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. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

New York Notebook, June 2023

Gallim in state, presaging the Martianscape of June 7. Photo: Steven Pisano

I took in some shows just before the atmospheric invasion from the Canadian wildfires that transformed the city into a Martian hellscape, if briefly. While it was pretty terrible feeling, it wasn't yet nuclear winter nor a permanent situation. But it did garner attention from all the media outlets based in the city, who amplified future warnings about climate change... perhaps the one upside.

Ballet Hispánico and Gallim are staples of the New York dance scene, and both showed how they have carved out strong reputations in the most densely populated dance hub in the world.

Ballet Hispánico June 3, 2023 City Center

The program exemplified the company’s core values: telling the stories of varied Hispanic cultures, and displaying their skilled technique.

New Sleep Duet by William Forsythe tilted toward abstract and cool. Fatima Andere, paired with Antonio Cangiano, allowed a smile in contrast to the sangfroid usually assumed in Forsythe’s ballet works. They performed the angular style with a lush plasticity.

Papagayos by Omar Román de Jesus is a surreal parable on power and its privileges and abuses. Amanda Del Valle conveyed a manic energy as a parrot in a shiny fringed jumpsuit who sought her hat—the token of power in a deadly game of musical chairs. Despite her show biz disposition, it carried shades of a nihilistic Ionesco story.

Ballet Hispánico in Sor Juana. Photo: Erin Baiano

In Sor Juana, Michelle Manzanales pays tribute to a complex historical figure—poet, feminist, nun, scholar, with the lithe, elegant Gabrielle Sprauve in the lead. Moving solos and duets are sandwiched between sections of movement for the ensemble, who stay in the same formation for too long. The striking costumes (by Sam Ratelle) change from formal colonial dresses to a nun’s habit to minimal bodysuits and trunks.

Pedro Ruiz celebrates Cuban music, social dance, and cigars in Club Havana. There’s plenty of partnering with lifts of all kinds, and somewhat forced, dated air of jollity and machismo/coyness, but it’s a solid, audience-pleasing closer.

Gallim in SAMA. Photo: Steven Pisano

Gallim, Joyce, June 4, 2023

This packed program encompassed Gallim’s talent and range, led by choreographer Andrea Miller.

The trio state begins with the smallest movements, mesmerizing tiny steps and direction shifts, danced by Emma Thesing, Vivian Pakkanen, and India Hobbs. These train your focus and show that even the most minute, highly controlled movement can be expressive. Middle sections allow for big, traveling steps and leaps. Jose Solís designed the smart costumes: slate tunics, blousy on top with fitted briefs and iridescent knee patches.

Sydney Chow and Gary Reagan performed a slapstick tour de force and affably wrassle like kids for dominance of a sofa in Castles, an excerpt of a full-length work, Fold Here.

No Ordinary Love, another remarkable chamber piece, was danced by Chalvar Monteiro and Issa Perez. They delivered the fluid, powerful, and impassioned choreography with great skill, making me wonder how humans could possibly be so beautiful and poetic.

SAMA—by Miller in collaboration with Rambert II and Gallim—is an explosive closer that builds to a fever pitch. It includes acrobatic dancers on stilts doing kicks, plus a cavalcade of unfettered leaps and twists, and dynamite ensemble sections in formations, plus smaller pullouts. A crowd-rousing finish to a dense program.