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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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

Solo at Dusk.
Photo: Josh S. Rose

By Susan Yung

“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!