Saturday, December 31, 2022

Best Books of 2022

Exceptional books from 2022


Trust, Hernán Díaz
Dimensional takes on one tale. The book’s first part feels slightly lackluster, but Díaz’s structural pivot halfway through dazzled. The different points of view remind us that there is no wrong interpretation.

Search, Michelle Huneven
The subject sounds dry as dust: the search for a new pastor. But Huneven’s delectation in the nitty gritty details of the search offer an optimistic way to savor the quotidian. She adds another layer with recipes.

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles (published 2021)
The title misleads; it isn’t a boring historical tract, but an engrossing caper with Huck Finn heroics and a satisfying plot twist to provide a sense of justice.

Vigil Harbor, Julia Glass
Bobbing between straight-up fiction and sci fi, a densely plotted novel that takes place in pandemic era Massachusetts examines a community through multiple characters and a dash of the supernatural.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin
I’m not a video gamer, but that discipline is the spine of this novel that follows a brilliant game designer through her personal life, which is far less clear than her coding. A modern version of an artist’s struggle and achievement.

Mecca, Susan Straight
A glimpse of So Cal people on the fringe of citizenship doing the work that keeps the dream alive, and the sacrifices and indignities suffered in daily life. A refreshing, less explored viewpoint.

Olga Dies Dreaming, Xóchitl González
Contemporary, successful Brooklynite siblings of Puerto Rican heritage confront varied scenarios, including a rebel absentee mother, a devastating hurricane, and the vicissitudes of political quid pro quos.

Still Life, Sarah Winman
Found families can sometimes be closer than blood relatives. Still Life stitches relationships between unlikely friends, across boundaries, during war time. Art transcends time and actual borders, and kind gestures merit astounding rewards.

Fellowship Point, Alice Elliott Dark
The main character is a strong-minded elderly woman writer, in itself a rarity, and her more traditional best friend. Questions the proprietorship of land, works of art, and one's self.

The Latecomer, Jean Hanff Korelitz
A bevy of unlikeable characters is partly redeemed by the titular character. Korelitz, who wrote The Plot, is highly skilled with storyline.

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel
St. John Mandel navigates the fine line between sci-fi and fiction, outlining a future of interplanetary commutes, where sounds can resonate between generations. She manages this with economy—no small feat.


Visual Thinking, Temple Grandin
The premise is scary—our country can’t make things anymore, in part because our education system has discouraged visual thinkers by setting Algebra 2 as a roadblock. Fascinating and kind of depressing, but Grandin puts forth ways to move forward.

Serenade, Toni Bentley
Bentley explicates this essential ballet by Balanchine to Tchaikovsky’s score, while reminiscing on her own life at New York City Ballet. Every phrase of the dance is rich with meaning, made real through the artist/dancer.

The Impossible Art, Matthew Aucoin
This director/author elucidates the art of opera, a form I’ve found difficult to fully embrace. He also examines some of his own work and finds it wanting, which feels noble in this time of self-importance.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Dance, Macro to Micro

Are You in Your Feelings?, photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center

Choreographer Kyle Abraham is completely relaxed in his working process, picking and choosing small gestures that ground his dances. One of the most memorable moves in Kyle Abraham’s new dance, Are You in Your Feelings?, is a rhythmic paddling of arms, a kind of relaxed speed walking thing, repeated for a spell by a group of women. It’s so relatable that I found myself rocking my arms while walking recently, smiling at the thought. While this penchant for quoting everyday intriguingly relates him to the Judson movement, he braids in bravura passages to create a unique, completely contemporary language.

This premiere for the Ailey company during its month-long City Center run uses soul, R&B, and hip-hop music. The sections of dance, to 11 songs, are connected by casual banter and flirtatious interactions among the dancers. Abraham’s style flows like silk, enhanced by the performers’ gossamer bomber jackets and loose pants by Karen Young. Certain steps evoked classic Ailey, such as a woman standing on a man’s knee, as in Revelations. Humor threads throughout—knees knocking, duck walks, remarks like “she pulled a me on me!” The recurring theme of courtship and its pitfalls set the tone, with sidebars including two men finding affection but hiding it due to societal pressure, and gender bonding.

A women’s section to “I’ll Call You Back” contained the infectious arm paddling, plus lots of hypnotic subtle upper body work. Other songs included a remix of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and Lauryn Hill’s “Forgive Them Father.” The set, uncredited, is a simple but striking arc of neon, with lighting by Dan Scully. Are You in Your Feelings? feels like a coda to An Untitled Love at BAM last February—both pop culture slices of daily life. The Ailey dancers look fantastic and at home in Abraham’s choreography, which is growing into an admirable body of work danced by his own group and major companies.

On a program of “new” work, Ailey also performed Duet, by Paul Taylor (from 1964)—a brief, gem-like kinetic puzzle in which no movement is wasted. In the opening pose, the pair resembles a perfect modern sculpture, Renaldo Maurice hovering over a seated Jacquelin Harris, their arms forming an oval. Courtly, with clockwork precision, every pose is picture perfect. (The choice of repertory is also a reminder of Artistic Director Robert Battle’s choreographic lineage; he danced and choreographed with David Parsons’ company for many year, and Parsons was once a Taylor dancer.) Another old new work, Survivors, depicted Nelson Mandela's jailing and his wife Winnie's taking the mantle. To an intense drum track and score by Max Roach and Peter Phillips, this work—originally from 1986, created by Ailey and Mary Barnett—showed how Ailey's style was classical jazz, with its four compass points and boxy arms.

Jamar Roberts’ premiere, In a Sentimental Mood, showcased Courtney Celeste Spears and Christopher R. Wilson as a couple in a fraying relationship, reliving romantic memories. The two dancers wrung fervent emotion from the expressionistic, albeit mostly upright, movement, set to Duke Ellington and Rafiq Bhatia. The design, also by Roberts—a sparsely furnished, traditional living room and street clothes—veered to the literal in this bittersweet work.

Rivulets. Photo: Maria Baranova

Tere O'Connor at Baryshnikov Arts Center

On a completely different scale, the Baryshnikov Arts Center presented the premiere of Rivulets by Tere O’Connor, a comprehensively conceived work of art bursting with his vision. Audience members sit on two sides of the stage close enough to touch the eight dancers; benches line the other two sides where non-active dancers wait to re-enter. The opening tableau is a bit of an anomaly within the piece; from two seated dancers trail chains of others, descending to the floor. Over a densely packed hour, the performers coalesce at the center, expanding outward, or pair off for unique duets. There are quirky bits, like monster hands and low-angled arms, that intersperse with more lyrical, space-eating steps. 

I was close enough to count stitches on their terrific, primarily green and blue-hued costumes by Reid Bartelme, which included first layers of one-piece tights and trunks that appeared to be knitted as a single piece, swingy outer garments, and square silver hardware that added some jewelry-like flairO'Connor's score for the piece—a melange of piano, synth, and ambient—fulfilled its presumable mission to provide background sound and texture. 

With its theatricality, extensive production elements, and superhero dancers, Ailey represents the maximal possibilities of dance. Viewers whoop, clap, and scream at the top of their lungs in curtain calls (and sometimes during dances). By contrast, BAC’s presentation of Rivulets is the polar opposite—serene, at moments, intimate, literally within reach, and well-crafted, technically challenging, and incredibly rich, choreographically. In a given week in the city, what fortune to see such range.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Lovette Delivers at Taylor; Alex Katz at Guggenheim; Transverse Orientation at BAM

John Harnage in Solitaire. Photo: Whitney Browne

"Taylor—A New Era" 

These simple, clear words headlined the cover of Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Playbill for its 2022 fall run at the Koch Theater. Since the later years of the founding choreographer’s life (he died in 2018), under the leadership of Artistic Director Michael Novak, the organization has been trying out different strategies for moving forward without new work by Taylor. After a confusing tango with the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance umbrella (begun by Taylor himself) under which a varied slate of American choreographers were commissioned to create new works on the Taylor dancers, things seem to have reverted back to the old PTDC moniker, or simply Taylor.

Branding aside, the programming concept has certainly evolved. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s continues to be the house band, but this time, it performed musical selections with no dance on a handful of programs. While I enjoyed hearing excerpts of Philip Glass’ The Hours by the orchestra, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity to showcase the talented dancers who were backstage. Nonetheless, it highlighted the importance of live music to the company.

On a bright note, Lauren Lovette’s premiere of Solitaire is further proof of her creative talent, and that naming her resident choreographer for five years was a wise choice by Novak, if somewhat of a gamble. Substantial on many levels, Solitaire featured the crisp, elegant John Harnage in the sort of poet-on-a-journey role not unfamiliar to fans of Taylor’s oeuvre. It is set to music by Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, with dramatic string sections and a sense of gravitas and impetus. Santo Loquasto designed costumes and the set, which included an ominous diamond-shaped element that loomed like a guillotine over a serene mountainscape, descending and rising.

But what pops is Lovette’s facility with making modern phrases that flow organically, but which challenge the skilled company’s technical chops seemingly beyond what most of the repertory has until now. That’s not to say that Taylor’s vocabulary is not challenging, but Lovette’s accomplished ballet career heretofore has likely seeped into her movement—in the best way. It’s not ballet, but there’s an integrity and underlying structure that comes across. She has also found a way to convey an unspecific narrative that feels like a rich story waiting to be written. Solitaire was sandwiched between Taylor’s joyful, bittersweet Company B and Syzygy, a study in freneticism done in a completely different vocabulary, forming a satisfying slate with breadth.

Shawn Lesniak and Jada Pearman in The Green Table. Photo: Ron Thiele

Speaking of which, the season included Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, another example of the expansion of the troupe’s artistic horizons. (It had been remounting classics of American modern dance in pre-Covid seasons, but not by international artists.) This classic 1932 work about the senselessness of war, and how it is wrought by those far from the battleground, remains timeless and gut-wrenching. It makes sense for Taylor to take on this legendary dance, with its muscular phrasing and trenchant messaging. A bonus was seeing Shawn Lesniak in the role of Death (once danced by Jooss himself), carving sharp swaths, and forming perfect, machined angles with his long limbs. In other dances, without the lavish mask, makeup and headdress, I could see Lesniak’s gifts anew, and look forward to seeing him in more and more big roles.

Madelyn Ho and Alex Clayton in Syzygy. Photo: Whitney Browne

As much as (most of) the previous generation of dancers is missed, it is a pleasure to become acquainted with the new one. The dancer who seems to now be the most cast, at least in prominent roles, is Madelyn Ho, who was in everything I saw over three programs. She counters her small size, which might be less visible to the uppermost seats, with an extra dash of verve and joy. She dances with delicacy and articulation, plus ferocity and athleticism. Arden Court showed off many of the newer men—the explosive Alex Clayton, a soaring Devon Louis, and the sheer joy of Austin Kelly.

Maria Ambrose, John Harnage, Shawn Lesniak, Jada Pearman,
Kristin Draucker in Polaris. Photo by Ani Collier

Alex Katz—Gathering, Guggenheim Museum

The season coincided with Gathering, a Guggenheim retrospective of Alex Katz’s work, who designed many works for Taylor. Two outstanding Taylor/Katz collabs from the 1970s—Polaris and Sunset—were performed on the season finale program. Both display Taylor’s varied genius. Polaris, in which the same movement is performed by two different casts, with varied music, lighting and mood, rendering two completely unique dances; and Sunset, with its lush, romantic score by Elgar (plus loons), its old world approach to flirting and courting, and the contrasting depiction of an unrequited bond between two soldiers.
Paul Taylor, by Alex Katz

Katz’s show at the Guggenheim includes a portrait of Taylor, as well as a painting of the company performing. It’s hard to say what makes Katz’s work feel so quintessentially American—the distinct light, the flat expanses, the reductive line and composition, or all of the above? The exhibition includes some of his more intrepid experiments, such as painted aluminum cutouts (he created a bunch of dogs like this for Taylor’s Diggity) and repeated images of his wife Ada within one picture. The coincidence of his retrospective with a featured spot in the Taylor season underscored the artist’s continual output in the last half century.

Transverse Orientation, BAM

BAM presented Transverse Orientation by Dmitris Pappaionnou, whose Great Tamer had been shown a few years ago. The big imprimatur for Pappaionnou was that he was the first choreographer to be commissioned by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch after her sudden death, as well as creating the opening ceremony for the 2004 Athens Olympics. So many artists have been influenced by Bausch, but most have been careful to avoid direct quotes. But Pappaionnou took the plunge with Transverse, inserting vignettes evocative of Bausch—a woman transformed into a fountain, and a giant wall built of foam blocks which toppled forward. Somehow it felt okay, as if enough time has passed, and because he has collaborated with TWPB. Tanztheater lives, and this iteration felt like a proper homage to Bausch and another phase in the form's continuum.

I can’t say enough about the main protagonist in Transverse, a life-sized bull puppet designed by Nectarios Dionysatos. The dancers skillfully manipulated the bull’s head so as to act as how I imagine a bull would, although it was more Ferdinand than raging. Others moved his hooves and tail, also amazingly expressive. The bull served as a sort of id to man’s ego, represented in oft-naked performers. 

The piece is constructed of many scenes, most short and some quite long, that evoke a range of sensations—humor, awe, absurdity, pathos, and so on. Magically, images crystallize from thin air, as a madonna-like woman cradled in a sheaf, bearing a dripping object that turns out to be a baby. She is subsumed into the stage floor, which is torn up to reveal a lagoon. A man swabs at the pool futilely with an old mop. I thought of melting permafrost and our inability to take action in the face of an existential crisis. And then walking to the subway past the Opera House's load-in doors, where the lagoon was draining onto Ashland Place, of the magic of theater to deliver such messages.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

New York Notebook, October 2022

In the Upper Room. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Twyla Tharp, the pioneering sui generis choreographer now in her 80s, continues to make new work, but when you've created such beloved icons as In the Upper Room and Nine Sinatra Songs, why not show them to audiences both old and appreciative and young and curious? 
New York City Center reprised these two hits, for which a crackerjack cast was assembled—no small feat given the gordian knot of scheduling, plus the technical and mental demands. Even the finest ballet companies with peak gifts (locally, ABT in recent decades) can find the tempo, endurance, and difficulty of Upper Room demanding. 

At the outset, a sense of heightened drama unfolds given the combination of  elements. From the otherworldly fog lit by Jennifer Tipton, ceaseless waves of dancers emerge in Norma Kamali's signature black, white, and red costumes, propelled by Philip Glass' thrilling score. The two teams of dancers comprise "stompers" (modern/jazz) and "bombers," (ballet), and parry with extremely physical phrases and moves. 

In the Upper Room. Photo: Benjamin Miller

The City Center cast included dancers and alumni from New York City Ballet, Martha Graham, Miami City, and ABT's Cassandra Trenary, temporarily released from obligations with her regular company's coincidental run of Whipped Cream at the Koch. Amidst a group of stellar performers, Trenary shone with her ability to imbue even fleeting, abstract interactions with layers of humanity. Not only can she draw on her dramatic repertoire of ABT's story ballets, her independent projects have lent texture and nuance to her art. It doesn't hurt that her technique is solid and effortlessly pure.

Other talented dancers gave sparkling performances. Reed Tankersley kicked it into high gear halfway through Upper Room. Jeanette Delgado radiated charisma, and Lloyd Knight and Richard Villaverde loosened their Martha Graham formality to savor the exuberant physicality.

After the intensity and crescendo of Upper Room, the dancers could relax a bit into Nine Sinatra Songs. Some of the women wore short wigs, transforming their ballerina-ness into something looser and more plebeian, in a good way. I find the partnering and twosomes a bit repetitive and similar in dynamic, but Tharp maximizes the potential of the ballroom dance spiced up with balletic lifts.

Whipped Cream. Photo: Gene Schiavone

At the Koch, ABT performed Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream before a run of repertory. The fanciful story ballet is packed with psychedelic imagery by Mark Ryden, which veers from enchanting (animal parade) to flat-out creepy (doctor, priest, chef). Ryden also created the ingenious costumes, themselves works of art—imaginative iterations of sweets, and the elegant nurses' dresses, like Juliet's gown gone institutional.

Daniil Simkin, a former principal, returned to reprise the role of the Boy (which he originated in 2017) who eats too many confections and winds up in the hospital, where he hallucinates the drama that we see. Simkin's remarkable ballon and bravura, plus his affable boyishness, elevate the entire ballet. The central characters of Princess Tea Flower (Devon Teuscher) and Prince Coffee (Cory Stearns) have an extended duet, in which she is charmingly langorous. A
 trio performs as slapstick liquors (Zhong-Jing Fang, Blaine Hoven, Roman Zhurbin), a section which feels imbued with forced hilarity, but shows Ratmansky's relatable humor.
The ensemble scenes toward the finale are undeniably enchanting. A cavalcade of fabulous critters and bouncing petit fours children populate the stage. The Boy recovers, sheds his hospital gown to reveal a gold shorts outfit, pairs up with Princess Praline (newly promoted soloist Breanne Granlund), and is fêted by the crowd, which tosses him in the air. It's a confection for sure, if at times purposely nightmarish, but a good reason to see a talented company dance in an elaborate production.

Edward Hopper, Study for Approaching a City, 1946. Fabricated chalk on paper, 8.5 x 11”. Whitney Museum, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.184. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society, NY

Edward Hopper, Blackwell’s Island, 1928. Oil on canvas, 34.5 x 59.5”. Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society, NY. Image courtesy Art Resource, NY. Photo: Edward C. Robison III

Edward Hopper's New York, at the Whitney, contains some classics, such as Automat and New York Movie. I confess to taking his work for granted as it feels so familiar, but it was a revelation to walk through the show and take in many paintings and other pieces that were fresh to me. Certain quotidian things—rooftops, landmark bridges, the light, even train tunnels and the strange islands that dot the rivers—were instantly relatable. As much as the city has changed at a breakneck pace, Hopper reminds us that a good deal has endured. Through March 5, 2023.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Happy 85th to Philip Glass

Maki Namekawa on piano. Photo: Susan Yung

The Glass Etudes at Kaatsbaan Celebrating Philip Glass’s 85th Birthday
offered two ways to experience the composer’s music—played live by a solo pianist, and accompanied by commissioned dances by five choreographers. The Kaatsbaan event, co-presented by Pomegranate Arts and performed on the outdoor stage, smartly programmed five sections with all different artists. Each featured three etudes; two for solo piano (the bread), and one with dance (the meat). It made for a fast-moving two hours, with the sun a natural clock, dropping dramatically behind the cloud-enshrouded Catskills.

The program also showed that Glass’s work is amenable to tap dance, a pairing I’ve never seen before. Leonardo Sandoval choreographed a dance for himself and three tappers to Etude #13, toying with syncopation, counterpoint, and marking time. The four assumed geometric formations, moving in a roundabout or spinning on their own axes, and elicited the rushing feel of Glass’s music. Pianist Noé Kains played as bookends Etudes #1 and #2, drawing out emotional arcs by varying volume and dynamic.
Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry. Photo: Bess Greenberg

Conor Hanick was the pianist for the second set, playing Etudes #3 (jazzy, dark, quick), #8, and #19 (dissonant, accelerating, crazily disparate parts for each hand). Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber danced, establishing a diagonal psychological rope by staring intently at one another. Their dramatic moves and gestures—concave torsos, deep lunges, yearning arms—evoked the feel of a tango in process, with all its push and pull. This was underscored by their garb: she in a dark slip dress and loose long hair, he in dark shirt and pants.

Patricia Delgado danced Justin Peck’s choreography solo to pianist Timo Andres’s rendition of the propulsive Etude #6, one of the more familiar etudes to me. In a black jumpsuit and sneakers, Delgado began seated on a chair, pulling away reluctantly from this base to roll on the floor, ultimately drawn to move more expansively by the powerful music. There was something feral about the movement—her arms and hands like claws, clutching about her torso with angst. At the end, she lay down and pulled the chair over her body. Andres played Etude #5 to begin the set, a slow, majestically sad piece with a murmuring left hand part, and a flighty upper line. He ended with Etude #10, with a springy rhythm, speeding tempo, hammering lower part, and twinkling upper notes.

Chanon Judson. Photo: Bess Greenberg

Lucinda Childs choreographed a duet for Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry, with pianist Anton Batagov. What a treat to see a new dance by this renowned, and yet still underrated icon of modernism. Childs has frequently collaborated with Glass over the decades, perhaps most famously on the opera Einstein on the Beach (with Robert Wilson), but also on concert dance programs. Often, her phrasing loops and repeats, as does Glass’s music, with subtle variations evolving in live performances. The dances are tightly crafted, with nary a filler phrase or lapse. Dancing to Etude #18, the pair works together much of the time, grasping one another; whirling, Scranton aloft with her bent legs encircling Gerry, or in separate orbits; in courtly, ballroom-like phrases; pulling apart, but always re-meshing like gears. To begin, Batagov played Etude #15, darkly bombastic, with ebullient descending arpeggios; to end, #12, pensive, key shifting to major.

Maki Namekawa played Etudes #7, #11, and #20, with choreographer/performer Chanon Judson (of Urban Bush Women) dancing the middle piece. In a vibrant aqua dress (notably, all costumes are by Josie Natori), Judson pulsed, arching her back, moving in flowing, organic shapes. She rolled on the floor, leaning on one hip and pedaling her legs quickly, then more softly; rising, with fast skipping feet, punching the air and slicing it with fan kicks. Namekawa began with #7, sensitively rendering its many duples and shimmering chords, and ended with the contemplative Etude #20 and its falling notes dotting a solemn, expansive aural tapestry.

Barns at Kaatsbaan designed by Stanford White. Photo: Susan Yung

Kaatsbaan’s Chief Executive & Artistic Officer Sonja Kostich is departing for the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in the wake of Stella Abrera (artistic director) leaving to take over ABT’s Onassis School. Let’s hope that the venue’s artistic direction continues along the strong vision of the Glass Celebration, in which Pomegranate commissioned the work, which was developed at Kaatsbaan. It's rare to see such a beautiful setting paired with an equally sublime program.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Miami City Ballet Flourishes

Hannah Fischer, Cameron Catazaro, and Adrienne Carter in
Diversion of Angels. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Miami City Ballet closed out Jacob’s Pillow’s 2022 summer festival with a flourish. The selection of repertory performed—by Martha Graham, Margarita Armas, Jerome Robbins, and George Balanchine—showed artistic and technical versatility under the direction of Lourdes Lopez, an alum of New York City Ballet. It was also proof that MCB has established itself as one of the most accomplished ballet companies now working.

The company danced Graham’s vivacious Diversion of Angels, with its trio of couples in white, red, and yellow, plus a chorus of five. The style demands some solid technique shared by ballet, most notably the ability to balance at length, canted on one leg with the other extended high to the side, and explosive leaps and jumps that expand in the air as if turbo-boosted. MCB handled these feats with ease, raising their legs ever higher, and leaping ferociously high. The Graham company’s bodies are drilled in her vocabulary continuously, sometimes to the point of exaggeration—contractions can read as gut punches, and breaths visibly chuff in and out. MCB’s rendition is softer and more fluid, befitting a more lyrical work like Diversion.

Renan Cerdeiro in Geta. Photo: Danica Paulos
Renan Cerdeiro danced Geta, a world premiere by Armas and an ode to the late Geta Constaninescu, a teacher at the MCB School. Dressed in a long white tunic, and set to “Ne Me Quitte Pas” sung by Nina Simone, the solo clicked through dramatic poses, bursts of energy, diagonal oppositions of the limbs, heart clasps, and ended with an arm sweeping to the side, a staple of end-of-class “reverences,” often a thank-you to the teacher and pianist. The devotion and passion elicited by Geta were palpable.

Interestingly, whether by chance or purpose, a similar sweeping arm move opened Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs (1984), a dance for eight toe-shoe clad women to Debussy. Each wore a different pale-hued chiffon sheath, lending a columnar, caryatid feel to dance at moments. Formal experiments, canons, and the occasional stasis dotted this work, on the more classical and lyrical side of the Robbins spectrum, even if it lacked his essential wit and snazz.

Miami City Ballet in Serenade. Photo: Danica Paulos.

Seeing it just before the milestone of Balanchine’s Serenade, to Tchaikovsky, raised some questions about the programming. There are similarities, even if Mr. B’s icon of ballet was created a half-century earlier. The ankle-grazing chiffon skirts, the formations of (mostly female) bodies shifting through geometries, and pleasing, gentle scores that accompany both, underscored the shared DNA. And of course, it’s tough for a dance to lead in to Serenade, one of the most beloved and seminal plotless classical ballets, a rich enough source to spawn a recently published fascinating book, Serenade: A Balanchine Story, by Toni Bentley. It’s part memoir, part analysis of the ballet, which remains among the most influential in modern ballet. And no doubt it must have influenced Robbins, whether overtly or subconsciously, when he created Antique Epigraphs, as it has countless other dances. It need not have preceded Serenade directly on the bill, unless the intention was to underscore the similarities.

One other nit to pick—the Ted Shawn Theater stage at the Pillow is slightly too small to accommodate the atmosphere and space required by Serenade. I usually see it performed by New York City Ballet at NYC’S Koch Theater, where it appears as if immersed in water, or in the clouds—just far enough away to remain dreamlike. At the Pillow, the dancers are much closer, so they read as human, rather than ethereal or archetypal. In the iconic opening scene, when the corps stands evenly spaced across the stage, there is not enough space between them and the proscenium, making it feel cramped. 

But who could argue with seeing a world-class company perform one of modern ballet’s greatest works, to close out a robust summer festival at the Pillow? A late summer treat, indeed.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

A Few Reasons to Love Alonzo King Lines Ballet

Adji Cissoko in Four Heart Testaments. Photo: Danica Paulos.

Random notes from the Alonzo King Lines Ballet's August 7, 2022 Jacob's Pillow performance of Four Heart Testaments and Azoth.

No traditional pirouette preparations

Alonzo King offers the kinetic thrill of turns and spins without the formal preparation stances of traditional ballet—typically, you'd stop, assume a fourth position, wind up your torso and arms, and push off while rotating. King’s dancers walk or slide and simply step or chassée into a turn using the energy already in motion, almost like in ice skating. (Some of the dancers are so skilled at this, they do multiple spins with little effort, as if on ice!) The flow is maintained and the turn becomes an embellishment of movement, whereas in classical ballet, the prep/turn break fluency and become a separate event, often to display technical prowess.

Soft slippers for all

For the Pillow program, the women wore soft slippers, not pointe shoes. 
The contact patch of a woman’s foot in a toe shoe is miniscule and very hard, thus slippery, even with rosin. The degree of difficulty while doing the simplest moves—walking, running, shifting direction—in pointe shoes is vastly overlooked. In soft shoes, a dancer is much more stable.

James Gowan in Four Heart Testaments. Photo: Danica Paulos.

The lines (no pun intended) achieved in pointe shoes are the main desired effect, besides literally 
spinning like a top in pirouettes. But Lines dancers are so elongated by selection and training that when they relevé and “pull up” with their core muscles, they nearly appear to be on point. Add to that their extreme flexibility, such as split arabesques, and highly-arched feet, and you have a viable alternative to the whole pointe shoe trap. It’s also much more gender balanced, negating much of the need (or tendency) for male/female partnering (and vice versa), even if it's still an option.

Embrace artful technology, but with simplicity

Jim Campbell’s lighting/set pieces in Azoth were stunning, if simple—three square matrices of light bulbs that ranged from various colors to rippling imagery, augmented by Jim French’s lighting that often immersed the dancers to the point where their shadows were nearly invisible. Campbell’s pieces not only lit, they sculpted space by tilting, raising, and lowering. Later on, small, handheld paddle versions bearing light and animation became the sole illumination for one section.


While these are just a few notes on Lines, they point to moving ballet into the future with a more egalitarian, modern model, while retaining much of what people love. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Jacob's Pillow—The Immersive Dance Experience

Taylor Stanley and Ashton Edwards in Mango. Photo: Jamie Kraus

Jacob’s Pillow. Is there a better place in the summer to experience all that dance has to offer?

A recent Sunday spent there says no!, at least when the weather cooperates, which it did, splendidly. Show times were staggered so that it was possible to take in Dichotomous Being: An Evening of Taylor Stanley at noon, and Black Grace at 2pm. Stanley and company occupied the outdoor Leir Stage, while the New Zealand troupe performed in the Ted Shawn Theatre. Each show was preceded by a short talk given by a scholar, and there was just enough time between shows to see the exhibition in Blake’s Barn (historic photos juxtaposed with new versions by photographer Christopher Duggan) or visit the amazing archive, wander, chat, partake of a snack or beverage, and stretch the old legs. Literally every moment can be infused with some kind of dance experience.

The two performances featured vastly different artists. Stanley is a pre-eminent principal with New York City Ballet, accomplished on every level in ballet, but also a revelation in contemporary choreography. Dance makers such as Kyle Abraham (an artistic advisor on this Pillow run) and Andrea Miller (who contributed Mango) have both created roles on Stanley for NYCB which utilize his boundless expressive gifts to the extent where I can’t imagine them danced by others. (They will eventually, of course, but for now, he reprises at least his iconic solo in Abraham’s The Runaway.)

The repertory Stanley (who goes by they/them) chose reflects the artist’s breadth. Classical ballet led off the program—an excerpt from Balanchine’s Square Dance (1957), which they performed with ease but tremendous focus, evident even while they ascended the side stair leading to the stage. Miller’s Mango (2021) was next, quite different when pulled out of the longer work, Sky to Hold—and easier to see the dance and dancers without the elaborate sets and costumes of the Koch Theater production. Ashton Edwards, who wore pointe shoes while the other three had on soft slippers, was lifted and partnered more than the others, but there was a lack of traditional gender dynamics that ballet so stubbornly perpetuates. Stanley performed Talley Beatty’s Mourner’s Bench (1947), an austere work in which the bench becomes not just a place to sit, but to revel, pray, and suspend from as one might from a ship’s prow. 

Jodi Melnick's world premiere of These Five (2022), is set to sonic experiments by James Lo including, confusingly, birdsong; I thought the nearby birds were just really loud. The performers placed tree branches center stage (which were quickly moved upstage), augmenting the theme of nature. Melnick’s post-modern style is essentially drained of emotion and interaction, but is full of unpredictable invention. The finale and another world premiere, Redness (2022) by Shamel Pitts, featured Stanley solo once more, moving with animalistic stealth, skipping, gesturing in catharsis, before ending in a catwalk strut for curtain calls. Stanley finally broke their transcendent stage demeanor to stretch high to the sun before collapsing in an expression of relief and gratitude after the run’s last performance. 

Black Grace in O Le Olaga. Photo: Danica Paulos.

Black Grace, founded by Neil Ieremia who is of Maori and New Zealand descent, combines the dance and storytelling traditions of the South Pacific with contemporary elements. Perhaps one of the most recognizable sub-styles included is the “haka,” the ceremonial Samoan dance featuring stamping, chanting, and hand and facial gestures, made popular by New Zealand’s rugby team in its pre-scrum ritual. The troupe’s 14 members include not only dancers, but traditional artists and musicians. Minoi (1999), based on the haka, is a brief work for six men, full of chanting, super-quick arm moves, body slapping, stamping, done in a tightly packed formation. 

Fatu (2022) showed how Ieremia has combined contemporary movement with traditional. Demi-Jo Manalo, a compact, powerful woman, danced to live percussion with James Wasmer and Rodney Tyrell, each wearing a different colored sash. The energetic choreography was full of floor work, flying leaps, sometimes into another dancer’s arms, and precise poses. The final work, O Le Olaga (2022) featured Aisea Latu as a kind of host, preceding many company members who enter a few at a time, establishing their own phrases. They eventually split into the traditionalists and the modernists. The presence of Western garb perhaps represented the dilution of indigenous culture, but it was countered by traditional rituals, movements, and vocalizations.

The main accompaniment was Vivaldi’s Gloria—a juxtaposition of Western classical with Pacific classical. Some of the space-eating modern dance passages done to Vivaldi brought to mind modern icons such as Mark Morris and Paul Taylor. Is it because, to my mind, they have used early and classical western music repeatedly, with joyful and explosive leaping and spinning? That’s not to cast shade on Ieremia’s creative output, which is unique and avoids a travelogue approach. He has managed to retain authentic Maori traditions while forging a name in contemporary concert dance. It’s a credit to his ability to find performers who can admirably straddle trad and mod.

To top off the whole Pillow experience, just after each show ended, I received an email from the Pillow which included a link to the artist's talks done earlier in the run. Kudos to the Pillow for providing a comprehensive, contextualized dance experience like no other.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Great Dance, al Fresco

Paul Taylor Dance Company in Syzygy. Photo: Ron Thiele

Summers upstate offer many pleasures—ambient temps, foliage, farm markets, and culture. I took in two dance performances done in open-air, covered amphitheaters: Paul Taylor Dance Company at PS21 in Chatham, NY, and New York City Ballet at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY. As with any outdoor venues, weather can be a gamble, but for both events it cooperated.  

Madelyn Ho & Alex Clayton in Airs.
Photo: Ron Thiele
PTDC performed three classic Taylor dances: the uplifting, classical-feeling Airs, the brilliant feat of social commentary, Cloven Kingdom, and the kinetic lab of Syzygy. Often, a familiar slate like this is a chance to observe new dancers in old roles, and this held true in Chatham. Nearly the entire company has changed since pre-pandemic times, so seeing these works with new interpreters was like seeing them anew. This company, as established by Taylor, has always forefronted seniority—the dancers are still listed as such—and turnover was glacially slow for many years. Taylor's passing in 2018 combined with Covid seem to have conspired to catalyze many mid-career dancers' departures. It seemed a bit tragic while it was happening, but the company in its new guise looks strong and far more eclectic. PS21's stage is big enough to accommodate this repertory, and will host Vertigo (of Israel) in a fascinating work called One. One & One, as well as Mark Morris Dance Group in August, plus numerous performances of other genres.

Among the Taylor dancers, Madelyn Ho has emerged as a busy star, featuring prominently in all three dances. Also a doctor, Ho moves crisply and brightly, radiating far beyond her small frame. Devon Louis is also ubiquitous, with a strong bearing and lofty jump. Alex Clayton, also with impressive ballon, seems indispensable. And John Harnage has assumed a gravity to go along with his precision. Some newer faces include the lush Jada Pearman, energetic and ebullient Austin Kelly, and the newest dancer, Kenny Corrigan, a large, swift man, is a welcome bright presence.

Adrian Danchig
-Waring, Ashley Laracey, and Emilie Gerrity in Merce Cunningham’s 
Summerspace.Photo credit: Erin Baiano

SPAC sits a bit north and west. Its stage and vast house were built to Balanchine's specifications as a summer home for NYCB. The campus is vast, with several collonaded or wooden structures housing food vendors, exhibition spaces, etc. You can buy a less expensive lawn ticket and sit and try to watch from afar, although ballet is not exactly a symphony orchestra, requiring far more visual contact. The whole enterprise recalls a prosperous time when many resources were devoted to leisure and elite forms of culture. 

NYCB in Glass Pieces. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The company's run has shrunk to a short week, down from many weeks years ago. I saw a program with Balanchine's Chaconne, Summerspace by Merce Cunningham, and Glass Pieces by Jerome Robbins; another program featured A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not surprisingly, it's a completely different experience than watching in the climate-controlled Koch Theater. As the evening progresses, temperatures sink and breezes kick up. The open side walls permit views of the darkening sky, or impending rain, and you gain an awareness of the totality of the environment and the world beyond the theater. Still, the dance is the focus, and the company showed its stylistic flexibility in this mixed program, ranging from Chaconne's classical ballet with a jazzy flair, the austere modernism of Cunningham softened by Rauschenberg's stippled cyc and unitards, and the urban restlessness of Robbins' stage crossings inspired by Philip Glass' restlessly motivic composition.

Even though I've seen both companies in NYC many, many times over the years, seeing them in plein air settings, surrounded by different, appreciative audiences, energizes my perspective on them and makes me realize how lucky I've been to track their evolution. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

New York Notebook, June 2022

ABT in Of Love and Rage. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre

Alexei Ratmansky’s new full-length ballet for ABT, Of Love and Rage, contrasts with some of his recent works, for which he consulted historical documents in order to reanimate some of Romantic ballet’s original vocabulary (as in lower-height limbs in The Sleeping Beauty). Of Love and Rage is a geographical and mythological pastiche inspired by the music of Aram Khachaturian, who may not be a household name in classical music, but has penned some catchy motifs which you’re surely familiar with.

It’s set in and around various locales in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, allowing for a dazzling range of costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant which tap into myriad folkloric influences—woven ribbon ceremonial vests; long, fitted coats and tunics; gold border embellishments and chunky jewelry, including silver wrist cuffs in lieu of wedding rings. The plot (dramaturgy by Guillaume Gallienne) essentially follows the great beauty Callirhoe (Christine Shevchenko) as she falls in and out of love, and along the way, in various stages of indebtedness to her suitors—chief among them, Dionysus (Blaine Hoven), Mithridates (Jarod Curley), and the King of Babylon (Roman Zhurbin), three heads of state. She eventually winds up with her first love, Chaereas (Thomas Forster), who had mistakenly left her for dead; they eventualy unite, and with their child as well.

Christine Shevchenko in ABT's Of Love and Rage. Photo: Gene Schiavone

This jerry-rigged plot is often confusing, but it provides a structure for many sections of dance: romantic duets, warring factions, celebrations, and plenty of duos for the lead characters and the demi-soloists who are their friends and/or companions. Forster dances as much with his pal Polycharmus (Gabe Stone Shayer) as he does with Callirhoe. The two men assist one another in swirling, leg-whipping tours, and trade grand jetés (Stone Shayer, a great jumper, matches the taller Forster quite impressively in his loft.) And Callirhoe has an eloquent section with Zhong-Jing Fang as Plangon, a servant of Dionysus, who sees that Callirhoe is pregnant and helps to arrange a marriage to her boss to save face.

ABT’s company looks sharp, with lots of new, intriguing faces, such as Chloe Misseldine (the Queen), who has a dramatic appearance and crisp shapes. Shevchenko possesses a pure technique, with a clarity of line, elegance, and lithe proportions. Forster has superbly shaped feet and is among the most flexible of the men, with perfect splits in leaps, although he could gain some strength for the required overhead lifts. Curley provided a happy surprise; with his long hair and beard, and his credible ferocity, he evoked Jason Momoa.

Ratmansky appeared for the curtain call, and with fellow Ukrainian Shevchenko, hoisted a blue and yellow flag aloft to mad cheers. Of Love and Rage premiered in 2020, long before the war in Ukraine. And yet I thought of Callirhoe, after her initial split with Chaereas—a prize coveted by powerful leaders—as a metaphor for Ukraine itself, the object of a megalomaniac’s desire. If only Ukraine would find a similarly happy ending to an often sad and violent journey.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet performed at the Koch Theater, presented by the Joyce Theater as a resumption of an annual ambitious run of a prestigious company in a larger venue. On June 26, PNB danced works by Ulysses Dove, Crystal Pite, and Twyla Tharp, showing an impressive breadth of style, if with a slightly dated feel.

Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven (1993), by Dove set to Arvo Pärt, features six dancers in striking white unitards (Jorge Gallardo), in geometric shapes of white light (Björn Nilsson) amid inky darkness. The dancers appear as marble sculptures, often striking statue-like poses, their muscles defiant in the raking light. Moments of tenderness emerge—a caged hand covers the heart as the dancer opens his arm wide. Pärt’s compositions are undeniably elegiac and crisply modern, but for a time it seemed as if every dance program included his music, pushing it into cliché. Still, it feels right for this ode made in the time of AIDS.

PNB in Plot Point. Photo: Angela Sterling

Pite excels at creating a theatrical event, using movement to tell the story. Plot Point (2010) exemplifies this art, supercharged here by employing the noirish score by Bernard Herrmann for the film Psycho. Half of the large cast wears head-to-toe white, albeit in the form of street clothing (costumes by Nancy Bryant). A narrative involving an affair, a briefcase, a party, and a murder unfolds in many scenes. Episodes featuring ghosts alternate with in-color people, eventually mixing in a confrontation. 

Pite knows how to create organic movement and shapes which delineate the human body’s maximum expression. Her ghosts, however, move somewhat like zombies—stiff necked and crotchety at times. Jay Gower Taylor’s witty sets are simply 2D cutouts of lamp posts, a house facade, and a forest, given dimension through Alan Brodie’s blue and white lighting. It’s a handsome achievement in economy of movement and resourcefulness with materials, riding on an atmospheric foundation of noir music.

Rounding out the bill is Tharp’s Waiting at the Station (2013), an overly stuffed short jukebox dance to music by Allen Toussaint. While there are a few moments of focused quiet, most of the work features the corps dancing manically upstage. Rather than acting as a backdrop for the lead characters downstage, they tend to distract from and obscure the storytelling, such as it is. A father (James Yoichi Moore) is trying to bond with his son by passing along his dance knowledge (Kuu Sakuragi) before succumbing to the Three Fates (three Amazonian women in gold, more Vegas act than omens of death). 

James Moore in PNB's Waiting at the Station. Photo: Angela Sterling

Toussaint’s music, from jazz jam to pop song, evokes the New Orleans setting, and Tharp employs the Broadway style of her wide-ranging choreography to keep things lively. The finale features a locomotive rolling downstage, apparently the father’s ride to the great beyond. While the prop depicts just the train’s front, the fairly complex piece of sculpture is seen for a few minutes—in stark contrast with the concision of Taylor’s sets for Plot Point

PNB’s sheer talent and versatility on a large scale is on display in this program. Perhaps it needed at least one newer work to represent the current moment.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Conjuring Art from the Quotidian

Lisa Borres & Devon Louis in Fibers. Photo: Ron Thiele

Words alone have meaning, but only when strung together do they truly mean something.

That’s the takeaway from seeing Paul Taylor Dance Company’s program on June 14 at the Joyce. Artistic Director Michael Novak has smartly programmed some of Taylor’s early dances, such as Fibers and Images and Reflections, in which the choreographer experimented and sketched out seminal shapes and ideas to form an essential vocabulary from which he drew to create paragraphs. These precede later major pieces, also performed—Profiles, Aureole—which assembled these motifs in dazzling phrases to make an incomparable body of modern dance.

The program differed greatly in feeling from the company’s recent spring stint at City Center’s Spring Dance Festival, which featured mostly romantic or classical dances—soothing in a time of chaos, but not wholly representative of the choreographer's breadth. (Taylor, who died in 2018, often included one crunchier dance, either a psychological study or social commentary, 
in an evening of three pieces.) The early works seen at the Joyce are mostly shorter, or excerpted, eschewing the three-dance-per-evening formula (be it tried and true). The four Taylor dances bookended a premiere by Michelle Manzanales, a reminder that while rooted in Taylor’s oeuvre—ever more distant with each passing year—the company must continue to look ahead.

Taylor collaborated often with designers, including well-known artists. Rouben Ter-Arutunian created the fantastic contraptions and garments for Fibers (1961). The mens’ are the focus—colored and white straps encircling limbs and torso, hockey goalie-type face masks concealing the face, thus redirecting attention to the whole body. The women’s faces are painted white, to match the white unitards with blue details. While the piece forefronts the movement’s drama, enhanced by the costumes, it drops key shapes and moves that emerge in Profiles and Aureole.

John Harnage in Images and Reflections. Photo: Ron Thiele

Robert Rauschenberg contributed costume designs for Images and Reflections (1958). The first two evoke underwater creatures, especially in the dark lighting scheme—John Harnage, whose lucidity has emerged even further alongside confidence and strength—sports a long white mane on his unitard; Kristen Draucker wore a skirt of fin-like pink panels. Devon Louis (busy guy, in all but one dance on the slate) wore silver panné head to toe. The dancers made clear shapes, moving from pose to pose, or between short phrases, which were detached from the Morton Feldman score. Lyrical, arcing arms could be spotted in Aureole; explosive jumps in Profiles, to follow.

Madelyn Ho, John Harnage, Alex Clayton, Eran Bugge in Profiles. Photo: Ron Thiele

Profiles (1979) is a brief but daring study in extreme partnering. Beginning in his flat, Greek vase style—in profile—it evolves as the two pairs do what looks to be impossible. A woman, assisted by her partner, leaps onto his shoulder like a cat, or bounces high off of his chest. The two pairs form a lattice, the women balancing on the mens’ thighs. Profiles shows the potential of partnering beyond a pretty lift, and the steely strength required not just of the men, but the women.

In Aureole (1962), Taylor seemed to have taken all these striking shapes and strung them together with fluent connecting phrases, set to melodic Handel. Gone are the arty costumes, replaced with classical, crisp white leotards and dresses. Taylor’s new classicism took root in Aureole. However, it wasn’t a total break from the conceptual experiments into which Taylor had delved, nor the high drama of his days as a dancer with Martha Graham. He would also pursue these threads in his widely varying body of work, which still defies easy definition.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers. Photo: Ron Thiele

Manzanales choreographed a premiere, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, a suite set to a range of songs about birds. It’s fun, jaunty, and the dancers seem to be enjoying themselves. It is no cakewalk to be juxtaposed with prime examples of Paul Taylor’s choreography, but she acknowledged a debt to his influence by inserting Taylor quotes now and then—the arced, flowing arms, certain shapes and leaps. Then again, he created so many dances, and so many kinds of dances, that his influence can be found if you simply look for it in much of the work created in his wake. Even just walking down the street.

Concurrent with the PTDC Joyce run, Gladstone Gallery ran two shows of early work by Rauschenberg (and one at Mnuchin, which I missed). As is often the case in New York these days, the shows were of museum quality. Many of the works are made of cardboard and found objects—tires, paper bags, bikes, furniture, muslin. While watching the early Taylor work, I couldn’t help but think how, in the right hands, the simplest materials or human shapes ordered a certain way can become enduring art. How providential to catch displays by these collaborators at the same time.