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.