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'.