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 chassĂ©e 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 relevĂ© 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.