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. 

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