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.