Wednesday, May 18, 2022

L.A. Dance Project's Boldness Becomes the Norm

Solo at Dusk.
Photo: Josh S. Rose
“The ground was soft, and so were they. Flowers grew over their faces.”

      —Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber,
         Solo at Dusk

L.A. Dance Project, now a decade old, continues to be led by Benjamin Millepied, who returned after a brief stint at Paris Opera Ballet. Millepied was previously a principal at New York City Ballet, and several other alumni populate the LA staff, including the polymath Janie Taylor. At the Joyce recently, LADP presented two programs choreographed by women. I caught Program B; A included works by Bella Lewitsky and Madeline Hollander.

Bobbi Jene Smith’s Solo at Dusk (2020) captures the solitude and oppression of the pandemic, even while its seven performers cluster, interact, and dissipate on the Joyce stage. Each dancer wears a stunning baroque floral mask by Janie Taylor, who in addition to designing costumes, sets, and dancing, is also rehearsal director and choreographer for the company. As the lights go up, we see a table with a turntable and lamp, next to which sits a masked Taylor (unmistakable for her waist-length hair, a signature from her days with New York City Ballet). Dancers trickle in, performing a quirky, frenetic version of Gaga—hunched skipping, pelvis-first struts, bursting leaps between placid stances, big spins in attitude.

The movement is largely performed solo; in one scene, the other six dancers form columns to observe one another. Eventually, they form a circle, grunt, and chant, moving as an ensemble. Two “converse” through movements, and in a mock sparring match, a woman arches over a man’s back. Near the end, they each hold their heads and remain alone, distanced. The soundtrack, by Alex Somers, ranges from ambient sea sounds; a song delivered chanteuse-style; plangent, rhythmic vamping; to an instrumental reminiscent of Twin Peaks. The mood is consistently melancholic and the performers are committed, but it is an elegy to a time most of us would like to forget.

Daisy Jacobson, Nayomi Van Brunt in Night Bloom. Photo by Steven Pisano

Janie Taylor’s Night Bloom, in contrast, provides joy in vibrant, unfettered movement. The cast plays with her inventive set pieces—large geometric objects evoking ice cream sandwiches, moved around constantly like building blocks. Performed to Stravinsky’s Concerto For Two Solo Pianos (played live by Jessica Xylina Osborne and Adam Tendler), the dance mirrors the playful give and take of the music. Taylor’s costumes—short navy shifts for the women, light blue tees and shorts for the men—add to the youthful atmosphere, luminous with vanilla-hued lighting (Chu-Hsuan Chang). The choreography is a fresh mashup of balletic poses and structures with a sometimes relaxed attitude, dispensing with precise hands and arm positions, but also more technically demanding steps such as corkscrewing double tours en l’air, creating a tempestuous feel.

LADP is one of the few repertory companies in the US founded as such, and commissioning new work by a variety of choreographers. It sits alongside such titans as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Paul Taylor’s companies, which in order to remain relevant, now commission premieres to be shown alongside their founders’ wares. Kudos to LA’s Millepied for ceding the lion’s share of stage time to innovative and/or historic women choreographers, now proving their talent.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Spinning Webs and Seeing Art History in a New Light

Free the Air. Photo: Susan Yung
Years ago, I went to a wedding where I knew almost nobody. It took place in a beautiful setting next to a marina. I walked down a dock, and found a spider spinning a web. I watched as it toiled away, making a beautiful net out of gossamer silk. Perhaps it was the way the sunlight glistened on the water caught on the threads, or the extremely methodical process by the spider to make cross braces, or the fact that I was somewhat distant from the wedding party itself and found something on which to focus… in any case, it made a deep impression on me.

Clearly I wasn’t alone, as evidenced in Tomás Saraceno’s interactive installation Free the Air: how to hear the universe in a spider/web, part of his show, Particular Matter(s), at The Shed through April 17. Saraceno has suspended pseudowebs in the vast space—vibrating metal mesh platforms, embedded with sound amplifiers, imparting an eight-minute interpretation of what spiders experience. The performative element is enveloping—after entering an all-white, foggy space and lying down on the undulating platform, you’re enfolded in darkness, and begin to feel waves of energy and hear booms and hisses—"terrestrial and cosmic vibrations, including spiders playing their webs," per The Shed. At moments, the energy undulations threaten to develop into stomach-churning strength before waning. And then it’s over.

Tomás Saraceno,Webs of At-tent(s)-ion(detail), 2020.
Seven spider frames, spider sil
k,carbon fibers, lights.
Photo: Nicholas Knight. 
Courtesy the artist; spider/webs;
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and 
Neugerriemschneider, Berlin. Photo courtesy The Shed
The performance’s brevity, alas, is somewhat overshadowed by the procedures required to access it. It’s kind of like going to Disneyworld, where you have to park, trek, pay (tickets go from $35 for the experience, down to $12 for exhibition access for non-members), and wait on line before reaching "the experience", which lasts for only a few minutes. The day I went, I thought I’d hit the jackpot with the weather—in the 50s and not raining. But Hudson Yards is amenable only on the best of days, and despite the mild temps, the wind blew mercilessly. Navigating to the exhibition’s entrance is circuitous and a bit mysterious, after which you ascend on escalators for a few stories. After queuing outside the installation, you’re led into an antechamber/locker room and instructed on what not to do (run), and stow your stuff in a locker, then led into another antechamber and stairway to wait again before entering the space itself. I understand these are all necessary for safety and crowd control (though to be clear, the groups are very small), but it still overpowers the actual event.

Speaking of being overshadowed, there are two galleries with incredible installations to flesh out Saracen’s concepts. One gallery contains sculptures in plexi boxes—structures that have apparently been fashioned from filaments on which spiders have spun webs, and another room with an intense light beam which catches dust motes and floating junk to create an alarmingly solid-looking shaft of stuff we breathe. On the floor above sits Museo Aero Solar (made by a collective including Saracen), a gigantic inflated bubble, made of discarded plastic bags and detritus, which you walk into. There are a number of other works that reflect Saracen’s vivid sense of curiosity, devotion to nature and its preservation, and poetic touch. (That said, the signage and guards/docents posted could be more helpful.) 

Installation view at Frick Madison of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1476–78).
Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

The Frick has relocated some of its trove to the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, the old Whitney/Met space. What a trip to see the Rembrandts, Fragonards, Goyas, and Turners hung in the context of crisp modernity. While the pre-Meatpacking relocation bickering over the Whitney’s expansion lingers in memory, the Madison Avenue building always was just the right temperament and size for a museum visit. Take the elevator up, walk down while visiting each floor, and always check on the little stairway pueblo installation by Charles Simonds, which is still there! 

For many my generation, the Frick’s collection is like a real-life installation of Janson’s History of Art, the ubiquitous if flawed art history textbook, once considered a bible. The foundations of Western modern art, and the continued primacy of this legacy in the most popular museums, are seen on the Frick’s walls, and in part because of the rote drills I underwent to absorb this canon, many of the works evoke reflexive awe. Rembrandt’s Polish Rider! Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert! The Fragonard suite! And the Frick has included some contemporary works in a somewhat pale effort to modernize the art collection, a highlight being Giuseppe Penone’s series of shield-sized porcelains embellished with his fingerprint whorls. 

But while the Frick's home at 1 East 70th St. continues to be renovated, the Madison Avenue space is a wonderful solution to keep some of the collection on view, while making use of a still sturdy museum shell. After the collection moves out, we'll see what happens with the Breuer.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Notable Books of 2021

Some notable books I read in 2021, and one documentary:


Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead
Engaging novel about aspiration, hard work, racial inequity, and the weight of family bonds, amid the three-ring circus that is New York.

O Beautiful, Jung Yun
A biting account of an Asian-American journalist who returns to her Plains roots to find a new gold rush, with all its mostly troubling implications.

The Sentence
, Louise Erdrich
The title has two wildly disparate meanings. Books become a haven, Erdrich has a cameo, and current events are woven throughout.

Intimacies, Katie Kitamura
I wish the title were less romance-novel sounding… about a war crimes trial translator at The Hague, and the complicated and haunting layers therein.

Razorblade Tears, S.A. Cosby
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any crazier for the protagonist, resisting being dragged back into crime, and then… what’s the word? Unputdownable.

Bewilderment, Richard Powers
A tender, heart-achingly poignant portrait of a dad and his special needs/gifted son, and the beauty and cruelty of nature.

Damnation Spring, Ash Davidson
Focusing on a family in a logging town, it addresses tough issues like rights to natural resources and corporate responsibility over profits, which communities everywhere are dealing with
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton
A 70s pop duo’s unlikely and complicated history, leading up to a reunion, told in rich detail and characterization.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr
Skips across time and culture with borderline hubris, while framing a nail-biting, modern-day terrorist scenario.

The Morning Sun, Karl Ove Knausgaard
He captures daily life and human nature so poetically—both the lovely and ugly. With overlapping story lines and recurring threads of new stars, climate change, the tension between society and nature, and eternal existential questions (though the ending treatise is a bit heavy-handed).

Literary thrillers:

I read these nearly back to back, and could not believe how gripping plots could be which involve authorship and literary proprietariness, nor how “of the moment” they were. Describing plots might spoil things.

The Plot, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Palace of the Drowned, Christine Mangan

Who Is Maud Dixon?, Alexandra Andrews


Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album, 
Ken Caillat & Steven Stiefel
This was one of my first and most-played albums as a teen, and with Spotify at hand, you can listen to each track as its creation unfolds. Plus, the high drama of Fleetwood Mac.

The Storyteller, Dave Grohl
I guess Dave is as surprised as anyone that this is a best-seller, but an entertaining and (no surprise) friendly read about how a typical kid becomes part of rock legend—twice.

Swan Dive, Georgina Pazcoguin
Lots of surprisingly candid dish about the backstage workings of New York City Ballet, by a current company member who has seen it all.

Get Back, Peter Jackson (documentary on Disney+)
This nine-hour trilogy is so resonant and illuminating that it is impossible to stop thinking about. It brings The Beatles back down to earth from their saintly perches, but without casting villains, and captures some of the studio magic and plain old genius needed to craft a broad and foundational output.

Happy 2022!