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.