Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Plein Air Dance, Summer of 2024

Smashed2. Photo: Camille Greenwell

Gandini Juggling | PS21, Chatham, NY | July 12, 2024

Oranges, watermelons, and juggling! Kati Ylä-Hokkala and Sean Gandini took inspiration for SMASHED2 from Pina Bausch, which is evident from the first moment of the show as performers clad in semi-formal black dresses and suits cross rhythmically downstage—while juggling oranges. There could be far worse templates for a cirque show, but this homage was not noted in the digital program, and so all I could think was how blatantly the UK's Gandini Juggling had ripped off Bausch. But on their website, they duly acknowledge their debt to Pina, and a bit of scrolling shows they’re working on a project that honors Merce Cunningham as well.

And actually, the Nelken line works beautifully for this parade of jugglers, each highly skilled in the vexing craft, yet able to sync their movements while pacing in rhythm. They also borrow the convention of a 
solo woman downstage, speaking directly to the audience, in this case, saying “Oranges. Watermelons.” Indeed, these are the two main props for this evening of whimsy, underpinned by darker themes of gender conflict and retribution.
Smashed2. Photo: Camille Greenwell

As the scenes progress, women juggle while the two men attempt to distract and flirt with them. A woman with a baton also tries to disrupt the main juggler’s routine, ultimately with success. Six of the women surround one, forming a kind of many-armed Kali that passes around oranges in an overly long sequence. The watermelons are held by the women, now lying down in a circle, using their feet to balance the fruit, or passing them around. As you might guess from the title, things get juicy at the end, when the women overpower the men and use them for target practice for the melons and the juice of oranges, taking revenge for previous harassment. Similar to Bausch, the performance is grounded by a varied songlist that ranges from Americana folk song to new age shimmer. And, as always at PS21, the onstage action in the open-air amphitheater fought for attention, this time from a hot-air balloon cruising in the sultry air nearby.

Chun Wai Chan, Grace Scheffel, and Gilbert Bolden III in Underneath, There Is LightPhoto: Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center | Saratoga Springs, NY | July 11, 2024

There were also distractions at SPAC in Saratoga Springs for its annual presentation of New York City Ballet, but primarily from the audience, for which the plein-air theater seems conducive to random chatting, and from one rowdy man directly behind me lacking impulse control, badly timed, bellowed F-words or OMGs, albeit in support of the dancers. I caught the contemporary program, which alternated with Jewels and some classic chestnuts including Swan Lake and Coppélia. I had seen Amy Hall Garner’s Underneath, There Is Light at the Koch Theater earlier this year, and at the spacious SPAC stage, it felt better situated, with its non-stop blasts of pyrotechnics. In the second part, the women in gold gowns and the men in pearl rompers seemed to float organically into the surrounding atmosphere.

Naomi Corti and Ruby Lister in Gustave le Gray No.1Photo: Erin Baiano

Two very different red quartets followed. Red Angels by Ulysses Dove (1994), a chamber-scaled staple of the repertory, features electric movements to match the twangy music by Richard Einhorn. Pam Tanowitz’s Gustave Le Gray No. 1 (2019) features four women responding to, and literally moving, Stephen Gosling and his piano. With a repeating motif of a simple sauté, it’s the choreographer’s most poetic and intimate commission for the company yet, and rewards re-viewing. (Tanowitz remains one of the busiest choreographers around. Earlier in the week, I saw the Royal Ballet perform an excerpt of Tanowitz's Secret Things (2023) at Jacob's Pillow, write-up forthcoming, and will soon see Day For Night, her commission for Little Island in New York City.)

The Times Are Racing (2017), by Justin Peck, holds particular interest after seeing his music-theater work Illinoise at Bard last year. So many of the movements and tropes that suffuse the Broadway-bound show (for which Peck won the Tony for best choreography) are nascent in Times, and they felt radical and fresh seven years ago. But he has made so much work in the interim that some of his inventions feel overly familiar. Clustering centerstage, pulsing and lifting up one dancer, bursting apart… the outwear to signify breaking of tradition or the “outside”… sneakers… these all are elements Peck has used time and again. Times is kind of a primer of many of Peck’s non-classical motifs packed into 25 minutes, and apparently reason enough to scream more ecstatic expletives at the stage.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

New York Notebook, June 2024

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. Photo: Marty Sohl


ABT performed the company premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works (2015) during its 2024 season at the Met Opera House. It was presented alongside weathered classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, and newer works such as Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate (2023). With rare exception, it’s a formula they have followed for many years; kudos to them for adding a truly contemporary ballet—actually three differing, short ballets. If only it had more choreographic appeal.

I confess that McGregor’s choreography has not spoken to me over the years. He pushes already extreme artist-athletes’ bodies in superhuman ways, often distorting a split past 180º, kicking a foot out rather than simply extending it, and having the men energetically manipulate their female partners. Rather than creating fluid phrases that read like sentences and paragraphs, his choreography can come off as a series of one-word exclamations. And that’s tough when you’re faced with a long evening to fill.

Alessandra Ferri in Woolf Works. Photo: Kyle Froman

At least the sections of Woolf varied enough to feel like three separate works. The first, I now, I then, based on Mrs. Dalloway, received the most traditional treatment. It’s set among three large, revolving, abstract wooden frames that presumably mark the protagonist’s eras. Perhaps the most significant coup of Woolf Works, and the probable connecting tissue, were the performances of longtime (“retired”) ABT principal Alessandra Ferri, now 61 and the originator of two of the three lead roles in WW, partnered by the sublime Herman Cornejo. Her abilities are ideal—chiefly, a paradigmatic ballet line and captivating expressions of vulnerability and wonder. I also caught the cast led by Gillian Murphy (with Joo Won Ahn), who, while technically crisp, exudes too much efficient capability for such a sensitive character. Perhaps the narrative is meant as a general outline for stage action, but it's somewhat impenetrable given the scant program notes.

Becomings, the second act based on Orlando, discards any narrative. Instead, we see gender fluidity and same-sex pairings, and similar courtly costumes of gold lamé worn by both women and men, until toward the end, all are in flesh-hued leotards. The movement is largely hyper-expressionistic, suiting fearless dynamo Catherine Hurlin to a tee. But the main event is the laser show (lighting design by Lucy Carter), which is probably no big deal for Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, but at the Met, with ballet, breaks literal spatial barriers. Dancers’ bodies pierce a vertical plane of light bisecting the stage, creating an electric outline. Several horizontal planes beam into the house, above our heads, while clouds are projected onto them. It brought the stage into the entire auditorium, and garnered huge applause.

Spectacular, for sure, but these bold production strokes often made the dancers look shrunken and inconsequential. Several duets or small groupings were performed at the same time, making it difficult to focus. Some small ensemble passages—the women performing a simple port de bras phrase; the men lying on their sides—provided rare satisfying choreographic moments. It made me think on how, in the classics, a duet (like the pas de deux in Swan Lake) can command the entirety of the stage, fake lake or not, and why. Tuesday, the third act based on The Waves, contrasts the independent and childless lead (Ferri/Murphy) with her sister and her children, with their oddly literal frolicking. A magnificent slo-mo film of crashing waves (film design by Ravi Deepres) hovers overhead, once again belittling the small humans below (and grabbing attention), but conveying the recurring theme of water in Woolf’s work, and all the life-giving and -taking symbolism therein.

The score by Max Richter offers little in the way of a framework, with its cinematic feel—pulsating, crescendoing, repetitive. It provides an aural parallel to McGregor’s choreography, but nearly two hours of both turns out to be a stretch. You have to credit ABT for taking a flyer on Woolf Works, but its lack of legible substance in light of the evening’s inspiration disappoints. In the context of the rest of the Met season, it at least promised a lauded, contemporary varietal, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t return.

Eran Bugge and Alex Clayton in Runes. Photo by Steven Pisano

In contrast, I saw two programs at the Joyce—Extreme Taylor. The slates offered some less mainstream or smaller scale earlier repertory by Paul Taylor alongside some chestnuts. Big Bertha is one of Taylor’s most egregiously shocking creations; a carnival automaton (Christina Lynch Markham, a notably dramatic dancer in her final run with the company) waves her wand to unleash violence and incest on a family. It exemplifies a highly dramatic subset of Taylor’s work that, without words, expresses radical societal behavior that simmers just beneath the surface—American Gothic on steroids. 

Lee Duveneck, Christina Lynch Markham, Eran Bugge, Kristin Draucker
in Big Bertha. Photo by Ron Thiele

Post Meridian (1965) and Duet (1964) are among his more rigorously modern dances, performed in color block or patterned unitards. They emphasize plastic experimentation and rigorous partnering, both examples of early Taylor choreography where there are no extra steps—models of economy and necessity. Private Domain (1969) combined spare phrasing with the simple dramatic device of downstage partitions (Alex Katz) that obstructed a viewer’s total stage picture, akin to the daily urban theater of peering into residential windows. In Runes (1975), Taylor added a layer of ritual (and fur pelts, designed under his alias), plus the timepiece of an orbiting moon. The sheer physical requirements of being a Taylor dancer hoved into view when Devon Louis, calm and solid as a tree, crossed and spun upstage bearing a woman pressed overhead.
Lisa Borres, Jessica Ferretti, Jada Pearman, Devon Louis, Lee Duveneck
in Post Meridian. Photo by Steven Pisano

Handel and Bach’s ebullient music drives both Airs (1978) and Brandenburgs (1988), respectively. Of Taylor’s “pattern” dances, the movement hews closely to the score, sometimes doubling or halving the tempo. And as lighthearted and buoyant as the dances read, they mandate incredible strength, stamina, and rehearsal drill time to appear so effortless. In particular, the corps of five men in Brandenburgs were synced like the atomic clock. Taylor’s mastery of entrances, exits and a satisfying variation in section dynamics were on full display.

Wayne McGregor has accolades in spades, but I continually wonder what I’m missing. Clearly my expectations from an evening’s work don’t overlap with Woolf Works. As his motor was the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf, I craved more narrative clues to link to her novels; longer program notes might assist, but the action onstage should be able to stand alone. More charismatic music also might provide support, and choreography to draw the focus to one primary passage on the vast stage peppered with groups. Taylor’s more intimate repertory delivered these things in a smaller setting, and from seeing his larger work on big stages, it scales up.

When I thought, “why am I watching this?” I couldn’t provide an answer during Woolf Works, other than Ferri making a hero’s return, and filling a slot with contemporary ballet. Is filling two hours too much to ask these days? One wonders where the rep goes from here, riding alongside than the old classics. 

Note: McGregor's work receives more stage time this weekend at Jacob's Pillow, performed by the Royal Ballet of London.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The DNA of Paul Taylor's Esplanade, and new Lovette excerpts

Alicia Graf Mack and Damian Woetzel in Duet at 92Y. Photo: Richard Termine

The passing of the iconic modern choreographer Paul Taylor in 2018, to state the obvious, marked the end of an era. But it also liberated those guiding the company to reconsider public performances in ways that didn’t happen during the choreographer’s life. The company had already shifted into transition mode during the last decade of Taylor’s life, creating the umbrella of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance under which to present new commissions by American choreographers as well as iconic works of modern dance. With Artistic Director Michael Novak firmly guiding the company with Taylor gone, the modern master’s earlier, more radical work has been redeployed to help audiences understand the roots of Taylor’s most celebrated dances from later in his career.

While Taylor is widely regarded as an icon of modern dance, I have heard grumblings about the populist, sometimes nostalgic bent of his most popular dances, even from supposedly informed critics. I always thought that they just hadn’t seen enough of Taylor’s output, which is varied enough to offer something for pretty much everyone. And his earliest work—more aptly called performances than dances, so conceptual were many—were rarely performed while Taylor, in his late decades, continued to create one or two new dances annually. It feels like a lot of energy went into forefronting these premieres—rightly—which were scheduled among mostly better-known Taylor rep in the annual big New York seasons, first at City Center, then the Koch.

Novak has notably revivified the broader context of Taylor’s rep, at least in New York performances in the last years. In the first part of this year alone, two runs focus on some early work that earned attention through notoriety, and not necessarily popular appeal. Seven New Dances (with designs by Robert Rauschenberg) premiered in 1957 at the 92nd Street Y, and was so ill-received that the Y's program director said after the flop that Paul Taylor would return "over his dead body," in so many words. Fortunately he was wrong.

Esplanade at 92Y. Photo: Richard Termine

In a May 13 program as part of 92NY’s 150th celebration, PTDC performed The Story of Seven New Dances. Actor Alan Cumming, embodying Taylor, charmingly narrated and read quotes of Taylor’s musings about creating this suite, in between excerpts from the work with illustrious guest artists including Alicia Graf Mack (Ailey), Damian Woetzel (NYCB), both now in leadership positions at Juilliard, and NYCB principal Adrian Danchig-Waring. It features streetwear-clad dancers posing, shifting weight, or in Duet, simply frozen in repose (the latter, to John Cage’s 4’33”—silence) which, at the time of its premiere, received a “review” by Louis Horst of blank column inches. (How I wish I’d "written" that!)

While little movement was involved, which was part of the point, stage presence was required, thus the apt recruitment of some of New York's finest post- and current stage stars (even if it would've been perfectly fine using current company members). Some of the threads woven into the ironically-titled Seven New Dances—pedestrian movements of walking, running, pivoting, shifting—worked their way into Taylor’s opus, Esplanade (1975), an adrenalized performance of which ended the program. Leading off the show were brief excerpts from three new dances by Resident Choreographer Lauren Lovette, a glimpse of her bold, ambitious near-future plans for the company. A fun group romp that seemed more playtime than performance led off, followed by two compelling duets in black and white.

The 92NY evening departs from the usual programs given by PTDC, which typically haven’t included archival or educational components. But Novak is illuminating Taylor’s rich, broad oeuvre in such evenings—for now, a one-off, but which perhaps will be revisited in the future. Novak notes, “
This program was created exclusively for 92NY in honor of their 150th Anniversary. I wanted to create a unique way to connect to Paul Taylor’s work through his own words and contextualize how his radical past gave a foundation for his more well-known repertory. I love exploring this lens in my programming." 

The company has also been adding shorter runs of select channels of the rep, such as Taylor's Bach dances at Manhattan School of Music a few years ago. The imminent Joyce Theater run from June 25-30 is called Extreme Taylor. It's an ambitious slate for a week; seven dances from 1964 to 1988 will be performed, including more pensive and provocative works such as Private Domain, Runes, and Post Meridian. Big Bertha will also be performed, one of the most nefariously shocking and riveting creations from Taylor’s psychodance-drama genre. PTDC will also be in Chatham, NY at PS21 on Aug 2 & 3 in a solid program of Brandenburgs, Runes, and Promethean Fire. The venue's elegant open-air amphitheater has become a welcome regular stop on the company's schedule.

Kenny Corrigan and Maria Ambrose in a new work by Lauren Lovette, at 92Y.
Photo: Richard Termine

About the current company... after considerable upheaval after Taylor's death and during the tumult of Covid, the roster seems to have settled in for now. Technically, the current company might be better than ever, if there are fewer personalities that might draw their own audience segments (that will evolve as tenures lengthen). In general, there seems to be less prevalence of the individual—be it Taylor and his imperatives, or the dancers—and more emphasis on the repertory, the community, and the company as a whole. The work has proved strong enough to bear temporal and personnel shifts, and Novak and company are illuminating the past while striding forward, making Taylor's work ever more relevant.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Martha Graham Dance Company: Doesn't Seem a Day Over 98

Rodeo. Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

Incredibly, Martha Graham Dance Company will celebrate its centennial in 2026 with GRAHAM 100. But it started the festivities recently with a New York City Center season titled American Legacies, because when you’re a modern dance company that has reached such a milestone, you’re allowed to pull out the stops. The program I saw on April 17 included Graham contemporary Agnes de 
Mille’s Rodeo, with a stirring new orchestration of Copland’s canonic score by Gabe Witcher, played live by a bluegrass band. How refreshing to hear a more vernacular rendering of this score, so familiar and rote by now in the fully orchestrated version we usually hear. The performance also boasted new costumes by Oana Botez, colorful calicos, florals, and pastel hues, and evocative projections by Beowulf Boritt. Laurel Dalley Smith danced the Cowgirl—truculent at being ignored with her tomboy ways, but effervescent after donning a skirt and drawing attention. (Okay, the storyline might need overhauling as well, but... have things really changed that much?)

Jamar Roberts was commissioned to create We the People to bluegrass music by Rhiannon Giddens, also arranged by Witcher. In all denim separates (by Karen Young) and inky fields striated by cross-stage lighting (Yi-Chung Chen), the 12 dancers seemed fueled by passion, whether stemming from anger or protest. Scything arms, strident chops and twists, and thumping heels denoted the movement, frenetic in its start-stop rhythm. It felt like a martial arts demonstration at moments, with energy coiling and releasing. Roberts spaced several solos to silence between musical movements, dimming the sense of festivity that burbles in Giddens’ compositions, but focusing the underlying urgency in the movement. In particular, Lloyd Knight thrusted his arms, bowing backward so far that his head disappeared. The bluegrass tied this work to Rodeo, underscoring the simmering sociopolitical messaging in opposition to de Mille’s romantic caper.

We the People. Alessio Crognale-Roberts, Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight. Photo: Isabella Pagano

Maple Leaf Rag, from 1990, was Graham’s last choreographic work. She spoofs her own Greek tragedy seriousness, sending several dancers across the stage doing iconic Martha-isms—a woman in a cartwheeling skirt, a man pounding into an arabesque, holding his head as if in pain. The joggling board, remarkably flexible and yet strong enough to fold four dancing men, is the focus centerstage, where dancers flex, flirt, perch, and bounce. While Graham is often remembered for her mythic dramas, she certainly poked fun at herself with a sharpened stick in this dance.

I so often write about modern dance legacies these days. And Martha Graham Dance Company, under the guidance of Janet Eilber, is forging an optimal path for one-choreographer troupes. Stand-alone commissions frequently bear some relation to the repertory, such as the shared bluegrass roots in this program. Add to that the new production of Rodeo, refreshed for a new generation. And there’s the ongoing Lamentation Variations, short pieces by outside choreographers riffing on Graham’s famous solo. Eilber gives pre-show remarks about the rep, and they’re consistently informative and terse. While each company must forge its own path, the Graham company balances old and new with respect and a sense of humor.

Book note: Deborah Jowitt's biography of Martha Graham, Errand into the Maze, was recently released. Jowitt's descriptions of Graham's dances offer a valuable archive of her repertory, with the same grace and flair that marked Jowitt's decades of dance writing, primarily for The Village Voice.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Chamber Dance Collective at the Stissing Center

Nocturne, choreography by Martha Clarke. Photo by Richard Termine, courtesy of New York
Theatre Ballet. Dancer: Guyonn Auriau in a 2017 performance at 92Y

After a particularly momentous week on Earth that included a wicked windstorm downing trees and power lines, an earthquake, and an eclipse, seeing An Evening of Master Choreography with Chamber Dance Collective at Stissing Center in Pine Plains definitely felt like a balm. It marked the unofficial start of the vibrant cultural season upstate, when foliage blooms, birds and insects emerge, and performance thrives.

It also showed how inventive artists and presenters can be given modest resources. The Stissing Center dates from 1915, and after several iterations (including a laundromat) and lying fallow for decades, was given an elegant modern renovation, reopening five years ago. It has a fairly compact stage—four dancers (Amanda Treiber, Mónica Lima, Giulia Faria, and Julian Donohue) and pianist Michael Scales filled the proscenium—but it didn’t feel small. The trick is choosing great repertory that fills the space yet stays within the constraints.

Catherine Tharin, a dance writer and scholar, programmed the event (as well as two programs later this year). This slate was curated by Diana Byer, who founded and ran New York Theatre Ballet for many years, stepping down recently. The works performed at Stissing proved a wonderful mix of the billed “masters”—Jerome Robbins, Martha Clarke, Richard Alston—plus young choreographer / 
dancers who may earn that moniker in the future: James Whiteside, Melissa Toogood, and dancers Treiber and Donohue. Scales played two musical interludes as well, making for a lively, packed 70-minute bill.

Mamborama, choreography by James Whiteside. Photo by Richard Termine,
courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet. Dancers: Amanda Treiber and Mónica Lima
in a 2022 performance at Florence Gould Hall

Byer is a renowned figure in the ballet world, and the dancers showed her Cecchetti style training, although not all of the pieces were strictly classical. The most balletic works were Robbins’ Rondo (with playful variations on pointe and big chainés and leaps) and Alston’s The Small Sonata, with dramatic archer poses and Amanda Treiber tenderly wrapping a leg around Julian Donahue—both radiant in their bejeweled, webby tunics. In Treiber’s Wind-Up, the women wore toe shoes as well, and Donahue joined them, creating playful, geometric shapes with a modern feel.

Martha Clarke’s dramatic flair marked Nocturne: wearing only a tulle skirt, head shrouded in gauze with eyeholes, Mónica Lima limped on, a defeated phantasm of a romantic ballerina. She covered her nakedness with her arms and skirt, trying to flap her vestigial wings, and collapsed. She untied the red ribbon from her neck, using it as a makeshift cane to hobble off. Haunting indeed, and a step beyond the proverbial dying swan. In Toogood’s A Study with Mónica, Lima knelt, palms flat on the stage, and drew her hands up her body and aloft, stretching keenly. Stillness was as important as movement, and precision key in a perfect low arabesque, arms levered in front.

The Small Sonata, choreography by Richard Alston. Photo by Richard Termine, courtesy of
New York Theatre Ballet. Dancers: Amanda Treiber and Julian Donahue in a
2020 performance at Danspace Project

In Square the Circle choreographed by Donahue, the foursome wore sneakers and bright, sporty separates. The movement was equally bold and space-eating, with the dancers uniting in a kind of square dance section. It vied for the flashiest dance on the slate with James Whiteside’s Mamborama (excerpt), with Lima and Treiber in sparkly, cabaret-style tunics and on pointe, zazzing it up with humorous puppy paw hands, snapping and counting fingers, and jazzy rhythmic interpretations.

Departing the Stissing Center, we were offered old-fashioned boxes of popcorn for the road. What a nice gesture after a satisfying, dense, buffet of dance. Two more dance offerings follow: Seoul-Mate, Korean traditional and contemporary dance on June 2, and The Bang Group, featuring David Parker’s contemporary work filled with drama, wit, and rhythm, on Oct 4 & 5.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Hubbard Street at the Joyce Theater

Alexandria Best in Coltrane's Favorite Things. Photo: Michelle Reid

New York is considered the world’s dance capital by many, boasting countless companies, choreographers, and dancers. And yet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, after 46 years and currently led by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, sits atop American repertory troupes. The versatility required of the dancers cannot be overestimated; they are technically skilled, stylistically flexible artists with great mental toughness. The current company roster stands out for its diversity, both racial and in body type, with an unusual number of large men. 

Its 2024 Joyce run comprised two programs; the one I saw on Mar 21 featured work by Lar Lubovitch, Rena Butler, and Azsure Barton. Coltrane’s Favorite Things, by Lubovitch, is danced beneath a huge rendition of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, and set to a free-ranging performance by Coltrane of Richard Rodgers’ often cloying tune, from The Sound of Music. Per the program note, the choreographer aimed to juxtapose “Coltrane’s sheets of sound with Pollock’s field of action,” linking them through dance.

The performers wear sporty pieces in shades drawn from the beiges, blacks, and whites that might have dripped onto them from the suspended expressionist painting. Indeed, at times they dart and jiggle like Pollock’s paint drips, though with Lubovitch’s signature curving arms and graceful interlocked passages. Coltrane’s music indeed was sheet-like, or in another rock music term, wall-like—so much so that it dominated at moments, overshadowing the dancers, who split off into smaller groups for short duets or trios. Shota Miyoshi notably nailed the requisite refinement, split-second timing, and occasional abandon demanded by Lubovitch’s style.

Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, Shota Miyoshi, and Cyrie Topete in Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver
Photo by Michelle Reid

Miyoshi danced with Cyrie Topete and Abdiel Figueroa Reyes in Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver (2023) by Butler. Often moving as a three-headed being, they posed gymnastically and arrayed extremities to create new shapes. Every so often, one would slink off stage on all fours, seemingly ejected but always returning. (The title means "waters that go want to return.") Butler’s style makes ample use of the torso, rippling or flexing, convex or concave, with isolated movements and marked formations that recall Mats Van Ek. The music comprised a varied selection, including songs by Miguel Angel and Jane May. Hogan McLaughlin designed the geometric panel and illusion bodysuits which, with the chiaroscuro lighting by Julie E. Ballard, felt like a glimpse of a dystopic future.

Barton’s return to patience (2015, with the HSDC premiere in 2023) best fit HSDC. The company, wearing the same pale jumpsuits (by Fritz Masten), was spread evenly over the stage, reminiscent of Balanchine’s Serenade. As Caroline Shaw’s contemplative Gustave Le Gray played, they tilted nearly indetectably to each side as an ensemble. Cue Balanchine again, as they all opened their parallel feet into first position at once. Barton pulls ballet into her style, in which energy flows organically and satisfyingly, but she’ll tweak something slightly—an extended foot can be the epitome of balletic precision, but then it sickles just a bit, an absolute no-no in the classical canon but for the same reason, intriguing when intentional.

Every element in a Barton work is considered and well executed. The immersive vanilla lighting and white marley stage design by Nicole Pearce set an otherwordly atmosphere, as did the uniformly clad, evenly spaced dancers. Barton always considers the entire stage picture, which contributes to her ubiquity in repertory over the last couple decades. And she trusts audiences to discern even the most subtle details to add texture to the more dramatic phrases and shapes.

Hubbard Street remains one of the country’s top rep companies. Interestingly, New York has been less consistently represented in this area, although the recent rise of Gibney Company offers a solid choice. Before that, the Walmart fortune-backed Cedar Lake flashed as brightly as a bolt of lightning, and sadly, vanished just as fast. The Juilliard dance division can act like a top-notch rep company, with performances each season by its preternaturally gifted students who then graduate and populate troupes such as Hubbard Street and Gibney, plus myriad other New York groups.

But even the originally single-choreographer companies, by dint of the passage of time, are becoming repertory vehicles. Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, José Limón, Trisha Brown—all must diversify in order to survive. The choices they make not only recontextualize their founders’ visions, but power the inexorable evolution of modern dance.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

New York Notebook, Feb 2024

Art—History in Process

Life is history. In the course of life, we accumulate things. Objects and material stuff, but also memories and lived experiences, including physical knowledge, rituals, and patterns. A sampling of culture in New York provided a fascinating survey of how artists gather and translate information into dance and art that, with luck and perseverance, is woven into our collective history.

Leslie Uggams. Photo: Joan Marcus
Encores!—the series title says it all. In February it was Jelly’s Last Jam, with book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. New York City Center carefully selects Broadway shows to remount for brief runs, many of which haven’t been staged in a long time. It unites incredibly talented performers, including Tony winners, here led by Nicholas Christopher as Jelly Roll Morton. With a relatively short rehearsal and performance cycle, and the option to perform with a score, it attracts big name stars between projects. Some of the cast bore the richness of history: the three Hunnies appeared in the original run, the legendary Leslie Uggams—smoldering and lucid in voice—played Gran Mimi, and Billy Porter, entering and exiting with nonpareil swagger, the Chimneyman. Milestones in Broadway’s history are revived in Encores!, performed by new and established talent and appreciated by hungry audiences. Plus, Broadway transfers are possible.

James Greenan in What We Hold. Photo: Nir Arieli

In What We Hold (which I’ll review in longer form for the Brooklyn Rail in April) at the Irish Arts Center, choreographer Jean Butler reframed classical Irish dance with a cast of varying ages and experience in the form. Her baggage is formidable as a one-time star of Riverdance. James Greenan led off with a 10+-minute solo of rapid, athletic tap drills. Spoken memories of going to class are heard in one section, as we were seated below a catwalk stage, staring at the dancers' artfully-placed legs. The passage between rooms (a "promenade performance") and mixing different subgenres of Irish dance, plus the knowledge of Butler’s history, made for an immersive, tantalizing experience.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time, also founded a successful school in Belgium, PARTS. She has earned to right to do whatever she wishes, and recently she choreographed a nearly two-hour solo, The Goldberg Variations: BWV 988 (seen at Skirball as part of Van Cleef & Arpels' Dance Reflections). Watching her work has always demanded focus, from the early themes of boundless repetition, to subtle hand gestures, limb swings, and skipping steps. Pavel Kolesnikov, playing the Variations on stage with his back to us, rendered the iconic score with incredible delicacy and nuance. This immersive mid-career movement compilation, tedious for spans, with several costume changes, was bolstered by the sturdy music. In any case, we witnessed the source—mind and body—of her immense oeuvre at work and play, at times in disparate fragments.

Beatrix Potter, pencil drawing, April 7, 1876. Linder Bequest, Museum no. BP.741.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London/courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

In ways, this sketched overview of her style parallels the exhibition Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, at the Morgan Library. Her great output of children’s books accrued over time, and the show lays out the various interests and threads which Potter wove together in her beloved books (which I loved as a child). Her skill as a technical illustrator allowed her to document her interests—the landscape, and of course animals including rabbits, cats, frogs, and ducks. Her letters are filled with sketches, precursors to her classic books which encapsulated every skill and talent she had honed until then. Walking through the show elicited both strong feelings of nostalgia and a newfound admiration for her craft. 

Mira Nadon, Sara Mearns in Solitude. Photo: Erin Baiano

In Solitude, a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky for New York City Ballet, one horrific image taken from the news prevails—a man (Joseph Gordon) kneeling over his dead son, killed by Russians in the Ukrainian war. As others pass them by—bursting aloft, pulling close, spinning chaotically—the man remains stone-still. He finally dances a solo of grief and intense emotion, representative of millions of Ukrainians and others in recognizing the destruction and futility of a miserable war. Ratmansky has made a snapshot of tragedy plucked from history in the making, creating a vocabulary that evokes the urgency and surrounding emotions of war without tipping into the cliche or maudlin. Mira Nadon and Sara Mearns also led the company in this first premiere by Ratmansky in his new company position, artist in residence.

 Adji Cissoko, Shuaib Elhassan in Deep River. Photo: Richard Termine

The Feb 23 performance of Lines’ Deep River at the Rose Theater is memorable for a different reason—a man yelling disrupted the show halfway through, forcing the curtain to lower for several minutes. It was at odds with the mellifluous, elegant dance onstage, the coursing jazz score by Jason Moran, and the powerful voice of Lisa Fischer. Choreographer Alonzo King is enamored with the elegant lines of ballet and connecting gorgeous poses with fluid phrases, and with his lithe, athletic dancers. At times, it feels like an overabundance, so much beauty blurring together. The interruption felt even more invasive for the idyll it broke. 

So much is happening in New York on any given day; it's perhaps easy to take it for granted. But art will persist after we're gone, and this slice of culture in New York was an testament to its vital importance in recording and making history. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

New York Notebook, Jan/Feb 2024

Timothy Ward and Justin Lynch in De la Lumière, Entre les LampesPhoto: Steven Pisano

Molissa Fenley, Roulette

Molissa Fenley’s program, From the Light, Between the Lamps, at Roulette was most likely not intended as a glowing source of optimism to pull us back from the looming abyss of life, but it wound up working that way on Jan 31. It comprised six dances made or revised very recently—a remarkable output given her incredible decades-long career—one that seemed in doubt after a serious knee injury in 1995. The unfettered joy and experimentation revolving around simply moving the human body felt like a salve and a return to what’s essential, in addition to the ongoing creation of work by a modern pioneer.

Fenley began presenting her work in 1977, drawing attention for her cyclonic, athletic solos and punk aesthetic. She incorporated elements such as percussion and South Asian dance influences that mostly hadn’t been seen together in a New York modern dancer. Flexed feet and hands, the latter to frame the head and upper body, and explosive jumps and spins, marked her fresh style. She made the most of the Covid-imposed rules for dance with her 2020 Joyce run of her virtuosic 1988 solo, State of Darkness, featuring seven powerhouse dancers from top modern and ballet troupes. (Three of them  guested at Roulette on later dates.)

Christiana Axelsen, Molissa Fenley, Timothy Ward in Lava FieldPhoto: Art Davison

In the new program, she showed new or revised work paired with music by thought-provoking composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Perhaps most surprising is that Fenley (born in 1954) performed alongside three outstanding dancers (Christiana Axelsen, Justin Lynch, Timothy Ward). Some of the movement felt softer and more organic than her earlier work. While Fenley's work is not prone to sentimentality, at times the dancers linked hands and passed under these arches, or leaned on one another tenderly. One solo gave way to another, or dancers entered in phases, or danced on three different levels. Some scores were played live, notably the Glass New Chaconne written in 2023. The intimate environs of Roulette (an old auditorium) combined with Fenley’s sui generis modernism to evoke a golden era of dance. And while it might feel halcyon relative to the chaos of today, to remember the horrors of the late 20th-century AIDS crisis might put current mayhem in perspective.

Roman Mejia, Mira Nadon, and Chun Wai Chan in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo: Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet, Koch Theater

The same week, New York City Ballet premiered Tiler Peck’s first work for her native company, where she continues to perform as a beloved principal. She has been choreographing elsewhere for a few years, including for the Vail Festival, which has encouraged young choreographers and collaborations, unlikely as much for the scheduling involved as any artistic barriers.

For the premiere, Peck chose Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (the title for her piece), an exuberant and dramatic composition with highly modulated dynamics and heroic melodies. Her choreography has many of the qualities that distinguish her greatness as a dancer—clarity, musicality, and joy. She gave Roman Mejia a blank canvas on which to display his formidable athleticism in countless spins, jumps, and soaring leaps, at times buddy-battling with Chun Wai Chan. Besides their technical prowess, both have lots of charisma—a welcome asset in a company that can produce skilled but politely distant men. Dancing with both in turn, the e
legant and glamorous Mira Nadon sported a crimson dress (by Zac Posen), which stood out among a sea of blues and browns. A gaggle of men lifted and sailed her about, placing her gently on a row of mens’ backs. India Bradley and Emma Von Enck handled allegro passages with skill and vibrancy.

Emma Von Enck and India Bradley in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Peck is smartly immersed in the working world of the theater. The striking curtain-up moment featured seven pairs of dancers in stark silhouette, performing snappy lifts and spins. Often, a light-hued cyc provides the needed contrast for darkly-lit dancers to highlight their shapes. (This was not the case in the evening’s closer, Odesa by Alexei Ratmansky, where the mens’ black-clad legs were hardly legible against dark backgrounds. On purpose, no doubt, but very hard to see.) The company of a community is important, as are robust solos. And hopefully Peck will have the chance to choreograph more for City Ballet, where she has worked since 2005.

Concerto followed Justin Peck’s Rotunda, created in 2020 to music by Nico Muhly, and Justin’s 19th ballet for the company. He has created dances of differing styles, including elements of street and tap, but he hews to ballet here. Many of the themes that underpin his dances are present—the group, often clustered, facing in, exploding outward to seek individual paths. A childlike playfulness, the joy in moving freely, but also moving precisely.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Odesa.Photo credit: Erin Baiano

richly-hued Odesa, to music by Leonid Desyatnikov, displays the choreographer’s skill at narrative suggestion with the barest of gestures—a woman refuses to take a man’s hand, at once conjuring all sorts of questions about their relationship. A group of men circle the stage in a softly lyrical phrase, which feels refreshingly different from the more strident, powerful vocabulary often given to men. 

In a sense, this choreographic trio of Peck, Peck, and Ratmansky represents the company’s near future, with the two men in formalized positions, and given the success of Concerto for Two Pianos, almost assuredly more to come from Tiler Peck.