Friday, December 29, 2023

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

John McDevitt King in Intersections I at Anita Rogers Gallery

Anita Rogers Gallery. Photo: Jon-Paul Rodriguez

Intersections I, a three-person show, is on view at Anita Rogers Gallery in Soho through January 7, featuring Gary Gissler, Barbara Knight, and John McDevitt King. I'm sharing excerpts from a catalogue essay on John's work, published on the occasion of his solo show at MERGE Stone Ridge in 2022.

John McDevitt King, Evening in August, 2023.
Encaustic on wood panel, 60" x 48"

Excerpts from Stealing Light

In the field of gemology, John McDevitt King has evaluated some of the world’s legendary gemstones, including the Hope Diamond. A specialty of his involves noting subtle variations in color, undetectable to most of us, as well as degrees of clarity and other qualities that factor into each stone’s evaluation. But before working with gems, John was a practicing artist. Over decades, as his professional expertise has been honed, his artmaking has evolved in tandem. The two are intertwined, creating an essential, sui generis dialogue that emerges in his artwork.

John perceives the way light is projected, filtered, or reflected, and how it clarifies or obstructs vision; gauges its ephemerality and opacity; and harnesses those perceptions for inspiration. How does he continue to find source material for subject matter? “More often, I start from something observed. That could be a fragment of a photo, something I see around me, direct observation… that goes through transitions as I being to work on it.” He often returns to objects of earlier inspiration, such as a series based on broken plates of glass and the chance patterns therein. At other times, he looks—and then sees. “Some works are reflective of being in my studio and looking at the windows… what I’m seeing on the surface, past the surface, and behind,” similar to the process of looking at a diamond. He nods at Jasper Johns: “You take an object and turn it a different way, or block something out, or twist this, or change the focus of the form—and you see it anew.”

John McDevitt King, Outside In, 2021.
Graphite on paper, 26" x 22.5"

It’s one thing to create subject matter. It’s quite another to render that in a typically two-dimensional work using traditional media. John has been experimenting in recent years with such divergent materials as 3-D printing, video, printmaking, and paper fabrication, but he continually returns to drawing and encaustic painting as the most pure means of expression. “Drawing and encaustic painting somehow embody my personality and the way I put myself in a position to make art.”

John McDevitt King
By Barcelona, 2021
Colored pencil on paper, 15" x 11"
Encaustic involves combining melted beeswax with pigment, which can be layered and textured to create dimension. John notes: “I continually explore ways to handle the paint, move it around, pouring, layering, different strokes.” He most often draws with graphite on white or light paper, but he has also used white pigment on black paper. In any case, he says,”Drawing goes back to childhood. I continue to find that one of the most pleasing forms of interaction that I have in my work.” And his technical methods in grading diamonds have been put to use in painting. In a recent conversation, he noted: “There’s a certain touch that I use in diamond grading that I tend to use also in painting—a movement of the hand focused on attention to detail.”

John finds general inspiration in New York City, whether from cityscapes or simply within his studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; his work expresses “a specific kind of feel, but not a specific place.” One look at his Instagram feed is a glimpse of how a given visual cue can be the impetus for a new composition. Identifiable objects might become the framework for an abstraction; a lightbulb, the pinpoint focus in a drawing; a window, a mysterious portal. For a non-artist, it can help to understand how a simple walk can produce an endless array of inspiration.

Susan Yung, 2022

Anita Rogers Gallery, 494 Greenwich Street, below Spring St., open Tues-Sat, 10 to 6.

New York Notebook, Dec 2023

adaku, part 1: the road opens. Photo: Tony Turner

adaku, part 1: the road opens
BAM Next Wave Festival, BAM Fisher

In murky light, seven clustered women tread a circle, shuffling and hopping, at times chanting, grunting and singing. This begins while the Fisher audience for adaku is seated, and basically continues for 75 minutes, with shifts in step patterns and pull-out dramatic scenes. This continuous human orbit is the work’s backbone—a nod to the endless grind of daily life, the need to keep pushing, even a literal metaphor for the passing of time. The hypnotic repetition mesmerizes, puzzles, and bores, but it rarely flags. At some point, the women punctuate their circles with contractions and shoulder thrusts. Slight variations between each one’s technique provide interest. 

A drama emerges—a carving commissioned on the occasion of her impending second marriage (this time, to a woman) is causing Okwui Okpakwasili nightmares. They begin to come true; children are disappearing. Her daughter witnessed the creation of the carving by Audrey Hailes—poetically enacted by lights swung in arcs, leaving glowing trails. Okpakwasili, the village leader and a powerful presence, in anger threatens Hailes for conjuring evil; her daughter suggest compromising and destroying the cursed carving. While carrying out this task in the wooded edges of town, the daughter disappears, leaving her mother swooning in grief.

Samita Sinha, Okwui Okpokwasili, mayfield brooks. Photo: Tony Turner
The vague story unspools in Okpakwasili’s songs and chant, driven by a constant beat and textured sound by Peter Born. The set, also by Born, comprises two small overhead lamps, a bar of light, and a large, pink, plexi, bisected disc—the sun, or a screen to receive video. There’s friction between the clean, modern set elements and the pre-colonial village setting. Behind the action hangs a crumpled, silver, mylar cyc, which in the finale, the dancers pull downstage and air out in the darkness, creating the convincing sound of a deluge.

adaku engages all the senses to sketch out the elusive narrative. The power of the work lies in the hypnotic physical repetition and endurance for which Okpakwasili is known; the close physical interactions between the women, who move as one much of the time; and evoking a distant era and place while expanding time.

Rite of Spring/common ground(s)
Dance Reflections, Park Avenue Armory

Rite of Spring. Photo: Stephanie Berger

I saw Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring the next night at the Armory, performed by dancers from 14 African nations. Two days before, it might have epitomized works with physically demanding steps utilizing repetition to great effect. After seeing adaku, Rite nearly felt much tamer on the endurance scale. It is danced on plushy-looking dirt (which no doubt is far more difficult than it looks, what with sliding and uneven surfaces and, well, dirt!) by a large company of women and men dancing a breadth of tempos and dynamics in bursts; the ensemble sections thrill. Of course there are spans of convulsions, flinging limbs, jumps, and falls, but they are over quickly.

Rite of Spring. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The identification and sacrifice of the One is predictably dramatic, if no surprise. In the most poignant scene, the women cram together upstage, and each in turn springs from the group, takes the red dress, and walks toward us warily, bearing captivating expressions of fear, curiosity, resignation, etc. The ensemble sections enthrall, with plunging pliés, side-whipping Pina arms, and dirt kicked brusquely. The dancers were assembled for this project, so naturally they don’t have the deep connections of Tanztheater Wuppertal, nor the distinct characters that repeat viewers have adored over the years. The men here are technically excellent—perhaps a little too, mechanically jumping their maximum and hitting the beats early.

But seeing Pina’s work is a rare treat, even if it’s not at BAM, her (nearly) forever New York home until now. Tanztheater Wuppertal performed Rite at BAM in 2017 on a program with Café Müller—a satisfying balance of Bausch’s visceral and socially captivating milieus. At the Armory, Rite was preceded by common ground(s), a duet by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo. Acogny founded Ecole des Sables in Senegal, which worked with the Pina Bausch Foundation and Sadler’s Wells to stage this Rite, part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Dance Reflections festival.

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in common ground(s). Photo: Stephanie Berger

Since Rite is about half an hour long, it should logically be presented with another work to make an evening. Acogny (79) created the work with Airaudo (75), who danced with Pina for many years, along the way performing the role of the One in Rite several times. Unfortunately, the Armory is not the ideal venue for this intimate, subtle work that emphasizes arm work, soft caresses, and contemplation. (Ironically, it would probably look great at the cozy BAM Fisher.) They speak at one point, but it was barely audible without mics. I did hear, “Thinking about Pina,” but I wonder why they bothered with lines if the audience was kept out. There is value in seeing aging dancers move (I mean, Merce!) but this needs some shaping and a better venue. Nonetheless, the pre-Rite buzz and ceremoniousness of the Drill Hall added some ritual excitement that carried through the entire program.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Fallen Trees Find New Life in Art

The final sculpture

My friend Bob Bangiola, an artist in Hudson, asked me to help him construct a sculpture in his back yard, which overlooks a vast, marshy expanse. He uses found wood—tree limbs, branches, and trunks—to connect post-and-lintel frames to make rudimentary edifices. At maybe eight feet tall, this was among the largest Bob has made; other works in his yard are about three feet tall.

The process entailed Bob positioning two primary, pre-constructed frames an appropriate distance apart to eventually form a rough cube. He then hoisted and tilted one upside-down “U” frame perpendicular to the ground. This is where I came in (plus a bit later, two people who were filming the process for a documentary). I stood by one post and helped position it to the point of zero gravity, as Bob checked in with me by voice, look, and balance so that both sides felt weightless. He used the phrase "tuning fork" on occasion, an apt term for the process of refining the work's balance through the most minute adjustments. 
To help keep one of the two main frames in place, Bob used a separate limb with a forked end, like a crutch, to prop it up. To support the other frame, he parked his Jeep against it to take its weight. He then positioned cross bars between the two frames, plus braces to make triangles, and drove in lag bolts to stabilize it.
A crutch-like branch and the Jeep support the frames 

Because of the nature of how trees grow, some of the tree lengths have slight twists and bows, so when they are positioned as crosspieces, they might rock or pivot. The differing density and heft of various woods is surprising. Each piece has its own characteristics that need to be factored in. As the work ages, it will settle.When the framework was stable enough to stand alone, Bob pushed and pulled on various parts to test its strength. He hung from the cross bars and pulled up his weight, bouncing to test its stability.Eventually, the structure will most likely collapse—most of the wood was dead to start with. But the process of decay and dissolution is part of the artwork. The piece evokes many things: shelter, a gate or passageway, a playground or acrobatics apparatus, to name a few—each viewer will form their own associations. For now, these fallen trees live anew.

Photos: Susan Yung

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Sobelle's Enticing, Gluttonous, Enlightening FOOD

Geoff Sobelle, exemplary waiter. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Geoff Sobelle taps into just every imaginable topic surrounding FOOD, the title of his latest theater work. These range from how city dwellers most often encounter it—in a restaurant, accompanied by wine—to its consumption by a gluttonous waiter after his shift, to the origin of wheat crops that have come to signify Big Ag and the ensuing destruction of the American landscape and diet. 

Sobelle is as polite as you’d expect a waiter to be in a fancy establishment, albeit with a 300-square foot table. He enlists those at the table (most of us sat in surrounding seats) to pour wine and read aloud from cues written in menu folios, or answer questions such as “what is your favorite diner food?,” and then magically produces said meal (meatloaf and mashed potatoes). After his shift, he consumes the leftovers and whatever else lies around—apples, raw eggs, tomatoes, salad, a steak, a fish, two bottles of wine, the leftover meatloaf, then cigarettes and money. It’s a pretty convincing act that leaves you wondering what trickery he used, because he simply can't have consumed all that!

Chandelier, recycling bottles and stuff. Photo: Susan Yung

In another trope of magic, he yanks off the enormous tablecloth (it sits beneath an elegant, tiered chandelier made of recycled items), revealing a plain of dirt. Shifting gears, he crawls around the dirt on all fours, plucking adorable little bison out of the dirt, moving them foot-by-foot around the plain in an expanding herd. Following a tiny tractor that self-drives across the field, sheafs of wheat grow. Sobelle plunges his arm deep into the earth and retracts it, covered with oil. Derricks and rigs pop up, model houses are placed willy-nilly by the diners from passed trays, and high-rises with interior lights emerge from the soil. 

Post-shift imbibing. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The bison are returned to the earth, now extinct, and Sobelle himself digs a plot and disappears into the ground—the final feat of magic. We’ve experienced nothing less than the history of America in a physical re-enactment, as well as the endgame of late-stage capitalism and gluttony in its rawest form. FOOD is the third in a trilogy presented at BAM, with previous shows based on hoarding (The Object Lesson) and the complexities of a domicile (HOME). 

It's also the most demanding for Sobelle himself, the key element  powering his entire extremely popular theatrical enterprise. One wonders long he can continue to throw body and soul into his works, but in the meantime, there's no one else like him.

FOOD, BAM Next Wave, BAM Fisher, Nov 2—18, 2023

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Hanging Dance on Frames of Fiction and Technology

Maya Lee-Parritz and Jodi Melnick in Água Viva.
Photo: And Or Forever (Carr Chadwick & Kate Hawkins)

Água Viva
, by Jodi Melnick and Maya Lee-Parritz
Hudson Hall, Aug 27, 2023

“You don’t understand music: you hear it.
So hear me with your whole body.” 
     Água Viva, by Clarice Lispector

Maybe it was best to overlook, on purpose or coincidentally, that the sublimated foundation for Jodi Melnick and Maya Lee-Parritz’s Água Viva is the same-titled book by Clarice Lispector. There’s no apparent plot in the dance, and none to be obviously deduced from the movements—live and on film—that fill an hour. Better to absorb their deceptively simple phrases and gestures; distances, proximities, and duets; and synchrony (or lack thereof) with the sound score, by Jon Kinzel.

Melnick’s movement continues to be entrancing, filled with delicacy, fluidity, and rationale. Her hands make idiosyncratic shapes, contrary to the rote ones ingrained in many dancers from years of ballet training—tensile flexions or oddly skewed fingers. For the middle section, she dons clunky, heeled oxfords, clomping around on stage. Lee-Parritz dances with a boldness and accentuation that simmers below a very coordinated surface. She looks directly at us with the hint of a knowing smile. Her thigh-length braid whips around her body; Melnick tugs on it at one point, like a rein. While they mostly move independently, in sections they sync up, and finally interact, supporting and leaning on one another.

Maya Lee-Parritz. 
Photo: And Or Forever
(Carr Chadwick & Kate Hawkins)

The piece was performed mostly on Hudson Hall’s proscenium stage, with
 the audience seated in traditional rows. But the dancers began by walking up the aisles, placing one hand on the stage apron as if it were a ballet barre, and doing a cursory dance before mounting the stage. A hypnotic video by And Or Forever (Carr Chadwich and Kate Hawkins) featured the dancers mostly individually, upside-down, in front of a saturated dark background, lit by flaring lights that twinkled off their bodies. It’s a dream-like interlude, only slightly asynchronous from the overall tone of Água Viva.

Hudson Hall presented the event in association with The Hudson Eye, an annual festival that blankets a variety of events taking place in Hudson, NY.

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Compagnie Käfig, Pixel
Jacob's Pillow, August 25, 2023

Pixel, by Compagnie 
Käfig of Lyon, France, choreographed by Mourad Merzouki, is an evolutionary step forward for hip-hop/street dance created for traditional proscenium theaters. When hip-hop hit the dance scene decades ago, the sheer physicality, daring, and newness of the form bowled over audiences. But it’s not easy to tailor the explosive, rebellious, battle-ready form into a digestible evening of dance for seated, ticket-buying audiences in hallowed venues. The style born on sidewalks, subway platforms, and clubs is by its nature best seen in short bursts.

In Pixel, digital effects by Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne elevate the 70-minute production to another level. Projected dots and geometric shapes blanket, mass, and blizzard, at times seemingly activated by the performers’ actions. In one scene, a cave-like portal appears. In another, two dancers freeze amid a starry field of snow and as they pivot slowly, the entire graphic plane also pivots, Matrix-style. Robotic candles zoom about the stage, at moments leading on a digital scrim like a drum major. The lighting, designed by Yoann Tivoli with Nicolas Faucheux, on the whole is gorgeous and warm, if slightly dark in segments. Armand Amar is credited for the music, which flows nearly continuously in pleasant waves and rhythmic patterns. A sole woman contortionist (Nina Van der Pyl) performs alongside 10 men; unfortunately her impressive if unnatural flexions become wearying after a few minutes.

Photo: Christopher Duggan

The final sections of Pixel reveal a fundamental weakness of hip-hop performances in the traditional theater setting—the essential vocabulary is fairly restricted, both in breadth and expressiveness. The use of dollies to glide across the stage feels like a forced attempt at stretching out the show, as did yet another segment featuring Van der Pyl folded in half, backward, and a man on rollerblades. But the dancers’ interactions with the digital designs impressed, adding a solid chapter to the art form's story—now celebrating 50 years.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Mark Morris Dance Group Finally Alights at the Joyce

Tempus Perfectum. Photo: Danica Paulos

Mark Morris Dance Group performed at the Joyce for the first time, finally! Some fable would be an appropriate metaphor, whether it’s Goldilocks finding the right bed, or Cinderella getting that right-sized glass slipper on her foot. In any case, MMDG’s small-to-medium scaled rep looked right at home at the Joyce in front of enthusiastic audiences. I saw the second program, but the first bill featured Grand Duo, which seems as if it might feel large on the Joyce stage, but apparently fit just fine.

The company performed two live premieres: Tempus Perfectum, done online in 2021, and A minor Dance. Just four dancers performed Tempus, set to Brahms’ Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39—Noah Vinson, Dallas McMurray, Courtney Lopes, and Karlie Budge—and they were perfectly matched. A repeating gesture, spreading arms welcoming the viewer, felt geared to a camera, probably a consideration during Covid restrictions, when many dances were  made that way under duress (indeed, a largely dark chapter in dance making). In person, as on camera, it emanated warmth and inclusion. 

McMurray has a remarkable sense of center and balance, on full view in a hypnotic sequence where he repeatedly spins and brakes, but his body keeps twisting. He and Vinson have a preternatural sense of calm, balanced by Lopes’ and Budge’s more fervent approaches. The impulse for Budge’s movement seems to emanate from within, conveying a deeper source. All are riveting, and Morris’ dance here is impassioned and emotive.

Domingo Estrada and Courtney Lopes in A minor Dance. Photo: Danica Paulos

A minor Dance is wittily titled in a nod to Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827, which music director Colin Fowler plays live. The dance begins and ends in earnest with a crisp hand clap, first by Mica Bernas, last by Fowler. Several notable motifs emerge: a dancer rises from the floor, basically pulling herself up by her face; jogging; arms flicking to the side; graceful leaps landing in a double hop; skating strides. Most memorably, two dancers hold hands and lean apart, another dancer joins as the first lowers to the floor, forming an undending chain—a dancer wheel! 

A later section has the feel of a défilé, or lively series of stage crossings, including some of the phrases noted above, plus spins and backward slides with arms pulling at diagonals. Morris keeps inventing in small and large ways, and his straightforward way of arranging the body and moving it through space continues to amaze. It’s difficult in its simplicity and lack of affect, rendered expertly by his varied dancers.
Billy Smith, Courtney Lopes, Dallas McMurray, Christina Sahaida
in All Fours. Photo: Danica Paulos

As reminders of the length and breadth of his career, also on the program were All Fours (2003) and Castor and Pollux (1980). The latter felt like a marathon for the dancers, whose bold, angular, and quick movements matched the lively South Asian-influenced score by Harry Partch. All Fours, to challenging music by Bartók, is more strident and darker—literally, with many wearing black costumes against a crimson backdrop, in contrast with a team wearing white. 

Domingo Estrada, Christina Sahaida, Courtney Lopes in Castor and Polllux. Photo: Danica Paulos

The dancers repeatedly held one arm outstretched, the other hand cupped over an ear as if straining to hear or notice something; they hold a thumbs-up pose; or fling their arms back, raptor style. Its more serious tone and bold movements balanced the lighter, more harmonious feel of his newer work, but as a whole, the program represented Morris’ range. I'm glad the company chose to show at the Joyce rather than their in-house black box studio, as in previous years—these works deserve the formality of a proscenium, a larger audience, and professional production elements.

Farewell to Domingo Estrada, Jr., retiring after joining the company in 2009. His lush groundedness and warm presence will be missed.


On a more somber note, as of this writing, neither Danspace Project nor PS 122 have announced fall 2023 seasons yet. These are two pillars of post-modern dance presentation in New York, and thus the dance world. The cultural sector is rapidly shrinking, shifting, and taking drastic measures to survive a landscape decimated by the pandemic and changed priorities, likely on a personal, corporate, and governmental level. It seems like every presenter has slashed staff and programming, out of necessity. What happens next? And what happens to the next generation of artists, admin and supporters? It seems like climate change of a different ilk—if not literal life and death, then dire consequences for the life of art.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Running Elevated to Art at PS21

Ethan Law, Sabina Bočková,Viktor Černický, Dora Sulženko Hoštova. Photo: Steven Taylor

Running… For your life. On empty. Errands. Toward something. Away from your troubles. Out of time. On pure adrenaline. Out of energy. For office. On fumes. Down the clock.

But on a stage, on a 10-meter long treadmill, in addition to dancing, cycling, spinning a Cyr wheel, doing quotidian tasks, or reminiscing about your childhood? Yes, in Runners, by Cirk La Putyka from the Czech Republic, at PS 21’s intimate, open-air amphitheater in Chatham on July 22. The treadmill is similar to those instruments of torture that you find at any gym—it goes from slow to way-too-fast, but this one reverses too. (Do the ones in the gym? Hmm.) This one also serves as a metaphor for the passage of time, and with it, memory and identity. It’s also the source of hilarity, awe, and imparted terror regarding the six performers: Dora Sulženko HoštovaViktor Černický, Ethan Law, Sabina Bočková, Veronika Linhartová, and Jakub Rushka.

Veronika Linhartová and Jakub Ruschka, strolling minstrels. Photo: Steven Taylor

Four of them are dancers, and they are fascinating individuals about whom we learn biographical details through spoken anecdotes, many involving daredevil acts and the lure of speed. These periodic monologues, recited downstage at a mic, offer respites from the often breakneck action on the treadmill, angled diagonally on stage for most of the hour. Bočková tells of being unable to sit still, and as a child, eagerly plunging into a deep pool time after time. Černický recalls riding his bicycle at top speed down a mountain, and crash landing in a soft spot of grass. Law was tossed by a robotic arm high in the air before face planting on the hard floor and hence being immobilized for nine months. Hoštova reminisces about her mother's closet, performing an elegant dance over a rolling bed of what appeared to be gravel.

Simply the act of standing up without falling while the treadmill accelerates seems impossible. They usually stand sideways, as if surfing, but then add in dance moves, lunges, rolls, arabesques, and more. The mounts and dismounts are a whole separate art—sometimes, they simply roll off, but in one section, a crash mat catches them as they leap and spring high in the air. Černický places inflatable balls of different sizes on the treadmill, arranging them precisely so they spin on their own. Then he rides a bicycle on the treadmill, eventually going hands-free; this looks extremely perilous, even for a pro. Law, who resembles Bono, is a Cyr wheel expert, and after a routine performed on the stage floor, gets on the treadmill for a spin on the Cyr wheel and some flashy moves before setting the wheel spinning on its own. It sounds so simple, but one can only imagine the practice behind this act.

Dora Sulženko Hoštova and Viktor Černický race to the finale! Photo: Steven Taylor

The two musicians, Linhartová and Ruschka, provide the atmospheric and varied music and sound, comprising folk tunes, rhythmic interludes, and rock songs. For the final act, the performers pivot the treadmill perpendicular to us; the musicians leave their upstage box and stroll on it facing downstage while playing the violin and guitar and singing. The four dancers, now in running gear (Bočková wore just socks, no running shoes), form a pack and begin to race one another for both speed and duration. They shout out their speeds, reaching a 10 mph sprint, which seems insane, especially with spotlights in their eyes and an audience of hundreds watching. Ultimately, the long-legged Černický is the sole remaining runner; the lights dim but for rays emanating from behind him. I sat in awe of what the human body can do, and what the brain accepts as sane. Clearly, these performers have extreme capability in both arenas.

Runners is directed by Rostislav Novák, Vít Neznal; choreography by Dora Sulženko Hoštová; dramaturgy by Petr Erbes, Viktor Černický; set design by Pavla Kamanová; costumes by NoN Grata and Mikuláš Brukne; music by Jan Čtvrtník, Veronika Linhartová; lighting design by Jiří (Zewll) Maleňák; sound design by Jan Středa.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

A Perfect Midsummer Evening at SPAC

Anthony Huxley in Scherzo Fantastique. Photo: Paul Kolnik

At a perilous geoclimatic moment in the Anthropocene, the weather in Saratoga Springs on the evening of July 19 was positively a gift. Perhaps not an azure sky, but clear enough of the Canadian forest fire smog that’s been plaguing the Northeast. A temperature in the upper 70s, nearly 50 degrees less than the extremes of the southwest, and 20 less than the Florida ocean’s bathtub level heat. No floods like in nearby Vermont. Perfect for New York City Ballet’s program of 21st-century choreography and the enthusiastic house at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

Scherzo Fantastique (2016) by Justin Peck, commissioned on occasion of the company’s 50th anniversary at SPAC, bears motifs of his now familiar style—the cast clustering centerstage conspiratorially before bursting apart and expressing individuality, playful duets and solos (notably for the pellucid Anthony Huxley) done with exuberance and camaraderie to the Stravinsky score. The bold designs spell high spirits: a painted backdrop by Jules de Balincourt of a foliage allée in hot saturated hues (evoking some of Munch’s fervid works), and the equally zazzy costumes of horizontal color bands with fringe, or studded with flowers, by Reid + Harriet. Seven years on, and many Peck ballets later, this dance fits in alongside a number of similarly solid ballets distinguished by unique production elements.

Chun Wai Chan (front) with cast in Play Time. Photo: Erin Baiano

Gianna Reisen’s Play Time premiered at 2022’s fashion gala, and aptly, the lavish costumes by Alejandro Gómez Palomo take center stage alongside the music, by Solange. The dancers wore sparkly, tailored pieces of individual styles and hues—boxy suit jackets, form-fitting bodysuits, funky wide-hipped numbers, flouncy skirts. Unfortunately, they outshone the choreography, paced by a stop and start rhythm. New principal Chun Wai Chan stood out with his charisma and bold attack; he was also the only dancer to receive the once-standard applause for principals' entrances.

It was paired with Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy (2003), one of his most memorable duets set originally on Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, and here danced by Sara Adams and Jovani Furlan. (Whelan seemed to inspire Wheeldon to make his greatest works; his duet After the Rain, amongs his most sublime dances, featured the same pair in its original cast.) Liturgy is packed with sculptural shapes, daring yet elegant experiments between two bodies, and a consistently elegiac atmosphere.

Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Quinn Starner in Love Letter (on shuffle). Photo: Erin Baiano

Kyle Abraham has created some of the most exciting dances lately on NYCB, including Love Letter (on shuffle) (2022), performed at SPAC. While obviously a skilled artist and choreographer, he didn’t emerge from a strict ballet background, as many have. It’s his unexpected mix of styles that create a kind of personal iconography, or kinesiography, that draws you in. The sudden buckle of the knee that flips a walk from formal to louche. A casual fist bump between two men, a reminder of the affection and teamwork involved. An awkward collapse of the spine to humanize and break the sheer beauty of ballet’s vocabulary. Many of the phrases feel like personal stories that Abraham is sharing through his dancers, and we are lucky to receive them.

He also riffs on ballet’s history, such as in the trio that clearly echoes the famous Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake. The dance, with striking costumes by Giles Deacon set to songs by James Blake, also premiered as part of the 2022 Fall Fashion Gala. These events provide an opportunity to commission less-known, younger choreographers (like Reisen), giving them a boost of exposure. Results are mixed; perhaps it’s natural for the artistry and outlandishness of fashiony costumes to demand all the attention. But with Abraham, the dance, driven by the well-chosen music, comes first and speaks most clearly, particularly on an evening with lovely weather that, sadly, felt nostalgic.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Vertiginous Thrills at the Pillow

Young Gyu Choi and Riho Sakomoto
 in Variations for Two Couples.
Photo by Christopher Duggan
Dutch National Ballet brought a widely varied slate of repertory to Jacob’s Pillow this month, proving that its wonderful dancers can handle the most devilish ballet technique, from classical to modern. Resident choreographer Hans van Manen was represented by Variations for Two Couples, Five Tangos, and the previously unannounced Solo, which turned out to be perhaps the most appealing work on the bill. Additionally, Wubkje Kuindersma’s Two and Only, William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique were performed.

Van Manen’s imprint can be found in ballet repertories around the world, and he has spent large blocks of time at Nederlands Dans Theater and DNB. His choreography is notable for its precision, dramatic breadth, playfulness and humor, all of which emerged in his Pillow rep. Solo, actually performed by three men in purple chemises, lets the dancers ham it up, goading the audience with spread arms and ta-das. They leap high, move faster than you might think possible, and take turns vying for best-liked. How to choose?

Qiam Liu and men in Five Tangos. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Variations (2012) presents the more analytic, sculptural side of van Manen. In lustrous, dark-hued unitards, pairs show some of the choreographer’s signature moves—precise partnering, pencil turns, scissoring legs, heads bobbling. One of the four songs is by Astor Piazzolla, whose music provides the foundation for Five Tangos. (This music is catnip for modern/ballet choreographers; see Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera.) The womens’ costumes provide visual snap, which carries through the dance, which evokes the attitude of tango more than a literal rendition: attack bordering on martial arts, absolute confidence and boldness, and dramatic flair. Qiam Liu and Young Gyu Choi led the cast with terrific expressiveness and athleticism.

Davi Ramos, Sho Yamada, and Salome Leverashvli in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.
Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Forsythe created Vertiginous (1996) back when he was radicalizing ballet, and largely before focusing on his evening-length conceptual works that are as much art installation/theater as dance. The womens’ chartreuse, Saturn-ring tutus still look futuristic while raising questions about the origin and necessity for the tutu, period. But they tie the dance to the classical tradition, as does Schubert's music, canned and nostalgic feeling. Hewing to the title, the steps are fast, fierce, and dangerous looking, performed with speed and accuracy. Torqued torsos and high jumps into rétiré number among Forsythe’s balletic experiments. Two and Only (2018), a shirtless male duet, felt a bit like an add-on, marked by a pose-and-move rhythm to somewhat sappy folk songs by Michael Benjamin.

Sadly, the cast lacked an injured Olga Smirnova, a recent company addition who left the Bolshoi after Russia attacked Ukraine. But the company dancing at the Pillow met the loftiest standards of the art, and their ease and facility in a breadth of styles impressed. Let's hope they return state-side soon.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

The Look of Love's Warm Embrace

The Look of Love
. Photo: Christopher Duggan

There are many reasons to embrace The Look of Love by Mark Morris, a suite to songs by Burt Bacharach with lyrics by Hal David, which I saw at Jacob’s Pillow on June 29. Premiering in the wake of the pandemic in 2022, it’s anchored by human interaction on a mostly generous and affectionate level, in sync with Bacharach’s molten, gauzy harmonics. It employs just 10 of the Mark Morris Dance Group; the set is simply five colored chairs with cushions which the dancers move about. Isaac Mizrahi designed the production and the pop-hued tunics and separates. 

Ethan Iverson imaginatively arranged 14 of Bacharach’s songs, nearly all of which were huge hits. (He wrote one song, “The Blob,” to lyrics by Mack David, Hal’s brother; it seemed to be inserted as a kind of hilarious anchor to keep the bubbly work grounded.) The piece begins with a piano rendition of “Alfie,” intimate and searching, in keeping with the existential lyrics. To “What the World Needs Now,” the dancers pair off, a couple to a chair, the set now arrayed like a flower. Morris leans on shapes with right-angle geometry and simple steps like triplets, with arms flung wide. There’s a crispness to the whole work, from the rhythmic clarity underscored by the choreography, to the brilliant hot colors. 

The Look of Love. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Of course Morris injects humor now and then in nods to the lyrics. In “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” the dancers mime catching pneumonia, or shoving their partner. Iverson inserted a musical interlude, which briefly releases the movement from the narrative. In “Raindrops,” the dancers playfully hop, test for, and flick the rain, and in “Don’t Make Me Over,” the performers did a weird version of the Floss. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” featured some of the most athletic and large-scale movement, with barrel leaps and right-angled arms pointing the way. Dallas McMurray and Billy Smith captured the eye with their clean, unmannered technique that nonetheless felt suffused with meaning. From time to time a dancer lifted another, but a repeating, clever kinetic exclamation took the form of cartwheeling onto another seated dancer’s knees, or the like. Less hoisting of meat and bones is good for all!

“Walk on By” included quick paces and pivots, and faces dropped into spread palms to convey melancholy and introspection. Grapevines in single and double time done by pairs holding hands, one facing upstage at times, couched “Always Something There to Remind Me,” while slow hand pushes, as if through mud, in lunges marked the drowsy pace of “Look of Love” (while McMurray lip synced upstage) and tiny arm flaps were the recurring motif in “Say a Little Prayer.” Morris often creates oddball moves that become signatures for dances or sections, but here, they’re less affected and are rather simple gestures, and are thus highly relatable. 

Singer Marcy Harriel has past singers' (mainly Dionne Warwick) big shoes to fill and handles the task wonderfully, accompanied by a small band led by MMDG Music Director Colin Fowler. The close proximity of the dancers to the audience in the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre provided a greater intimacy and connection than the company often has in opera houses; it will soon perform repertory at the Joyce Theater (impossibly, for the first time) which will be even cozier. The songs’ nostalgia, crackerjack performers, and vivid production made me want to see it again. Here's wishin' and hopin'.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Competing with the Sun in Chatham

Mercuric Tidings. Photo: Steven Taylor

Being a choreographer is difficult. Carrying a choreographer's legacy is no easy task either, especially given that the company must remain relevant. 
In recent years, Paul Taylor Dance Company had been performing brief spring/summer runs in addition to its usual longer fall seasons at the Koch. The short series, at different outposts, had smartly focused on sub-genres—more experimental early Taylor work at the Joyce, or dances done to early or classical music at the Manhattan School of Music with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Last year, PTDC was one of several major New York companies comprising a mini-festival at New York City Center. This year, it seems that the company has foregone a short New York run, instead touring. It returned to Chatham’s elegant, plein air amphitheater, PS 21, in June with a lively, if not particularly challenging program that included Mercuric Tidings, A Field of Grass, and Piazzolla Caldera.

During Taylor’s lifetime, an evening’s dances often fell into a three course menu-style format of opener with some oomph, a more thoughtful or dark work, and then a closer meant to dazzle audiences. In its weeks-long New York season, 20 or so dances might be featured, with each program usually different. While that is some tough logistical feat to plan, it meant that repertory could be mixed and matched and repeat viewers could see the spectrum of Taylor’s amazing output.

In contrast, a three-performance run at smaller venue such as PS 21 features one bill. So it might be even tougher to select which three dances to feature in order to best represent the company. The dances Artistic Director Michael Novak chose for Chatham are easy to digest, albeit each representing a unique Taylor subgenre.

Mercuric Tidings (1982) ranks among one of Taylor’s most demanding abstract dances, with lots of rapid-fire stage crossings and patterns, and luminous performances by Madelyn Ho and John Harnage. At the moment, the current company impresses most on a technical level, with formidable athletic prowess. That said, the demands of this dance reveal that it could use more rehearsal, with a few ragged ensemble sections and rough lifts. It opened the program, which means that it coincided—and fought—with a dazzling solstice sunset visible to most of the audience. The cyc lighting begins in a bright pink hue, and the intensity was so high—we’re talking a Robert Wilson level event—that it hurt my eyes. Maybe it was to counter the sun’s effects? Or maybe new technology has vaulted past the comfort level of the human eye.

Eran Bugge and Alex Clayton in A Field of Grass. Photo: Steven Taylor

A Field of Grass (1993), to a suite of songs by Harry Nilsson, is a humorous romp in which the performers are, in theory, stoned or tripping. Alex Clayton, toking, leads off with a rubbery solo, rolling in a folded leg position, and bursting aloft, at which he is so skilled. Christina Lynch Markham, one of the company’s current standout character dancers, flings her hip-length hair madly as she leaps with abandon. Mirrored sunglasses hide presumably dilated pupils. The style—unfettered and propulsive—is among Taylor’s more pedestrian and casual.

Taylor pushed his range choreographically with Piazzolla Caldera (1997), plucking tango quotes and mixing them in with social dancing. While this dance has always benefited from a crisp approach, especially by the men in the first movement, the current cast seems extra martial, with Lee Duveneck snapping his legs like whips. Jessica Ferretti puts her long limbs to use in the lonely woman solo, less angry than sad about being shunned than past interpreters. An inventive and acrobatic duet exemplifies a subset by Taylor in which the men seem to alternately tussle and caress one another. The lighting in Piazzolla, no longer battling the now set sun, felt murky rather than chiaroscuro.

The current company, relatively young on the whole, comprises skilled technicians who can handle the trickiest steps and the breadth of styles by Taylor. But at moments, it feels as if the dancers are executing steps harshly, with the main goal of hitting marks and keeping on top of things. I imagine that in time, personalities will emerge through the many character roles Taylor crafted emphasizing humor and wit, transcending the not inconsiderable technical demands.

I miss the darker theatrical repertory that balances out the lively, more athletic work which seems to prevail these days—Big Bertha, Speaking in Tongues, and The Word come to mind. Perhaps these will be rotated in soon, giving audiences a fuller picture of the choreographer’s creative imagination. And will the American Modern Dance project (commissioning outside American choreographers) continue now that Lauren Lovette is resident choreographer, or has the company pivoted away from that? Of course the pandemic and its insidious effect on the economy, and particularly the cultural sector, are weighty factors. The coming years will test even the oldest establishments.