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).

Rewind back to June 2019, when PTDC collaborated with Orchestra of St. Luke’s on a mini-Bach season at the Manhattan School of Music. By concentrating the focus on Taylor’s Bach-set dances then, it presumably freed up repertory slots in the fall season to accommodate some of Taylor’s more challenging, rarely-seen early dances. Pieces such as Dust, Post Meridian, Scudorama, and Private Domain were done, some rekindling Taylor’s relationship and influence by Martha Graham. Taylor’s less lyrical style emerged, emphasizing grotesque shapes and mysterious psychological dramas, as well as his wry humor. Of course, staple Taylor moves dotted these dances, but sparsely, at least compared to works such as Brandenburgs or Arden Court. And fast forward to the coming year, when PTDC will do a short run at the Joyce—a first?—of earlier, more conceptual works, which will be a fine education for audiences who only associate Taylor with pop icons such as Esplanade.

Scudorama. Photo: Paul B. Goode
The PTAMD commissions in the season included Pam Tanowitz’s all at once, seen in June—a fascinating study of kinetic fragments and formal experimentation, both in terms of movement pattern and the human body. Kyle Abraham’s Only the Lonely premiered on Oct 30 at the gala show, set to pop standards sung by Shirley Horn. Abraham resisted what must be a strong urge by outside choreographers to deploy the fully weaponized Taylor dancers—big leaps, athleticism, fast steps, big drama—of which they’re clearly capable. Instead, he went quiet, working in sultry social dance moves, and memorable solos and duets.

One solo featured Michelle Fleet, who traversed upstage, bared back to us, writhing her shoulders and arms in a mesmerizing study of isolations. Another was for newcomer (and great leaper) Devon Louis, whose material evoked super slow-mo African arm and torso steps. To shatter any air of standard romantic predictability, Lee Duveneck—the tallest man—wore a dress, heels and a wig (costumes by Karen Young). He flirted with two men, but when he was dipped into a backbend, his wig fell off, and he exited, embarrassed. But a moment later, he re-entered with renewed confidence in his new look. Dan Scully lit the dance—often in a dusky, reddish light associated with nightclubs. Nearing the finale, the ensemble stood, and all opened their feet into first position, evoking Balanchine’s Serenade. Only the Lonely joins The Runaway, Abraham’s commission for NYCB, as another fine work by him to stretch a renowned company’s comfort zone.

The new company members’ individual styles emerged over the course of the three-week season. Maria Ambrose has already proven to be an essential addition, dancing a long solo in the fascinating Scudorama, and the “pants” solo in Esplanade. With Heather McGinley, she will take on many of the more balletic, taller woman’s roles that are vacated by Laura Halzack’s departure. I can see John Harnage slipping into many of Trusnovec’s old roles, with his precision and delicacy a textural counter to Taylor’s earth-bound tendencies.

Dust. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Of the senior dancers, McGinley seemed to—at last—be in everything, showing her eloquent line, but also her fearless attack in Esplanade, in the no-holds-barred, run, slide, and crash role. Eran Bugge was also indispensable, imbuing her dancing with warmth and a deep plasticity. Madelyn Ho, given prominent roles including in Dust and Esplanade, continues to gain radiance and eloquence. That she is now an MD only adds to the intrigue of her part in Dust, in which she leads a group of blind dancers, only to become blind herself. Parisa Khobdeh appeared sparingly; her versatility as a romantic and funny lead will be missed with her departure. Also leaving is Sean Mahoney, who continued as a reliable grounded presence and sensitive partner, with leading roles in Aureole and Scudorama, among others. Joining those leaving are Jamie Rae Walker and Michelle Fleet.

Other season highlights were Trusnovec in Episodes, which Balanchine choreographed for Taylor in 1959 as a NYCB collaboration with the Graham Company, of which Taylor was a member. With its insect-like ambulations and fractured arm positions, it aligns surprisingly well with a certain animalesque genre within Taylor’s work. It also evoked a repertory model not unlike that of PTAMD—recognition of other contemporary choreography. Misty Copeland guested in Black Tuesday at the gala, in the featured solo in "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." She fit right in—in fact, the cloche she wore rendered her somewhat unrecognizable at first glance. In Company B, rather than the somewhat tired-sounding recording of the Andrews Sisters, the tunes were sung live onstage by vocal trio Duchess—a real treat.

Programs were dedicated to works by Donald McKayle and dances designed by Alex Katz, as well as a slate to pay tribute to Taylor’s breadth. These special one-offs, illustrious guests, live music by Orchestra of St. Luke's directed by Donald York, discounted and free tickets, and a freshened repertory are bright signs that somewhat offset the exodus of dancers. And there is still no other modern company that comes close to undertaking the ambition and scope of the annual PTAMD season, now in dance’s prime fall season, and now enhanced by focused mini seasons. Kudos to Novak and the company for keeping strong, and revivifying, the work of Taylor. 

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.

Riley Watts. Photo: Mohamed Sadek

The second part, Seventeen/Twenty One, was accompanied by excerpts from Rameau’s 
Hippolyte et Aricie, lightening the fairly serious atmosphere of the first half and adding some social dance and ritual aspects. The dynamics increased, and with it the amplitude of movement, shifting toward more presentational. The street dancer Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit curled into bug shapes and bounced off the floor. Riley Watts seemed to most boldly express Forsythe’s extremely lifted ribcage and forward-thrusting sternum, seen in his signature posé—a tendued pointed foot, arms thrust at diagonals. This piece celebrated the grander aspects of Forsythe’s balletic-modern, while the first act seemed to be more of an analysis. Together, they were an intense dose of the real thing from which so many contemporary choreographers have drawn inspiration.

Agnes Denes. Model for a Forest in New York, commissioned by the Shed. Photo: Susan Yung
Two other floors of the Shed featured an extensive survey of artwork by Agnes Denes, best known for Wheatfield (1982), an environmental installation planted over the construction debris from the World Trade Center in what is now Battery Park City. Documentary photos recording the work double as memorias to the WTC, a sight that will forever haunt. Denes’ body of work has been overlooked, so this survey is a welcome treatment. Many projects utilize scientific models and practices, with an ecological thrust. Much of the work resembles architectural or engineering drafting. Several recent projects are included, including a proposal for Model for a Forest in New York, commissioned by the Shed. The proposed site is Edgemere landfill in Queens, where 120 acres of hardy, carbon-scrubbing trees would be planted. Is it one more in a slew of unrealized projects by Denes, or is the moment right for a dream to come true? After all, the Shed now exists after a long period of development, and acknowledges the oeuvre of Denes. Why not?

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. 

The ballet world would never admit to being “size-ist,” against shorter dancers, but if you’re male, it’s a smoother path to advance given the same basic skills if you’re 6’, versus 5’6”. Thus Cornejo has also silently fought his height in his rise through the ranks, which was actually quite rapid (see Marina Harss’ profile on him). Nonetheless, his quiet confidence, warmth, unaffected manner, and sensuousness have combined to make him one of ABT’s most admired men. He is one of a handful from his generation who never fails to reach audiences’ hearts.

I want to like Tharp's Deuce Coupe (1973) more. Is it the scratchy sounding Beach Boys recordings that grates? The ever-present White Ballerina noodling around aimlessly in her perfect, careful arabesques? The faux funk of Tharp’s jazzy style? The hideous loud mens’ costumes by Santo Loquasto? The 19 sections? I appreciate seeing all these broken rules on ABT at the Koch (and last summer at the Met), but I don’t need to see it again for a few years.
Calvin Royal III in Apollo. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Other repertory included Let Me Sing Forevermore (2019) by Jessica Lang, to songs sung by Tony Bennett. Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside performed it wearing Bradon McDonald’s (Mark Morris Dance Group! Project Runway!) skater-inspired midnight blue separates. It’s a pop confection, with sassy interactions and athletic feats. It was paired with Clark Tippett’s Some Assembly Required (1989), a bit more somber and long, with even more strenuous lifts and shows of strength by Roman Zhurbin with Skylar Brandt. These two deserving and less-sung soloists had a chance to show off their wares. Zhurbin is so often in character roles that it’s easy to forget how well he can dance, and Brandt sparkles in allegro and precision.

When Balanchine’s Apollo is listed in repertory, casting of the lead role is the main deal. This season, the big buzz surrounded Calvin Royal III, a fast rising soloist whose name-appropriate regal bearing destined him to perform the part, here with Hee Seo, Christine Shevchenko, and Zhong-Jing Fang. Royal fits the concept of confident, curious youth, open to the inspiration lent by the muses. He has large, enormously expressive hands which add a flourish to each gesture. While it seemed like a bit more rehearsal time would benefit his performance, he rendered an inspiring and warm Apollo, presaging optimistism and creativity.

Remarkably, in the cast of this original version with the birth scene, five of seven performers were non-white. Thus is the nature of the current company, ever more diverse and less star driven than past decades, and continuing its lengthy partnership with Twyla Tharp. 

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.
Connor Walsh in Come In. Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Aszure Barton’s Come In is an extended tone poem that shows off the company’s men, set to Vladimir Martynov’s metronomic composition complete with glockenspiel. All 16 wear Barton’s handsome henley-necked navy jumpsuits. She builds phrases by connecting disparate gestures, adding and subtracting dancers, and ramping up dynamic and intent to a dreamy and hypnotic effect.
Jessica Collado, Harper Watters, Chun Wai Chan in Reflections. Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Can one see too much work by Justin Peck, who has premieres popping up every season? Not for the moment. Reflections, an HB commission, situated two piano players upstage to render Sufjan Stevens’ score. In a kind of structural reversal, the ensemble formed a picturesque tableau as the curtain rose. Peck favors wheel-like formations with a central dancer bursting upward to punctuate a phrase. His facility with integrating numerous dancers to create a harmonious whole is like an engine and its countless parts working together to make a smooth-running motor. The dancers wore Ellen Warren’s fresh, color-block leotards with white belts and socks, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ dances, helping to underscore Peck’s greater affinity to Robbins.

Houston Ballet’s brief City Center season, smartly-curated by Artistic Director Stanton Welch, stood out amidst one of the year’s busiest dance weeks—no easy feat.

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.

Caleb Teicher has been working independently for many years now, while performing with Michelle Dorrance’s troupe. He’s one of several tappers who have been fortunate to work with the Dorrance during the explosion of her popularity, but whose own careers may also have been overshadowed somewhat by the same token. Teicher is now being seen in similar broad-reaching venues as Dorrance’s company, and presented Bzzzz at FFD. Beatboxer Chris Celiz provided the soundtrack (by him and Teicher) as he wandered around the stage, exchanging nods and jokes with passing dancers. Between the tapping and his vocalizations, the range of sounds was truly impressive. Teicher’s style is polished and audience friendly, with an appealingly presentational aspect. The Thom Brown-length fitted pants or tights contributed a dash of chic to this tight, entertaining suite.

Musa Motha and Thabang Mojapelo of Vuyani Dance Theater in Rise. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Vuyani Dance Theatre of South Africa performed Rise, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma in a unique blend of contemporary African dance, made even more modern-feeling by Thabo Pule’s graphic lighting and rehearsal-style costumes. Some of the motifs felt conventional—a series of energetic pull-out solos intimating the awesome power of the individual—while the singular skill of Musa Motha, a dancer with one leg who performs with a crutch, astounded. So much of what New York knows about African dance hews to traditional forms, but Vuyani shows what’s happening now—blending some traditional notes with a fresh take.

The other program I saw was similarly diverse, with modern icon Beachbirds by Cunningham leading off. The current standard bearer of the style is CNDC D’Angers of France, led by Robert Swinston, which fortunately has made regular sojourns to New York to display the style as it should be done. Beachbirds was no exception. It is perhaps one of Merce’s most representational dances, or at least its title, as the movement is comparable to other works without such a leading moniker. Like birds, the dancers hold still on one leg, pulse or flick their “wings,” and ignore, pair up, or nudge other dancers in ways that imply unspoken avian communication. Marsha Skinner’s sea coast-worthy lighting and graphic white and black unitard designs set the perfect stage for this gem.

Also evoking a warmly nostalgic tone was Geoffrey Holder’s Come Sunday, danced by Ailey alum Alicia Graf Mack. Originally set on his wife, Carmen de Lavallade, to songs sung by Odetta, the medley summoned faith, work, gratitude, and defiance with bold, simple moves and the understated eloquence of Mack’s never-ending limbs; she becomes the movements, instilling in them a purity. 

Caleb Teicher and company in Bzzzz. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Madboots Dance, based in New York, performed For Us, a duet by Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz performed by David Maurice and Austin Tyson. Athletic, full-out, expressionistic phrases—runs, arm whirls, jumps—ended up with the pair falling into one another in exhaustion. This became a slow dance as they unwound black gauze wrapping their hands, as fighters might wear, and eventually led to a kiss.

Fall for Dance’s annual commissions are always eagerly anticipated, even if they sometimes fall short. Such is the case with Unveiling, by Sonya Tayeh, which featured Robbie Fairchild (late of NYCB and Broadway) and ABT’s Stella Abrera and Gabe Stone Shayer. Moses Sumney created the sound while onstage—beatboxing and layering samples to impressive variety. Fairchild began the piece clutching Sumney’s chest while standing behind him. Tayeh’s expressionistic movement features elastic torso ripples, articulated arms, sweeping penchés, and hunched shoulders. 

In a plank position, Fairchild pushed himself backward in a sort of rite of penance. He lifted Abrera, skimming her toes on the stage as he spun her. Her leg extensions and crooked arms evoked a sculptural Martha Graham style. Shayer entered in that reverse plank move, and he and Fairchild linked up and cartwheeled together. By this time, the wrought movement—emotional, but why?—began to feel forced, and wasn’t helped with the lack of the use of stage depth, and the stark white lighting by Davison Scandrett. But seeing these beloved fixtures of the NY ballet world up close, experimenting in new material, is reward in itself.

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. 
Calvin Richardson and Sarah Lamb in
Elite Syncopations. Photo: Maria Baranova

Since returning from major injury and rehab after he became world-renowned in 2011 for joining the Bolshoi while dancing with ABT, Hallberg has not only written a book about it all and become Nike sponsored, he has dabbled outside of ABT in different styles and collaborations. His Apollonian physique and line remain ideal, but it is rewarding to see him plumb his soul a bit more as well. Gordon, slightly shorter and more powerfully built, charges his movements with extra juice. Both men showed skill with the ballet technique, and the numerous lifted leg poses seemed destined to showcase Hallberg’s miraculous arches. But the question is, why do we not see more Béjart here?

Elite Syncopations, by Kenneth MacMillan, capped off a disarmingly diverse program. Set to rag tunes, the six outstanding dancers wore Ian Spurling’s gorgeous costumes—unitards with vivid decorations and patterns that mimic party garb. Trenary performed a solo, the perfect vehicle in which to show off her plush, muscular precision and kinetic wit. The Royal’s Sarah Lamb and Calvin Richardson joined in an elegant, flirtatious duet, and Marcelino Sambé wowed with standing split jumps and athletic chains of leaps.

With the eclipse of the Lincoln Center Festival, and a dearth of dance in August in general, the Joyce’s ballet series fills a void. Its ambitious four-slate series also included work by Ashton, McGregor, Arthur Pita, Laila Diallo, and more. Clearly, from the sold-out house the night I attended, audiences are responding.

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.

Joo Won Ahn was also promoted to soloist. This season, I caught him in the Neapolitan dance (Swan Lake), and as the Italian Prince in Sleeping Beauty. He ranks among the most technically ideal men, with flawless positions, high ballon, a knack for spinning, and assuring partnering skills—definite prince material. I wish I’d seen him perform Ali in Corsaire and the Bluebird in Beauty; I look forward to doing so in the future.

This season, it seemed as if Catherine Hurlin, a soloist, had been cloned—I think she was in every program I saw, providentially. There may be no better symbol of the way ABT is headed than Hurlin. A homegrown star (as is Bell, whom she is dating apparently) who has trained internally and risen through the ranks after starting to perform as a youngster, she can deftly handle any type of role, and she suffuses even small roles with wit, detail, and charm. In Beauty, she danced Violente, among the most rhythmic and charismatic of the myriad fairies, adding flair in the hand flicks that read as “don’t bother me.” She also infused the sometimes too-cute White Cat with some real sass, and shone in Tharp's challenging In the Upper Room. It’s truly exciting to watch her tackle each role, and deservedly receive more prominent roles.
Cassandra Trenary and Tyler Maloney in Harlequinade. Photo: Doug Gifford.
Cassandra Trenary, soloist, led the cast of Harlequinade I saw, dancing with Tyler Maloney. She, and Skylar Brandt, are emblematic of the solid female ranks within ABT, now being cast in the lead roles after working relentlessly in secondary parts for years. It is sometimes difficult from a viewer’s perspective to get a handle on a dancer’s individual traits and style as they perform smaller roles, but Trenary’s fearlessness and plasticity emerged when she performed this past year at the Joyce in The Tenant, a dance-theater work co-starring James Whiteside.

At ABT, the era of foreign guest star principal seems to have passed with the retirement of Roberto Bolle. For now, David Hallberg assumes the mantle of “blink or you’ll miss him” principal, performing in Manon and one Swan Lake. I regret having been away for guest star Brooklyn Mack’s performances in Corsaire, but I was happy to hear that ABT engaged him after he went unsigned by Washington Ballet. A decade ago, mainly due to injuries, it was unthinkable that Misty Copeland, Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, and Hee Seo would become, if you will, matinee idols at ABT, but so they have. And while their emergence, in part, has come to pass due to the end of the foreign guest star wave, which bore such female stars as Vishneva, Osipova, and Cojocaru, it’s a satisfying return to developing talent from within. (Gillian Murphy, normally a beloved, well-oiled machine, is on maternity leave.) Devon Teuscher’s elegance and serene flair in Swan are always rewarding to see.

The mens’ principal ranks are a bit more tenuous, with names such as Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, and Alex Hammoudi filling the lead roles in the wake of the departure of Gomes, Bolle, and the elusiveness of Hallberg, with Herman Cornejo appearing only occasionally, and Daniil Simkin taking on what leads he can (his relatively lithe build can limit his partnering options). James Whiteside proved to be the workhorse, dancing lead roles in seven programs, with Cory Stearns nearly as ubiquitous, and now Bell is an option. I anticipate seeing Calvin Royal III taking on lead roles soon, in addition to his welcome, dashing renditions in flashy parts such as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, and Cinderella’s Prince in Beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty
It has been three years since Ratmansky’s production was performed, so I might be forgiven for feeling like I was watching it anew at times. The whole approach in 2016 felt like an antique artifact, but in a good way—lower retirés, extensions, and arm angles, fewer revolutions in pirouettes, less pointe work. But this season, it felt like back to normal, with higher legs and arms, more turns, and more energy conveyed in general. Maybe it was the cast I saw. 

Isabella Boylston (Aurora), in her entrance, felt completely contemporary as she flew in arrow leaps, interpreting the music in shaped phrases rather than doing them step by step. She infuses so much joy in her dancing, making it feel vivacious. Bell stepped in for an ailing James Whiteside, and was forgiven for omitting his solo in the third act pas de deux as he danced numerous times that week. Sleeping Beauty, with its rich choreography and myriad layers of choice character roles and childrens’ sections, seemed a perfect way for ABT to end its season.

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.