Sunday, November 14, 2021

New York Notebook, Fall 2021

American Utopia. Photo: Matthew Murphy

There’s no better season than fall in New York. Upstate, the evolving, brilliant outdoor theater of the trees and mountains after the verdant lushness of summer. In the city, the torrent of culture that all seems to happen in October. This year, things in NYC have moved closer to normal, with regular capacities at theaters, restaurants, and museums. New Yorkers have gotten used to masking up inside, and showing proof of vax-plus-ID everywhere. Just more layers necessary to access the fruits the city has to offer.

Nothing better represents the joy of returning to near-normal life than David Byrne and his Broadway show, American Utopia (reviewed here in 2020). It celebrates Byrne’s music, framed by Annie-B Parson’s movement, in the purest form, featuring only the incredibly talented cast onstage with no props other than instruments and a metal beaded curtain. Byrne himself, in his late 60s, is seemingly ageless, showing no signs of fatigue or being winded, even after belting out one of his many timeless hits. He has put forth his ideals not only by speaking or singing them, but by example. How many rock stars ride their bikes everywhere, mixing with the public at large with a friendly demeanor? The show has moved to the St. James Theatre, and retains the hypnotic kinetic invention of Parson, with marching patterns and simple moves and gestures done by musicians and the two dancers alike dressed in dapper grey suits. And Byrne, of course, barefoot, bolstered by devoted audiences.

João Menegussi and Calvin Royal III in Touché

American Ballet Theater’s ABT Rise initiative shows its full-out commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their program contains a “Land Acknowledgment” statement, stating that they perform on land stolen from Indigenous peoples. I attended the Oct 22 performance at the Koch, one dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ community. The mixed rep program contained many traditional-feeling works—Alex Ratmansky’s showcase of young technical virtuosity and exuberance, Bernstein in a Bubble; Clark Tippett’s Some Assembly Required, a largely quiet psychological drama danced by newly promoted Skylar Brandt (who dazzled in the Bernstein, at one point pirouetting what must have been six revolutions) and charismatic Gabe Stone Shayer in a toned-down role; and Indestructible Light by Darrell Grand Moultrie, an entertaining, jazzy crowd-pleaser full of maxed out moves and poses. It also showcased Touché by Christopher Rudd featuring Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi, who underwent a mutual coming-out told through increasingly intimate movement and garments shed. 

The company is undergoing a seismic leadership change with both the artistic director and executive director departing, in addition to the shift toward diversity which is so urgent at most organizations now. How it deals with its core programming—full-length ballets, many centuries old, with politically incorrect themes, motifs, and actions—will unfold in the coming seasons, beginning with next year’s presumably shorter-than-usual run at the Met Opera House. Its concurrent contemporary choreographic commissions have run the gamut (I missed the Jessica Lang suite to Tony Bennett) which, from its sheer breadth, will likely produce hits and misses. Will there be a larger shift in the spring/summer season from centuries-old chestnuts to contemporary work? We’ll see.

Charmion von Wiegand, Untitled, 1942

While I’m sure it wasn’t meant this way, the sheer physical relationship at the Whitney Museum between Mind/Mirror, the mega Jasper Johns half-retrospective on 5 (the balance is at the Philadelphia Museum) and the keen survey, Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950, occupying the 3rd floor small gallery speaks volumes—iconic white male artist physically dominating the building while the women are exiled to a space adjacent to the restrooms. The latter exhibition comprises works from the Whitney’s collection, most of who are unfamiliar names. Work by Barbara Olmsted and Dorothy Dehner sits alongside those by Lee Krasner and Louise Nevelson. It’s a thrill to “discover” so many women who worked in abstraction during a time that preferred realism, at times organizing to support one another. The taut show was organized by Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial Assistant.

Unsurprisingly, the Johns show contains many of his landmark works—flags, maps, coffee cans. The Whitney has many of Johns’ 1980s-90s pieces, which evoke stasis and marking time. Some of Johns’ works which struck me most strongly are actually his more recent ones, black & white ink on plastic (Matthew Marks Gallery had a show including many of these.) Perhaps because Johns, now in his 90s, has worked constantly for most of his life, producing an enormous body of work tracing so many subgenres, it is easy to take him for granted. But his influence is incalculable even if he and his male counterparts may have hoarded due attention to their female peers.

Shirazeh Houshiary, Pupa, 2014
The Asia Society’s Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet exhibition is an eye-opening survey of contemporary Persian (Iranian) art. It encompasses a breadth of styles and an impressive refinement of techniques and visions. Some names are familiar—Shirin Neshat, Abbas Kiarostami—but most are new to me, and many offer revelatory creations. Morteza Ahmadvand’s three-channel video installation plus sculpture traces three religious emblems as they morph into spheres. A spiraling stack of amethyst glass by Shirazeh Houshiary mesmerizes.

Several artists use traditional craft and techniques as a means to convey contemporary messaging infused with cultural legacy. Farhad Moshiri's carpets cut into the shapes of fighter jets; Afruz Amighi's scrim of polyethylene (a material used in refugee tents) contains intricate, lacelike imagery which, despite its poetically delicate appearance, turns out to be terrifying; Shiva Ahmadi paints oil barrels with lavish, rich scenes associated with traditional miniatures and ornate imagery. The works possess great craft in addition to powerful messaging, often simmering below the surface of traditions carried forward.

That an ancient culture, and culture in general, can be so vital and relevant offers some welcome hope in a time of flagging optimism.
Photos: American Utopia: Matthew Murphy; ABT: Rosalie O'Connor; Von Wiegand: courtesy Whitney Museum; Houshiary: Susan Yung

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Fine Sampler of Contemporary Ballet at the Pillow

 Karina González, Harper Watters, and Chandler Dalton of Houston Ballet in
Reflections. Photo by Christopher Duggan

From seeing Jacob’s Pillow’s Ballet Coast to Coast program in late August, contemporary ballet looks to be in good shape. Three accomplished companies brought chamber-sized works to the outdoor Leir Stage in the final offering of the Pillow’s robust summer festival, which had to cope not only with the pandemic, but the dodgy summer weather which caused many cancellations. The slate balanced humor, expressionism, and formalism in works by five choreographers.

Boston Ballet began the show with Helen Pickett’s Home Studies: Parlor Floor Life (2021), inspired by a film, in which Lia Cirio, Paul Craig, and My’Kal Stromile plopped on a sofa like restless kids, sticking their legs up and messing around. In a solo, Stromile used his long limbs and superb line to accentuate the expressive gestures and articulations to maximum effect. Cirio and Craig partnered in a duet, showing Pickett’s explorations in how two bodies can interact in new ways—a foot flicking between legs, or him pulling her in a circle by one of her feet extended high. After a year and a half spent on the sofa, the visual jokes involving boredom and antsiness hit home.

Houston Ballet’s two excerpt offerings, in contrast, showed ballet at its most fluid and lucid. Stanton Welch’s Sons de l’Ame (2013), with Karina González and Harper Watters, featured simple poses connected by flowing, elegant moves. Each line was continually elongated; there never seemed to be any excess movement or embellishment. Even the flesh-hued leotards served to focus attention on the purity of line, the essence of classical ballet. (This piece reprises at City Center's Fall for Dance this season.) Justin Peck choreographed Reflections

My'Kal Stromile of Boston Ballet
in Home Studies: Parlor Floor Life
 Photo by Jamie Kraus

(2019), and the trio is a prime example of his sheer fluency in the language of ballet. Small traveling steps included backward low jetés, a twist on a basic element that felt radical. The color block leotards with white belts might allude to Balanchine and Robbins’ frequent reliance on such simple costumes to better free the dancers (Chandler Dalton, González, and Watters); the seamed pink tights worn by González evoked the classroom staple of ballet students everywhere. The ending tableau—their three heads turned sideways and stacked, arms framing them—beautifully punctuated this work, which the dancers clearly enjoyed performing.

Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels (1994) was performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet. It actually felt less of its period this year than when I last saw it, several years ago, on NYCB. All graphic angles and hyper-articulated torsos and deep, squatty pliés, it has a torero-like feel, abetted by the general fierce attack and the red unitards with sternum lacing. It showcased the charismatic Christopher D’Ariano, Elle Macy, Amanda Morgan, and Dylan Wald. Some of the classical steps, like fouettés, were unpolished, but the catwalk attitude was spot on.

Dancers from all three companies performed in Second to Last (2013), the finale by Alejandro Cerrudo. A series of fluid duets, composed of elastic limbs and attenuated, expressionistic lines, were quite beautiful, but somewhat repetitious. Perhaps the choice of Arvo Pärt’s by-now overused music dictated the lack of dynamic. But the concept of uniting all three companies rang true in a divisive and isolating time.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Brian Brooks at Jacob's Pillow—Seeking the Human Touch


Evan Fisk, Zack Gonder, and Stephanie Terasaki of Brian Brooks / Moving Company in
Closing Distance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival 2021. Photo by Jamie Kraus

Brian Brooks / Moving Company’s three works at Jacob’s Pillow recently could represent time stamps of periods over the last year and a half. The opening piece, Flight Study (2021) was created primarily during Covid. The eight dancers often moved in a cloud while remaining isolated. Their movements were small in amplitude, traveling little; a foot slid forward a few inches, seemingly propelled by a mere breath. The dancers lay on the stage, taking turns arising to varying heights, evoking waves rolling onto the shore (enhanced by their navy rompers, by Karen Young). Bryce Dessner’s score for strings evoked emotions from anger to contemplation, at times propelling the dancers forward and back. Alone, but together, manipulated by some force as great as the ocean, or perhaps, chillingly, a global pandemic.

Brooks took the stage to perform Quiet Music (2021), a solo to Nico Muhly’s music which provided a change of dynamic as well as time for his company to change costumes in the now de rigeur intermissionless, under-an-hour program. Brooks can often treat dancers—most notably himself—as machine-like vehicles with which to conduct kinetic experiments involving endurance or repetition. Hopping on one leg for minutes at a time, or running relentlessly, or walking on others’ body parts to avoid contact with the floor. Here, there is no such dogma, simply fluid movement traveling from an eeling hand through the torso and head, or a languid arabesque to stretch the body briefly. In a long-sleeve shirt and pants, Brooks assumed an everyman presence somewhat reluctant to explode beyond the confines of his body’s invisible bubble.

The final work, Closing Distance (2020), was made just before Covid hit, and that’s clear in the dancers’ physical interactions and unity in moving as one organism in close ensemble passages. Caroline Shaw’s intriguing score, Partita for 8 Voices, begins with spoken phrases: “To the side, left around…” Are these directions for the dancers? Because they are circling around one another, pushing another’s arm to cause a reaction, clustering around one dancer and clutching her arm, forming a caterpillar-like creature by linking hands with elbows. A performer lowers herself to the floor, which is echoed by each successive dancer like a time-stop photo. 

In a key duet, Carlye Eckert floats her hands over a man’s body, eliciting a reaction that resembles the effect of a magnetic field. Even six feet away, as she pushes the air between them, he reacts as if she has cast energy. A closely arranged trio moves essentially as one, with a slight lag between mimicked moves. In the final section, the performers lie parallel to one another, rising a bit, then higher and higher, like a chart of the evolution of homosapiens. They coalesce in a group before lying down to succumb to the invisible force field wielded by Eckert once more. The music, sung by Roomful of Teeth, enchants with closely spaced harmonies, ethereal at times. Young also designed the white-hued costumes of variously fitted and shaped separates.

This program’s breadth symbolized the roller coaster we’ve been through lately, from a pre- and post-pandemic state of normal physical interaction, to being together yet isolated. It departed from many of Brooks’ previous presentations in some ways—less systematic scientific experimentation, and no deliberate choice of signature set or color design typical of years past, perhaps because it was performed on the Leir stage, in front of Massachusetts' verdant Berkshires. But it displays a humanity that beats in the heart of dance, in its varying complexity and potential for expression.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

NYCB Shares Stories at SPAC

The Concert. Photo courtesy NYCB

The Concert. Photo courtesy NYCB

Another sign of cultural life reviving! New York City Ballet returned live to the stage on a mild evening in July with a brief stint at its upstate home, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). It presented two programs of excerpts with commentary—one of story ballets, which I saw on July 14, and another of Balanchine's abstract works. It was great to see the company in the vast, dramatic, tree-framed setting of the Amphitheater, with similar grand stage dimensions to the Koch, and the casual structure of the program allowed the company to ease back into preparations for a full season of performances.

The wide-ranging "Short Stories" program was moderated by principal dancer Maria Kowroski, who demonstrated a genial speaking presence to go with her in-depth, personal knowledge of the dances. The three sailors (Amar Ramasar, Spartak Hoxha, Lars Nelson) in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free discussed the nature of their characters, and each shared a move from the dance that encapsulated a characteristic (although three rounds of questions seemed a bit much). Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle (with a shaved head!) performed the white swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. Reichlen's stage demeanor is consistently stoic and secretive, and in this case, served to provide some welcome gravitas to the performance, isolated from the context of the story.

Such context was also missed in the next segment, the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara debuted as Aurora, no small feat given the short amount of rehearsal time (weeks) in which to cram for being partnered by four men in one of the most difficult passages in classical ballet. The lack of rehearsal time showed in some off-balance partnered promenades, which no doubt will be smoothed out with more practice. Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan came onstage to give some notes, including the advice to take one section at a time so as not to be overwhelmed, and to "be the rose," firmly planted and growing tall and proud. Another segment from Beauty followed: the opening of the Bluebird pas (Sara Adams and Spartak Hoxha), which felt suitably antic and exuberant given the plein air setting. 

A duet from Midsummer Night's Dream also matched the al fresco ambience. Miriam Miller fell for the donkey-headed Lars Nelson, who only had eyes for his grass. And the "Mistake Waltz" from Robbins' The Concert elicited chuckles from the audience, and reminded us of the humor that he often deployed. The finale, a segment from The Firebird featuring Reichlen and Ramasar, once again revealed the sense of occasion that Reichlen brings to the stage to magically train our collective focus. Full costumes helped to signify some of the context of each story segment, which were accompanied by piano scores—whose arrangements at times were by nature sketchy—played by Alan Moverman and Nancy McDill.

While NYCB's 2021 run at SPAC can barely be called a season, it was a welcome return of live arts after such a horrendous year and a half. The company recently released its full schedule for the 2021-22 season at the Koch Theater, another welcome reminder that New York's cultural life is ramping up for, hopefully, a return to normal.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Varone Scrapbooks a Solemn Year

March's landing page. Photo: S. Yung

Watching dance, like everything in 2021, is different. Choreographers are finding ways to express themselves, but for those used to having a huge stage and a captive audience for a set amount of time, there's no clear path. Ignore the bounding box of Zoom? Or address it and play with it or rage at it? And now that dancers can return to theaters—even with limited audiences—how best to utilize the limits and expanses now present?

Michael Trusnovec in "Temptation." Photo: S. Yung 

Doug Varone deals with it his way—by building a story one dance at a time, to complete The Scrapbook, a series of 10 chapters set to pop standard songs. (The subtitle edifies: 10 months / 10 letters / 10 stories / 10 songs / 10 films. Interesting that "dances" is not used, or perhaps indicative of how Varone has always viewed his work.) These are framed by a set of letters between a woman and her grandson, written during the course of the year of Covid and BLM. The letters' content ranges from affectionate salutations to much deeper questions of personal liberty and responsibility—life and death—that all of us have faced. 

Each chapter appears onscreen as a spread in a tactile leather scrapbook, with memoirs, doodles, and photos at left, and an envelope on the right, which you click to open. The letters' words unspool visually as you hear them spoken—both endearing and a bit patience-trying (although you can skip around freely). Following the text, a video of the dance plays. It's a chronological and sentimental presentation that offers an empathetic narrative through a warm visual interface.

Whitney Dufrene in "Don't Explain." Photo: S. Yung

Aspects of Varone's choreography fit well in such a context. His visceral expressions involving the upper body—impulses, upheavals, shudders, ecstasies—always eloquently convey the full breadth of human emotions. And while a lot of his oeuvre has been presented as essentially abstract, if you wished to, you could assemble a story framework given individuals' movements and group interactions. The Scrapbook's structure resembles standard linear constructs of film and literature, but it's an organic fit. (That said, Varone has experimented with site-specific works, sometimes pegged to narratives, such as Neither, in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or The Bottomland, filmed in caverns in Kentucky.)

Some chapters stand out. Guest artist Michael Trusnovec, who danced in Varone's commission by Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, makes a memorable appearance to the song "Temptation," forcefully resisting the pull of the great outdoors while grabbing door frames and furniture through his house, even foregoing the lure of a jigsaw puzzle, before plunging out the front door into the intoxicating night air. Whitney Dufrene imagines herself as a sultry noir chanteuse in "Don't Explain." A knock at the door shocks her back to reality; she's lingering in the bathroom, away from her partner, who has apparently abused her.

Doug Varone finding chow in "Almost Like Being in Love." Photo: S. Yung

Varone delivers his own message incisively. "Time After Time" features a close-up of his jittery hands hovering above a newspaper's help wanted ads, fidgeting with a wrist watch. And while I might've guessed Varone to be more cat than dog with his pantherine movement, in the final chapter, "Almost Like Being in Love," he comically embodies a canine, with all the simple pleasures therein—lapping up his chow and snuggling with his human on the sofa—and presumably the joy of having his people around full time, one benefit of the pandemic. 

The Scrapbook illuminates such unexpected pleasures, and reminisces about the darker times of the year. And while some of the episodes echo the tired "trapped at home" vibe so prevalent during Covid, they're an accurate reflection of the isolation and frustration we've all been through.

The Scrapbook: Doug Varone, artistic director; One Foot Productions, website creation & production; Joan Winters, graphic design; Kevin Merritt, letter narrative; Patty Bryan, creative consultant.