Monday, December 30, 2019

2019's Notables

David Byrne and friends in American Utopia. Photo: Matthew Murphy 


American Utopia, Hudson Theater
If you're like me, do you avoid Broadway? Loud music? Overly enthusiastic crowds? No matter, do not miss this show if possible. David Byrne’s sui generis music, Annie-B Parson’s joyful movement, and an energetic, dedicated cast produce one of the best shows in memory.

Houston Ballet, New York City Center
Excellent rep choices for New York, including Mark Morris’ crisp and vibrant The Letter V. And a good showcase for a top-notch company that we don’t see enough.

New Goldberg Variations, Joyce Theater
In a breakout year for Pam Tanowitz, New Goldberg Variations finally made it to New York’s Joyce in full, and did not disappoint. A perfect evening of pure movement, with Bach’s music played sublimely by Simone Dinnerstein, gorgeous costumes by Reid Bartelme/Harriet Jung, and creamy/vanilla lighting by Davison Scandrett.

One & One, Baryshnikov Arts Center
Vertigo Dance Company, based in Israel and led by Noa Wertheim, presented this work, in which the theater’s floor gradually became covered in dirt.

Michael Trusnovec in Pam Tanowitz's All at Once. Photo: Paula Lobo 

Michael Trusnovec and PTDC moving on
You’ll finally stop hearing me rave as much about Michael Trusnovec, because he retired from Paul Taylor Dance Company this year. However, he’ll reprise Taylor’s solo by Balanchine from Episodes at New York City Ballet this spring, if you missed it at the PTDC gala program.
     About a half-dozen additional PTDC dancers retired from the company, whose evolution is fast-forwarding more than a year after Taylor’s death. The change is probably overdue but the delay, understandable. A smart, bold departure under Michael Novak's direction—to add New York performance runs in smaller venues—the Bach Festival with Orchestra of St. Luke's at Manhattan School of Music, and this summer, a slate of early crunchy Taylor pieces at the Joyce, danced by a slew of young talent.


Agnes Denes
A deserved museum-level survey of this pioneer, yet ignored, environmental artist’s work. It  also validates The Shed’s visual arts program, which until now seemed a bit like an expensive extension of the Chelsea art scene.


Underland, Robert Macfarlane
It’s a bit too neat to parallel this non-fiction essay collection to last year’s amazing Overstory (by Richard Powers), but it makes you think about everything underground, probably for the first time. Each chapter treats a totally different subtopic. Truly mind expanding.

Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel
This tome looks at the undersung careers of women artists connected to, and mostly left out of, the oppressively macho Ab Ex movement starting in the late 1940s, including a few whose careers were subsumed by their male partners. Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthal, and Elaine de Kooning.

American Woman, Susan Choi
This 2004 novel captures the desperation and loneliness of being a fugitive from the government, and the thrill as well. I read this because Trust Exercise, Choi’s lauded 2019 novel, had such a long wait list at the library, and am grateful. The latter book is worth a read as well; it’s completely different in tone and experimental structure, revolving around a theater company. 

The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
Okay, I finally read this 1974 monster on urban planner Robert Moses, and it was worth it. Now, moving around the city, I think about his negative and positive impact on the metro area constantly, and how extensive and deep his power ran. Scary and enlightening.


Jane the Virgin
There were many series I watched that came to an end this year, but this was the saddest departure. Gina Rodriguez (Jane), luminous, hilarious, and relatable; Jaime Camil (Rogelio), somehow incredibly self-absorbed yet lovable; Ivonne Coll (Alba), the wise and stern moral compass of the show, whose lines were mostly in Spanish. Structuring it after a telenovela gave it license to be completely over the top while giving audiences the head-snapping plot twists, including serious themes and the all-important nucleus of the daughter/mother/grandmother.


New York Mets
Yeah, they didn't make post-season, but it sure was fun to watch the new kids anchoring this team now, especially Pete Alonso, Jacob deGrom, Jeff McNeil, JD Davis, and Michael Conforto. Real reasons to say "Let's go Mets."

Thursday, December 26, 2019

New York Notebook—Dorrance and Ailey

Josette Wiggan-Freund and Joseph Wiggan in the Nutcracker
There are some compositions that are basically siren songs for dance makers, which simply must, at some point, be choreographed to, rocky shore be damned. There’s Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ravel’s Bolero, and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which suffers most in redundancy due to the work’s seasonal nature. Over the past couple of weeks, I caught the last two treated by, respectively, Lar Lubovitch for Ailey and Michelle Dorrance/Hannah Heller/Josette Wiggan-Freund for Dorrance Dance. 

The Nut, a Joyce commission, is a joyful, hip, brief addition to the canon. (Its official title is a paragraph, not likely to be printed in full—a wink acknowledging that it will be referred to as the Nut.) Mostly tap danced, with some sneaker-shod street moves, it uses Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite,” a jazzy, brass-heavy, uptempo selective rendition that dares you to sit still. The abbreviated party scene quickly introduces Clara (Leonardo Sandoval)—tall, awkward, with childlike wonder, in a teal chiffon dress. Her parents are real-life siblings and tap power duo Joseph Wiggan and Josette Wiggan-Freund in a killer, swingy half-waistcoat (costumes by Andrew Jordan). Drossy’s arrival signals the shift into fantasy, where the toys and rodents grow, and the rats‚—led by a crisp, snazzy Heller—multiply and intimidate the humans, throwing what look like cheese balls.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Tanowitz's Goldberg Variations—Restoring Faith

Simone Dinnerstein (at piano), Netta Yerushalmy, Jason Collins, Maggie Cloud, and Melissa Toogood. Photo: Marina Levitskaya
When choreographing, Pam Tanowitz doesn’t always give the lead to music, but in the case of New Work for Goldberg Variations at the Joyce, she does so unreservedly. And why not? when it’s Bach’s Goldberg Variations played live—onstage and centerstage—by the brilliant pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The sublime costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) and ambrosial lighting (Davison Scandrett) warmly suffuse and complement the piece. Dinnerstein's sensitive, romantic interpretation acts as a gravitational force around which the dancers spin, flit, and play. The 75-minute work is a double dose of perfection if you love dance and music. 

Tanowitz has experimented with ballet and modern over the course of her career, pulling apart conventions, splitting up the body’s symmetry, applying a little bit of “exquisite corpse” to predictable positions and phrasing. In Goldberg, the vocabulary relaxes into what are often basic, fundamental human moves—step-taps, grapevines, loping chassées, jumps. But it’s less of the post-Cunningham analytics that we’ve seen from her before, even if some quirks pop up now and again.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance—Full Steam Ahead

Rob Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney in Only the Lonely. Nina Wurtzel.
Paul Taylor Dance Company has been evolving since its founding in the 1950s, but it has likely never undergone an overhaul of dancers like it has over the past year. Without question, I missed the departees during the 2019 fall Koch season of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (more leave soon)—most of all, Michael Trusnovec, who graced the stage just once in a guest appearance of Episodes at the gala performance (which, hearteningly, he’ll repeat a handful of times with NYCB during its spring season). For the first several of the season’s performances I watched, I could not help but remember how Trusnovec danced a certain role, and tried to not find the current dancers wanting, through no fault of theirs. It took some time, and no one can ever replace him.

But Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera, and even Beloved Renegade went on without him. In fact, I was free to watch with care all the new dancers, and appreciate the senior ones even more. The great news is that the company is in fine form, and under Michael Novak’s direction, its artistic mission has become even more relevant and rewarding. (Novak’s retirement from the stage received moderate fanfare; it was the first and last time I saw him dance the lead in Beloved Renegade, which he did quite movingly).

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Forsythe and Denes Enliven the Shed

Jill Johnson and Brit Rodemund. Photo: Mohamed Sadek.
Clearly, choreographer William Forsythe meant it when he titled his Shed bill A Quiet Evening of Dance. So much so that he appeared before the show, acting as a kind of flight attendant, showing us how to turn our phones to airplane setting, and running through the four steps to silence an Apple Watch. Nothing said about the dance, just ensuring his ideal setting in which to watch it. (It also feels a bit like managing expectations, for whatever reason.) Unfortunately, the Griffin Theater—the traditional proscenium theater in the Shed—seems to abut a hallway in which someone wearing hard-soled shoes walked repeatedly, and faint music could be heard playing, a la Trisha Brown’s Foray Forêt.
The first act comprised a series of duets, solos, and trios, with only some birdsong and Morton Feldman to accompany it. Forsythe is adept at many different styles—from conceptually crunchy installation/performance works, to straight up (often breakneck) ballet, to the genre he brought to the Shed, a contemporized ballet peppered with street dance and other influences. There is indeed something velvety and quiet about this style—epitomized by Jill Johnson—with its basic vocabulary moving bonelessly between rigid posés and attitudes, and held poses to meter the flow. His influence is profound in modern ballet, right down to his frequently-copied use of thick socks instead of ballet slippers. Here he took it one step further, slipping colored socks over sneakers, and pairing them with matching long-sleeved gloves to spiff up simple t-shirts and pants.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

ABT Showcases Royalty

Herman Cornejo in A Gathering of Ghosts. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Twyla Tharp has been one of ABT’s consistent choreographic contributors, ever more so during the company’s brief fall Koch season. A Gathering of Ghosts, created to Herman Cornejo, celebrating 20 years with ABT, was the key premiere in the run. Cornejo “hosts” a cavalcade of guests, purportedly historical figures or metaphors—Louis XIV, Greased Lighting, Proust—and possibly facets or reflections of his own being. They swan on, perform showy passages while interacting with Cornejo (or not), and swan off. Cornejo is repeatedly ignored or slighted, and in this vacuum of indifference, he takes the opportunity to let loose and show off. It could be an analogy for his whole career, in which his lack of ego moved him to the background, only for his raw talent and appeal to refocus the spotlight on him.

The “ghosts’” movements don’t seem particularly demonstrative of characteristics; perhaps the work demands a second viewing to discern them. But it gives Tharp a reason to play with Cornejo and other superb dancers, mixing in sections for the women in flat and pointe shoes, pairing up company members in interesting ways. Mostly, it is a gift to Cornejo, and thus to us. 
Tharp’s longtime collaborator Norma Kamali designed the variegated costumes, primarily black and silver—shorts, jackets, tulle skirts for both genders—plus two amazing flared-leg jumpsuits, and a parachute-like regal cape with a train for Cornejo, donned only for one ceremonial coronation in the closing scene. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Houston Ballet, Distinguished by Solid Rep

The Letter V. Photo: Amitava Sarkar
October holds such an embarrassment of dance riches in New York that it might be easy to overlook a run by the Houston Ballet, which is in the city if not often, then at least with some regularity. But the company’s recent City Center run comprised excellent repertory by choreographers whose works are staples in NYC.

Mark Morris’ The Letter V shows his facility with ballet, but perhaps the revelation in this dance is how simple and pure the phrases are. A dancer leaning forward, arms back like wings, opens the ballet; this passage recurs until it’s familiar. Then it’s done with the men lifting the women who do basically the same phrase, but in the air. Arms straight, swinging rapidly front to back like pendulums, look jarring at first, but once you get used to them they visually amplify the music. The amiable Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G Major, played live by Orchestra of St. Luke’s, provides a satisfying structure for the movement, and Maile Okamura’s chiffon tunics layered over leotards boost the overall sunny disposition.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Unexpected Combos

Misty Copeland in Ash. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Now 16 years old, Fall for Dance’s audience has lost some of the mania that was a given years ago, with viewers shrieking and whooping for, improbably, ballet dancers doing fouettés. But after the first act of 2019’s opening night, which included a solo for Misty Copeland choreographed by Kyle Abraham, the latter was returning to his house seat, and got a standing ovation from the intermissing crowd. After a shy wave and a smile, he was followed by his lighting designer—who also got an ovation, if less fervent. Such is the crowd at New York City Center’s FFD—taking ownership of the art form onstage and in the enthusiastic house.

In her solo, Ash, Copeland flitted and spun in short, cursive phrases punctuated by poses that articulated her muscular, curving limbs. The stage was bare except for a big lighting rig which held a spotlight trained on her. She wore Bartelme + Jung’s costume of a gold panné leotard under vertical widths of chiffon that poofed out as she moved, evoking a jellyfish pulsing through the water. Her aspect felt private, internal, and not directed at pleasing the audience, though that’s exactly what she did.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Ballet in August is now a thing

Joseph Gordon and David Hallberg in Song of a Wayfarer. Photo: Maria Baranova
Ballet has a major cultural presence in New York, with two resident world-class companies (New York City Ballet and ABT), and visiting companies passing through with regularity. In recent years, the Joyce Theater—one of the city’s foremost venues for ballet, albeit on a smaller scale—has presented an evolving summer ballet series featuring a mix of emerging and/or female choreographers, chamber groups, and this year, programs curated by members of London’s Royal Ballet.

Program C, curated by Jean-Marc Puissant, led off with a premiere by ABT dancer Gemma Bond—Then and Again (music by Alfredo Piatti). Bond’s cast largely comprised fellow ABT dancers. Through duets, trios, and groupings, Bond sketched out a sort of triangle between Stephanie Williams, Thomas Forster, and Cassandra Trenary, with Williams getting left out of the mix eventually. The style is classical, organically pleasing, with 90º elbows, arched lifts. Forster sweeps Trenary low, in circles, so her toes brushed the floor. Although essentially abstract, the movement evoked curiosity, anomie, and passion.
It’s a bit odd that I’ve seen more of burgeoning choreographer Bond’s work in New York over the last decade than that by Maurice Béjart (1927—2007), the Frenchman who created in the last half of the 20th century (and whose company was once called Ballet of the 20th Century). His Song of a Wayfarer, to Mahler lieder, was staged by Maina Gielgud on David Hallberg (ABT) and Joseph Gordon, a recently promoted principal at NYCB. It is a rare male ballet duet, another plotless work in which psychological states are conveyed through gesture and intent. 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Notes on ABT's company, plus Sleeping Beauty

Aran Bell in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
ABT’s two-month Met season has ended, coinciding with the traditional announcement of promotions. Here are some notes on the dancers and month two; a review of the first month of the season was published in the July/August Brooklyn Rail.

Dancer notes

There’s no surprise that Aran Bell moves from the corps to soloist; it wouldn’t have even been a surprise if he was made a principal, with all the heavy lifting he’s done in the last month. (Literally. As in Devon Teuscher, Hee Seo, and Isabella Boylston, not that they’re heavy, but…) Now 20, and 6’3”, he has matured very quickly in the last few years—so fast that his headshot on ABT’s website makes him look 10 years younger than he does today. He was tapped for Princes Siegfried (Swan Lake, with Devon Teuscher) and Désiré (Sleeping Beauty, with Hee Seo, and then subbing for a sick James Whiteside with Isabella Boylston). Bell now fits the physical profile of a prince, with remarkable poise and steady partnering that might not be expected for someone so young. His leaps are stunning, his line polished and attenuated. He will only mature as an artist, gain confidence, and receive more and more high-profile roles. Watching him rise through the ranks is like watching a film in fast forward.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.