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.

This Nut in part succeeds by condensing and reducing, a bit antithetical to a ballet which celebrates excess and indulgence. But the “Snow Passage” turns this idea on its head. In the snowflake waltz, the music’s melodies aren’t played, leaving only the structure of the rhythms spelled out softly in taps. And yet because it’s one of the most played classical pieces, we hear it internally.

The flower waltz remains audible, and a backdrop for a vivacious dance that’s as much runway voguing as anything. “Danseurs of the Floreadores,” as it’s titled in here, sport Jordan’s hallucinogenic headpieces, a variety of gigantic flowers worn as proudly as a toreador’s tri-domed montera cap, topping off unisex jumpsuits. The large group moves often in an oval, conveyor-belt style, tap-stepping with hips leading louchely. Between the foot percussion, the brass-heavy music, and the sheer joy in the house, it felt like the roof might levitate.

Dorrance, Heller, Wiggan-Freund, and Melinda Sullivan also created and performed All Good Things Come to an End (2018), an ambitious, sloppily sprawling work with sections designated by old-fashioned cardboard signs, like a silent film. They ranged from "Cane & Abel" (sic), in which two attempt to one-up each other and a mimed shot arrow did the deed; "The Myth of the American Dream," which included thrilling, militarily precise tapped formations; to "Ugly Duck," with Dorrance tapping in hilariously oversized clown shoes, and shedding a big overcoat to reveal a sleek patched unitard. For the finale—"FIN"—the women donned haz-mat suits, gas masks, and ran down the theater's aisles to reprise themes familiar from the work's numerous sections. 

Vernard Gilmore in Revelations. Photo: Andrew Eccles
Ailey may be a big machine with literally a million moving parts—dancers, choreographers, repertory, New York seasons, tours, a building, a school, a big staff—but what can be most meaningful to viewers is the connection with its dancers. As with any large dance company, turnover is the norm, but there are a bunch of veterans who anchor the troupe. But because it’s so large, numbering 33 strong, you may not see some of them perform if you only hit one or two shows over the month-long season which traditionally takes place in Decembers at NY City Center. In that sense, it’s more like the model of NYCB or ABT than its modern dance peer, Paul Taylor. And while there’s no official tier system at Ailey to compare to the ballet world’s principal/soloist/corps member, there are certain longterm Ailey dancers who merit the choice solos in any given dance.

Vernard Gilmore has been with the company for 22 years, and among some of the world’s most talented and protean dancers, is a solid grounding force. He’s not the “most” of anything—not the tallest, most muscular, showiest, etc.—but, as in Revelations, my eye just keeps traveling back to him. He’s the centermost man in "Rocka My Soul," who if not officially, then ritually seems to be the corps’ emotional “conductor.” For as much verve as this section encourages, Gilmore pares down the movement to its essentials while radiating a profound humanity and warmth.

Back to Bolero… in 1990, Lar Lubovitch choreographed the duet Fandango to it. Ailey’s Danica Paulos and Clifton Brown (yay!) performed it at City Center. It demonstrates how creative Lubovitch can be, with innumerable lifts and partnering experiments that are hardly repeated throughout the work’s some 20 minutes. While Lubovitch has many commissions and accomplishments to his credit, he still feels underrated among contemporary choreographers. He can create the most luscious, sinewy movement and monumental tableaux, but he has also choreographed full-length story ballets, such as Othello for ABT, and kinetic experiments like Fandango. It’s good to see one of his dances pop up in a repertory such as Ailey’s, even if it is to a frequently used score.

The evening included Ailey’s Cry (1971), danced by Linda Celeste Sims. I hadn’t seen this in a long time, and was surprised at how unmoved I felt, compared to my memories of Judith Jamison in the role. Perhaps it was the now-dated music, some of which screams 70s. Then again, it is one of the roles that propelled Jamison to superstardom; her sheer physical and psychic amplitude multiplied whatever emotion was at hand in the narrative. Her 1984 work Divining opened the evening. It was her first work of choreography, and not the finest example of an oeuvre which couldn’t help but suffer in comparison to Ailey’s. But these evocations of past company leaders are part of what make Ailey a family—a lineage  treasured by its many fans.

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