived funding, Cedar Lake did fill a big niche in commissioning contemporary work performed by skilled dancers; many of those dances live on today in other companies’ repertory.) 
Again, all elements of the piece cohered to create a taut, gritty, urban atmosphere for 15 dancers in suits (by Nancy Bae) who rush on and off, flowing around a soloist. Pite does not utilize a conventional dance lexicon, instead connecting graphic, articulated poses with flowing movement, channeling energy into organic-feeling phrases. While it’s related to the more commercial “contemporary” style seen in popular tv dance competitions, it doesn’t exist only to serve freakish feats of technical prowess. The chiaroscuro lighting (by Jim French) and the urban soundscape (Belton again) contributed to the overall feel of a busy city sidewalk at night. It ended a cohesive program notable for its dynamic and atmospheric continuity, as well as Hubbard Street company's all-around excellence.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Vertigo's One. One & One at BAC

Hagar Shachal and Shani Licht. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Vertigo Dance Company had a two-night run at Baryshnikov Arts Center on Mar 5 & 6. It’s a shame it wasn’t longer so more New Yorkers could have had a chance to catch its wonderful piece, One. One & One. This Israeli company, led by Noa Wertheim, further burnishes the country’s reputation for producing notable choreographers. And while each one furthers her/his own individual style, there seems to be a physicality, sensuality, and interpersonal connection in common.

At the start of One, a man pours dirt in lines across the stage as Shani Licht stands and begins to undulate and bend backward, her long hair grazing the floor. Three men approach her, divide her tresses in three, and by crossing over and under one another, braid her hair. Eventually all 10 dancers enter, and each struts downstage and throws the audience a look. Here, the varying score by Avi Belleli crescendoes into loud rock section as the dancers move with more urgency and violence. More dirt is spread. The first woman is joined by another; they face each other separated by only inches, and move in symmetry, highly sensitive and in tune. A woman charges across the stage at a man, flinging herself at him; this repeats. They slap their chests, legs bent deeply, summoning images of gorillas asserting themselves.

In groups of four, they soften their movement, sweeping their legs in circles in the now pervasive dirt, as the sound of muffled blasts combines with plangent guitar, evoking—as does the dance—violence and beauty. They ripple their bodies, energy phasing from head to toe; a woman runs figure 8s around her curves. They run backward, bent forward, arms flung up and out like a diving cormorant. Music that might accompany a line dance at a party accompanies big chassees, spins, and deep plies; one man is carried aloft by three mates as if seated. Hagar Shachal goads the men, lunging at them as if suddenly provoked, and they begin to chase her as she evades their grasp. They finally catch her and subdue her, pinning her down until she subsides fully.
Vertigo Dance Company in One. One & One. Photo: Stephanie Berger 
A solo by Etai Peri features effortless, silky, upright movement, legs floating high, and a rippling torso. The dancers often evoke animals, moving individually, but sometimes en mass, communicating wordlessly and with physical cues. One man remains lying on the dirt as the group moves ensemble, beating their chests and leaping like frogs; the loner grabs one man’s ankles as if to beg for a savior. The music swells like an orchestral film score, punctuated by twinkling keyboard notes. As the lights dim, the dancers recede, flapping their arms slowly.

Wertheim also established the Vertigo Eco-Art Village in Israel, a learning center that promotes sustainable, eco-friendly practices. This attention to one’s surroundings and a heightened awareness and appreciation of the environment perhaps informs Wertheim’s movement and the company members’ interactions.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Milestones

The Trout by Mark Morris. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Jane Comfort’s 40th Anniversary Retrospective, La MaMa
Well-produced video, tight direction, and a welcome reminder of the breadth of Comfort’s warm-hearted oeuvre and the tightly knit dance community.

Balanchine: The City Center Years
A dream mini-festival of companies and dances that reminded us of City Center’s sometimes overlooked history.

The Trout, by Mark Morris, Mark Morris Dance Group, Mostly Mozart, Lincoln Center
Displayed Morris’ musical insightfulness and the intelligence to embrace simplicity, even if it pointed out the diminished dance offerings at Lincoln Center.

Canto Ostinato by Lucinda Childs, INTRODANS, Fall for Dance, New York City Center
This mesmerizing gem performed by a Dutch troupe was overshadowed in a strong festival that is more focused, if less populist, than ever.

The Runaway, by Kyle Abraham, New York City Ballet
Taylor Stanley’s dynamite solo was the transcendent performance of the year in a work that felt revolutionary in the Koch Theater.

Dearest Home, Kyle Abraham, A.I.M., Quadrille, Joyce Theater
In contrast, this subtle work had just enough narrative implication. One of five fascinating choices for a continuing series done in-the-round.

Lazarus, Rennie Harris, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center
Subtle but gut-wrenching movement metaphors and well-paced dynamics building in two acts to an exuberant and elating finale.

Paul Taylor

Cy Twombly, Gagosian
Who needs museums? (Kidding. Sorta.)

The Overstory, Richard Powers
Interwoven stories, all somehow involving trees, made me realize how much I take them for granted.

Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
In wartime, seemingly neglected children have been cared for by a colorful supporting cast of characters.

The Library Book, Susan Orlean
History and a crime make for surprisingly compelling reading. Plus, a killer title and book design.

Clock Dance, Anne Tyler
Redemption and personal re-invention sneakily prevail in this novel with many odd characters.

There There, Tommy Orange
The fates of a roster of characters comes together at a powwow in Oakland, CA.