Reviews

Next Wave Festival at BAM, Boston Ballet, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

 

 

Next Wave Festival
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC • September 29–November 10, 2010 • Reviewed by Gus Solomons jr

 

The audience at BAM’s Next Wave Festival welcomed Pina Bausch’s Vollmond (Full Moon) like a tribute to the late choreographer, whose Tanztheater Wuppertal soldiers on after her death in 2009. The piece is quintessential Bausch, featuring a dozen wonderful performers—including veterans Nazareth Panadero with her foghorn voice and Tallulah Bankhead persona; alabaster, could-be fashion-model Julie Anne Stanzak; and pixie-like Dominique Mercy, who joined the company in 1973.

 

In typical Bausch fashion, over the course of the work’s two and a half hours, performers suck us into the choreographer’s dark, neurotic world, then spit us into her zany one, through theatrical skits and danced solos. Water is the pervasive element here, poured into wine glasses, spilling all over those holding them, and raining—literally—into a six-inch-deep trough, through which dancers breast-stroke or raft. A huge boulder dominates the big, black void where the action happens.

 

Bausch’s whimsy abounds: A naked man wanders randomly onstage; two men with mouths full of water spritz one another till you wonder where the water’s coming from. Panadero quips, “Do you know where I learned so many languages? In bed.” Equally salient is Bausch’s lustful masochism: A rail-thin woman nibbles a carrot in one hand and beats herself with a coat hanger in the other; another tries to set her own hair afire; yet another coaches beaus till they can undo her bra in one second flat; a man slaps a woman then winces, and she apologizes to him for hurting his hand.

 

In the second, more somber act, bucketfuls of water, hurled against the rock, spray like fireworks. But such moments of theatrical excitement are sparse, and the skits-and-solos format grows predictable. Even before the (redundant) quick-time recap of the entire piece, Vollmond has outstayed its welcome.

 

Ralph Lemon has spent so much time trying the patience of audiences that it’s become his artistic identity. His projects are swathed in intellectual constructs that can feel like thesis dissertations, although they do reflect a thoughtful intelligence that commands respect.

 

His latest, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is more mixed-media collage than dance work. Lemon shows footage of centenarian Mississippi sharecropper Walter Carter and his wife, Edna, enacting “remakes” of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, both science-fiction film classics. He also recycles a movement passage from his 2004 Come home Charley Patton, the last installment of his decade-long “Geography Trilogy.” And he incorporates whimsical video by Jim Findlay of a meditation fest, featuring Lemon in a rabbit suit, a big floppy dog, and several jungle animals—swan, rhino, giraffe, gazelle.

 

Kudos for challenging thinking, but the first hour of How Can You Stay is more consonant with 1950s European art house films than 21st-century live performance—packed with too many ideas and not enough action. Lemon sits in a plastic lawn chair, reading. He meditates on Carter’s space fantasy. He describes the demise, due to illness, of his female lover as he and she watched Japanese art films. And he explains what he calls his “drunk dances,” in which he attempts to deconstruct choreography by breaking down dancers’ control, getting them to perform it drunk and high, then having them reproduce those performances sober. Shoko Letton and Mike Taylor’s film accompanies and illustrates Lemon’s beautifully written words.

 

Things get livelier—if disturbingly so—when the impaired dancing we saw earlier onscreen comes to life. The same cast does a 23-minute expansion of the 3-minute filmed exercise. It’s simultaneously appalling and compelling, watching mature dancers respond to a choreographer’s hazardous, exhausting, and ambiguous commands, driven by sheer willpower and professionalism. In his narration, Lemon claims that it took four years after Charley Patton ended for the cast to speak to him again. After this 23-minute version, one can only hope Lemon’s mistreatment of dancers has finally run its course.

 

Since forming his own troupe in 1984, Angelin Preljocaj has proved to be a prodigious dancemaker, creating large-scale ballets for Paris Opéra, La Scala, and New York City Ballet, as well as his own 26-dancer company. By contrast, Empty moves (Parts I & II) (2004/2007) is a modest, 65-minute essay in inventive partnering. A master movement smith, Preljocaj captures strikingly unusual connections and transitions between two men and two women. In John Cage’s Empty Words—recorded in a 1977 Milan performance—Cage’s unintelligible speaking of text by Henry David Thoreau stimulates the frustration of his audience, whose increasingly raucous heckling and jeering become the actual score. Preljocaj lets the growing mayhem shape the dynamics of his movement choices. Motifs transform into phrases, canons, duets, and complex entanglements that never relinquish their serenity.

 

Berlin-based Sasha Waltz gives us a view of catastrophe in her 2005 Gezeiten (Tides). Pairs of people, pressed tightly front to back, drift into a dreary room with three doors and peeling paint. They begin to lean and lift each other in beautifully leveraged and balanced poses, accompanied by live Bach cello music. Eventually, there are 16 individuals in groups, adorning the space with the poetry of physics.

 

But in the second part, this calm, craftsman-like composition gives way to theatrical, reality-show-crude chaos. The doors shut, and a bout of cabin fever ensues. The refugees attack each other harshly, as outside forces—smoke and fire—keep them confined in their sanctum.

 

Then in part three, the refugees-turned-inmates indulge in overwrought emotional shenanigans that further foul their nest. They toss chairs, set fire inside the room, and rip up the floor in a virtuosic surreal trashing of Thomas Schenk and Waltz’s set. Is this really the next wave?

 

Pictured: Sasha Waltz’s Gezeiten. Photo by Gert Weigelt, courtesy BAM

 

Boston Ballet
Boston Opera House, Boston, MA
November 4–14, 2010
Reviewed by Karen Campbell

 

Boston Ballet’s new production of La Bayadère, staged by former Paris Opéra Ballet star Florence Clerc, is full of eye-popping pomp and splendor. In addition to gorgeous costumes, stunning scenery, and evocative lighting, this version of the exotic tale includes live music (by Minkus) from the company’s first-rate orchestra. It also features some outstanding dancing throughout, especially from the large corps of women in the iconic “Kingdom of the Shades” scene and the three main principal dancers—recently promoted Lia Cirio, new Georgian-born heartthrob Lasha Khozashvili, and the always elegant Kathleen Breen Combes.

 

What the work lacks, at least during the mime-heavy first act, is substantive choreography. A new production like this seems the perfect opportunity to create new ways of integrating dramatic storytelling with choreography that actually dances. But aside from a flamboyant display of corkscrew leaps and blistering turns by quicksilver Altan Dugaraa (as The Fakir)—and a feral dance by his skittery, monkey-like cronies—Act I lumbers by with a lot of finger-pointing, swooning, cowering, and heart-clutching.

 

Act II, set in the palace garden, is more compelling. As Gamzatti (Combes) and Solor (Khozashvili) await their wedding, the entertainment includes charming ensemble numbers. Jeffrey Cirio (Lia’s brother) is a standout as the Golden Idol, springing into vivid, asymmetrical shapes that twist and spin midair.

 

Lia Cirio owns the role of Nikiya, displaying her heartache at Solor’s betrayal with long, liquid arms and a supple back, suggesting both sensuality and vulnerability. She and Khozashvili share a warm chemistry and beautiful timing in fluid pas de deux that make use of breathtaking lifts. Khozashvili, a spectacular addition to the BB roster, has buoyant leaps that land with cushiony softness. Through crisp turns, sharp fouettés, and fully stretched grand jetés, Breen Combes imbues Gamzatti with nobility and spirit.

 

Forgoing the cumbersome “apotheosis,” the ballet ends with the opium-fueled hallucination of the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene. Clerc uses 24 rather than the usual 32 dancers, but the slow procession of ghostly women in white seems endless as they gracefully criss-cross the stage. A tour de force of precision, the corps handles this ethereal sequence with poised uniformity that carries into the more expressive dances. The plot drifts out of mind during this “ballet within a ballet.” An antidote to the dated mime of the previous two acts, this final section has a pristine classical brilliance that feels timeless.

 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
White Light Festival
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC
November 2–4, 2010
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

The concept of Lincoln Center’s new White Light Festival—devoted to the spiritual, transcendent dimensions of the arts—might sound a little hokey to your typical hard-charging, multi-tasking New Yorker. But that’s precisely why festival director Jane Moss launched it—to support those parts of our inner selves starving for nourishment in tough times. With Sutra (U.S. premiere) as part of this inaugural season’s mix, Moss has delivered a master stroke. This production, robust in both structure and performance, celebrates corporeality and physical skill while acknowledging the driving force of a disciplined mind. With the exception of composer Szymon Brzóska’s musicians, who hover behind a scrim that renders them ghostly, there’s nothing ethereal here.

 

In 2007, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Sutra’s Belgian-Moroccan director/choreographer, journeyed to China’s Henan province to study the martial arts practices of the Chan Buddhist monks of the Shaolin temple. The resulting hour-long work marries Cherkaoui’s nimble, playful style—Earl “Snakehips” Tucker crossed with Charlie Chaplin—to the monks’ kung fu moves in a continuously constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed environment.

 

The dynamic set, designed by sculptor Antony Gormley, consists of numerous open boxes—one metallic, others resembling plywood coffins—of a size just big enough to encase a human body. Throughout the piece, Cherkaoui and a large ensemble of gray-clad young monks refresh the space by rearranging these heavy boxes, creating pedestals, massive walls, enclosures, stacks of bunk beds, and more. They tilt the boxes, drag them, dangle from them, scramble in and out of them, and use them as launching pads. (Coordination is strict, thrilling, and reassuring. While your team israpidly thrusting boxes together, you had better know the precise moment to move your fingers out of the way.) Adjoined boxes serve as frames or platforms as individuals, duos, or groups demonstrate quick-trigger reflexes and earthy power—lunging, whirling, and punching; or twirling swords and wooden poles with lethal force.

 

The piece opens with the choreographer and the troupe’s youngest monk—an adorable sprite who later proves to be a fierce talent—sitting on an upturned box. They shuffle miniature boxes as if playing a board game. This rearrangement motif recurs throughout, suggesting that Cherkaoui is creator and orchestrator of the central, big-box action. However the choreographer often drops clues that, for all his own clever agility, he has Shaolin envy. Those boxes can symbolize the body-shell that houses the human soul, and Cherkaoui clearly identifies his body with Gormley’s formidable metallic box. He wants to follow the monks as they circle the stage, smoothly pulling boxes behind them, but his box barely budges. Sometimes, when he inhabits it, its walls reflect his flesh; they trap him.

 

Though an impressive and fascinating spectacle, Sutra largely accumulates rather than advances. At its end, I wasn’t sure I’d learned much that was new. But I’d had a very good time, and it was moving to see Cherkaoui throw down and finally throw in with the monks, in sync as they whipped through their kung fu motions. His dream had come true. 

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Reviews

 

 

Hofesh Shechter Company
White Bird Series • Portland, OR • October 21, 2009 • Reviewed by Heather Wisner

 

Group dynamics took center stage when this London-based contemporary company made its Portland debut—just one of two U.S. stops before heading on to Canada and Australia.

 

The two-piece program opened with a jolt of testosterone from Uprising, with choreography and score by Shechter. An ensemble work for seven men, Uprising captures different types of male interaction. The stage is dark and mostly bare, save for a bank of bright lights hung midway down the back wall and along each wing. Industrial clanking, layered with electronica and occasionally jazzy percussion, sets the tone as the men, each in khakis and a brightly colored T-shirt, emerge and stride downstage in a horizontal line, holding a passé position before breaking into smaller groups.

From there, the piece becomes less overtly dance-y but no less interesting. Movement flies across the stage: There is crab-walking, wild leaping, and a doubled-over shambling run, like a dog. A nightclubbish kick-ball-change becomes a bit of hip hop bounce, followed by football scrimmaging. When the light shifts from dark to bright, the men’s splayed limbs and clawed hands are etched into silhouette. Fog hisses out from the wings, evoking a steam bath; when the lights shut off again, the fog drifts across the darkness like clouds. The big laugh of the night followed a circle of men first backslapping, then face-slapping, then all-out brawling.

 

Some of these encounters are hostile, others congenial, and a few furtively suggestive. The same is not quite true of the show’s second half, In your rooms, which is set to live percussion and strings. Here, even more than in Uprising, it seems worth noting Shechter’s personal life: A reluctant conscript of his native Israel’s mandatory military service, he is now an ex-pat directing a multicultural company in London. In Your Rooms is about a group of people who act together but rarely interact with each other—or with us, for that matter.

 

There is ritualistic movement (not unlike what we have seen from Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company, with whom Shechter once danced), performed in unison, deftly and with military precision. The dancers are often hunched over, busily scurrying around, their eyes cast down. This is broken by sudden entanglements and scuffles and agitated bobbing that could be prayer. The piece feels emotionally disconnected, but it illustrates plainly enough that togetherness and intimacy are two different things.

 

The Forsythe Company
Next Wave Festival
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYCOctober 7–10, 2009Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

In Decreation, each performer finds a fertile center of madness within themselves. From the first moments, when Dana Caspersen yanks herself by the collar while reciting opposite sides of a conversation from poet Anne Carson’s “Decreation,” to the last, when Roberta Mosca sits atop a table while others lunge at her, the characters careen toward insanity or violence.

 

Forsythe’s movement is extraordinary from the first section. One dancer flops as though his body were part fish and part very precise spider. (This is not technically Forsythe’s movement, but comes from the dancer himself under Forsythe’s direction.)

 

Several planes of reality coexist: wayward dancers, a live video camera, a screen, a table, sinister or absurd conversations echoing back and forth, people in drastically different states of mind. The preverbal sounds that escape from dancers’ mouths, sometimes amplified, veer between fascinating and alarming.

 

There is just enough convergence of shape for the eye to take it all in. Uncanny timing has a lot to do with it, so that somehow, you are just this side of being overloaded. Frustrated, yes, but you cannot turn away.

 

Anne Carson’s text can deflate the intensity with humor, or it can goad the dancing into absurdity. “There is no hurt where there is belief,” repeated in different circumstances, can seem like a revelation or an accusation. Some lines sound like everyday caustic conversation: “It’s hard to tell when you’re joking, or when you’re just being obnoxious.” The sardonic can be funny: “I love your drama” and “It’s getting operatic.” Other lines cross over into sadism: “This is the deal: You give me everything and I give you nothing.” There are also mentions of “the soul,” but in this dance, the soul gets cornered, triggering wild, obsessive behavior.

 

A remarkable sequence begins when Georg Reischl appears, claiming, “I’m just here; I like my spiel.” Endearing in his freedom and innocence, hampered by another dancer playfully wrapping himself around Reischl, he is different from the other jaded characters. Eventually, though, Reischl’s joy is dimmed by constant self-questioning. He devolves into hating his own spiel and becomes more and more desperate and slithery. This goes on longer than expected, and our hearts go out to him.

 

At the end, the stage darkens and we see only a single figure on screen. It gets further and further away, as if to give us perspective on all we have witnessed, making the things that upset us or struck us as human very small.

 

Aszure & Artists
Mertz Theatre
Sarasota, FLOctober 8–10, 2009Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

Busk. What a great title for Aszure Barton’s spanking new ensemble dance, a world premiere at the inaugural season of the five-day Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, FL, co-presented by the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. I can just imagine the gifted Canadian choreographer mulling over this commission, licking her chops, thinking about all the things buskers—street performers—do to lure audiences and earn a little cash.

 

Wikipedia spells it out: acrobatics, animal tricks, balloon twisting, card tricks, clowning, comedy, contortions and escapes, dance, fire eating, fortune-telling, juggling, magic, mime and a mime variation where the artist performs as a living statue, musical performance, puppeteering, snake charming, storytelling or reciting poetry or prose as a bard, street art (sketching and painting, etc.), street theater, sword swallowing, or even a flea circus. And, let me tell you, that’s just the brilliant opening solo danced by Kyle Robinson, who looks like a young Brad Pitt.

 

The notion of entertainment to charm a distractable, fickle public—and of entertainment as survival strategy, with performers at the edge of desperation—seems right for our times and especially right for Barton. (It also links in, in its funny way, with the Ringling circus tradition.) Championed early in her career by Baryshnikov, Barton has made works that combine popular accessibility and melancholic darkness in equal measures. And she regularly treats her “pitch”—the busker’s territory—as a gallery for monumental kinetic art.

 

It is no different in this mysterious new abstract piece where, as is Barton’s way, costumes merely offer hints of narrative possibilities. Huddling dancers in dark hoodies, in one section, could signal everything from homeless street kids to a death-spooky group of monks, but no matter. We’re not meant to hold onto any identification long enough to pin it down.

 

Dancers’ bodies move like bold splashes of paint, match the slippery suppleness of clay, shimmer and resonate like stringed instruments, sing in overtones, and emote in a multitude of tongues. Today, many dance artists collaborate widely and consider their productions to be multidisciplinary. Barton—with an assist from her dancers, among the most magnetic and psychologically expressive performers onstage today—delivers the multidisciplinary, and multivalent, body.

 

A dancer’s long frame undulating, while one hand—adjoined to and splaying out from a hip—wriggles like a sea anemone, is at once human, not quite human, and a collective of humans, or perhaps a collage of human experience. Barton, who famously builds on each of her dancer’s individual strengths, also seems quite confident and happy deploying a large group across sizable space. It’s amusing to realize that she can sneakily multiply a group even further by turning each one into many. This busker gives plenty of value for your money.

 

Busk is set primarily to gypsy music by Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin. Nicole Pearce’s hazy lighting provides good atmosphere. Costumes are by Michelle Jank and projected visuals by Kevin Freeman and Shannon DMOTE Peel. Besides the stunning Mr. Robinson, Barton’s laudable corps includes Jonathan Alsberry, Collin Baja, Charlaine Katsuyoshi, Andrew Murdock, Reed Luplau, Emily Oldak, Banning Roberts, and Cynthia Salgado.

 

Royal Danish Ballet
Old Stage, The Royal Danish Theatre
Copenhagen, DenmarkNovember 10–28, 2009Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

How they cheered! And how relieved Nikolaj Hübbe must be!

 

The former New York City Ballet star, now in his second season as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, knew he was taking a major risk in revising August Bournonville’s 1842, three-act masterwork Napoli, yet the result is little short of a triumph.

 

Bournonville has a special place in Denmark’s cultural pantheon. Tampering with a ballet as hallowed as Napoli is a perilous undertaking. Yet even the most diehard traditionalists must surely concede, albeit with a few scruples, that Hübbe, in association with former RDB star Sorella Englund, has succeeded in breathing new life into an almost too saccharine period piece.

 

Napoli is the story of Teresina and Gennaro, young lovers who must overcome parental objection, the interference of rivals, and the consequences of a life-threatening storm before they can be united.

 

Hübbe’s masterstroke is to set the ballet in the 1950s. He replaces Bournonville’s bourgeois picture-postcard prettiness with a grittier, raunchier image of garbage-strewn Neapolitan street life where everyone seems to be drunk, horny, or on the make.

 

Peppo and Giacomo, rival suitors for Teresina’s hand, become red-blooded rogues rather than the original’s clownish cartoon characters. Pascarillo, the itinerant balladeer, is now a down-and-dirty drag act.

 

Napoli’s supernatural Act II, in which Teresina washes up in Capri’s Blue Grotto and almost falls prey to the evil Golfo, has long been considered problematic. Bournonville’s choreography is effectively lost and the music dreary.

 

Hübbe and Englund start from scratch. The scene is now underwater—Teresina is lowered in on wires to simulate sinking—and, except when Gennaro arrives to save her, the choreography has a sinuously contemporary style. Even the Act II music is new. Louise Alenius Boserup’s commissioned score—in its filmic way sometimes reminiscent of Danny Elfman—effectively sets an eerie mood.

 

Act III, often staged alone as a dancing feast, is of course the great glory of Napoli. While Hübbe raises a laugh by having a leather-jacketed Gennaro arrive on a Vespa, he has wisely left things largely intact, even to the extent of having designer Maja Ravn put many of the dancers in traditional costume. As others have before, Hübbe has withdrawn Teresina and Gennaro from their little spots in the pas de six and given them their own Bournonville-style pas de deux. And, yes, there is still a bridge for the children to wave from.

 

The dancing throughout was marvelous in its infectious enthusiasm. Gitte Lindstrøm and Ulrik Birkkjær made ideal opening-night leads, their romantic ardor more than sufficient to warm a chilly Copenhagen night. Birkkjær was deservedly promoted to principal rank before a cheering crowd at the close. The second night, debuting American principal Amy Watson offered a slightly less headstrong Teresina than Lindstrøm’s but was convincing nevertheless. Her Gennaro, Alexander Stæger, also made a very impressive debut. It’s hard to imagine him remaining in the corps much longer.

 

 

Photo of Hofesh Schechter’s Uprising by Chris Roesing, courtesy White Bird

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Reviews

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater, NYC • January 6–March 1, 2009 • Reviewed by Lisa Rinehart

 

During a winter of dire economic news, New York City Ballet’s season was comfy as a hot-water bottle on an aching tummy. An eyeful of beauty and an earful of glorious music, courtesy of the Balanchine repertory, ensured a good time for all. Under the sparkling waters, however, a seismic question churns: Is NYCB the keeper of the Balanchine flame, or is it a repertory company that just happens to feature Balanchine like, say, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, or fellow New York resident, American Ballet Theatre? These companies arguably perform Balanchine as well as (some say better than) NYCB, and all of them dance works by many of the world’s finest living choreographers. So what’s an artistic director to do? Based on a winter season featuring two new commissions, several non-Balanchine revivals, and some flaccid performances of Balanchine chestnuts, it appears that the choice is to totter uncomfortably in between.

 

Artistic director Peter Martins has commissioned numerous ballets for NYCB, but few have survived past their first season. This could be the result of bad luck––even talented choreographers can make flops––but it’s probably because of bad choices. Melissa Barak’s A Simple Symphony is a case in point. Promo­ting local talent is one thing, but Barak, a former NYCB dancer, has only a handful of ballets under her belt and apparently little awareness of anything beyond the realm of cloying neo-classic symmetry. A Simple Symphony is an unremarkable bit of cotton candy that just isn’t ready for prime time.

 

Lifecasting by Douglas Lee, a principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet and two-time participant in NYCB’s New York Choreographic Workshop, is more sophisticated, but not necessarily better. The dancers are polished and aggressive under lighting either dim as a bar or bright as a meat case, but Lee doesn’t know what to do with the extraordinary appendages on display. The dance is a formless, pointless gymnastics exercise with the end signaled by nearly crushing the dancers with a cluster of hanging lights. I suspect Lee wanted to be sure we knew it was over.

 

Unfortunately, lackluster premieres such as these are more the norm than the exception at NYCB. Martins is unable to find the right choreographic talent for his company, or when he does, he can’t hang on to it. (The loss of Christopher Wheeldon as resident choreographer comes to mind, as do the clumsy negotiations that sent Alexei Ratmansky to ABT.) Perhaps an educational watching tour is in order before the next commissions are handed out.

 

Choreographic prowess isn’t at issue with the winter’s featured Balanchine repertory, but mediocre interpretations are. Listless performances from the corps through to the principals marred steely-boned works such as Concerto Barocco, Divertimento No. 15, Ballo della Regina, Theme and Variations, and, most egregiously, Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The corps, traditionally fired up by a coltish exuberance for the musicality and wit of Balanchine’s steps, looked clunky and uninterested. Worse, on occasion, principals were cast as though seniority alone might ensure depth of interpretation. Nilas Martins, barely in evidence for the season, showed up looking like someone’s lost uncle in Davidsbündlertänze, and even Robert Fairchild’s infectious joy couldn’t rescue Stravinsky Violin Concerto from a brittle Wendy Whelan and a matronly Yvonne Borree.

 

But now for the good news. NYCB’s dancers, including some veterans, are more versatile than ever. Whelan, though not up to the dramatic demands of Balanchine’s overly speedy Swan Lake, was magnificently feminine in Wheeldon’s After the Rain and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. Sara Mearns, a powerhouse of a dancer capable of just about any technical trick, was transcendent in the tender first movement of Vienna Waltzes and a firecracker in the flamboyant finale of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. Hers will be an interesting trajectory to watch. The mercurial, almost dangerous Rebecca Krohn adds layers to all her roles, and Teresa Reichlen is a perfumed flower beginning to unfold. I will happily watch these two women dance anything in the repertory. As for the men, Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin De Luz were consistently terrific and virtuosic enough to shine in a company less woman-centric than NYCB. Benjamin Millepied had an impressive season, dancing fully in everything from Theme and Variations to West Side Story to La Stravaganza. Philip Neal, usually cast as the (let’s just say it, boring) stalwart partner, surprised with flashy tap moves in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and a darkly nuanced appearance in La Valse.

Of the season’s revivals, Robbins’ West Side Story Suite stretched the company farthest from its balletic roots, with Georgina Pazcoguin turning in a Tony Award-worthy performance as Anita. Jorma Elo’s 2006 Slice to Sharp held up well with a few cast changes. Gonzalo Garcia brought welcome elegance to Wheeldon’s uneven Mercurial Ma­noeuvres. And Megan Fairchild breathed new life into Balanchine’s Coppélia.

 

NYCB is looking good, but not as good as it needs to––more nimble and tour-ready companies are breathing down its lovely neck.

 

Ron K. Brown/Evidence
The Joyce Theater, NYC
February 10–15, 2009

Reviewed by Gus Solomons jr

Ronald K. Brown has evolved a distinctive voice in the dance world, combining West African, American modern, and club movement with text that comments on race, sexuality, and community. Brown’s works grace the repertories of most of the country’s Afro-centric concert dance companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The appeal of his own troupe, Evidence, A Dance Company, lies in the dancers’ ownership of their skills and their bodies; they fearlessly assert powerful personalities.

 

The four women represent a refreshing range, from petite Lilli-Anne Tai to Clarice Young’s strong physique, to the shapelier Tiffany Quinn, to Francine Ott, a woman of size who exuberantly flaunts it. The men, all athletically built, range from compact Arcell Cabaug to six-foot-plus Otis Donovan Herring.

 

The six dances that Brown presented on two programs, spanning his career from 1995 to last year, share some structural elements. As my companion astutely put it, “His dances start in church and end in Africa.” The solemn openings of Ebony Magazine: to a village (1996) and Two-Year Old Gentlemen (2008)––a funeral ceremony and worship service, respectively––reinforce this impression. The second movements of both burst into joyful African-esque dancing.

 

In Ebony, dancers traverse the stage with rhythmic walking that erupts into lively arm-flapping, stag-leaping, and torso-pumping phrases.

 

A highlight of Two-Year Old Gentlemen is the guest appearance in the opening section of Ame Bender––older than 2, but no more than 4––as the embodiment of inchoate man, full of potential. One by one, he awakens Joel Sulé Adams, Herring, Cabaug, and Brown from repose and imitates their unison moves, jutting out his little arms and high-stepping smartly to the beat of onstage drumming. After he exits, the four men alternate show-off solos that seem at least partially improvisational, one-upping each other, but being deferential to the elder, Brown, dressed in white.

 

Incidents (1998) and Grace (1999) open with long solos for a woman preceding the entrance of the others. In Incidents, Young and Ott dress a little girl, Tai, as if escorting her into womanhood, and then all four celebrate.

 

Grace follows Young’s opening solo as a white-gowned priestess with exuberant dancing by the rest of the congregation in pairs and trios. In the second section, the dancers are all in profile, as if they were dancing for an audience in the wings.

 

Exotica (1995) demonstrates Brown’s disco funky side. Lined up, women in front, men in back, everybody shakes their booties with attitude to the delight of the cadence-clapping audience.

 

Walking Out the Dark I (2002) is one of Brown’s most satisfying dances; its architecture is classically simple. Four dancers anchor the corners of the stage. The women challenge each other; one crouches with outstretched hands, nose-to-nose, swiveling from side to side, fanning a leg in a wide circle. Their proximity threatens violence. Finally, the four walk out the dark rage and enter the light of mutual support and understanding.

 

 

Photo: Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB

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Reviews

 

 

The Royal Ballet
The Kennedy Center • Washington, DC
June 23-28
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

The Brits can choreograph love duets to die for. Ashton’s one-act A Month in the Country (part of a triple bill) and Mac­Millan’s full-length Manon are cases in point. But—and this shows how far The Royal Ballet has come globally—the dancers who exquisitely embodied their rapture were Carlos Acosta (Cuban) and Tamara Rojo (Spanish) in the Macmillan, and Alexandra Ansanelli (American) and Ivan Putrov (Russian) in the Ashton.

 

Acosta in Manon (1974) gave one of the most moving performances I have seen on a ballet stage. He is a dancer who makes you feel something, even when he is standing still (which his character Des Grieux does a lot in this ballet). His first set of développés toward Manon, ending in a multiple pirouette that sinks to the floor in devotion, was so touching that he erased any sense of Acosta the superstar.

 

Rojo was tantalizing, emotional, and tragic. She flung herself into the treacherous lift-spin-drops in the bedroom scene. Her impulsive dive onto the bed to wait for Des Grieux’s return added a touch of humor.

 

Acosta and Rojo’s desire to be close was evident in every detail of their deep slides and grand glides. Massenet’s ominous and lilting music, played live by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, helped make this a stirring story.

 

Ansanelli, as an adulterous lady of leisure in A Month in the Country (1976), gave one of her greatest performances—and sadly her last in the U.S. Gracious and yet hungry for sensual contact, she made every detail count. Ivan Putrov, with an open face and youthful vigor, was the tutor, whom every female in the house wants to win. The only real choreography (there is much drawing-room play acting) was the soaring lifts and entwinings between Ansanelli and Putrov. At the end of this illicit liaison, she bourrées side to side, head dropped back in gorgeous surrender. Not many ballerinas today can project such a grand and tragic sense of romance.

 

Two ultra-contemporary pieces sandwiched Month in the rep program. Wheeldon deployed Michael Nyman’s propelling music and a mysterious Gehry-like translucent structure upstage for his 2006 DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. When dancers stepped behind it they looked like ghosts from the past. Some of the churning and undulating moves reminded me of Within the Golden Hour, Wheeldon’s beautiful piece for San Francisco Ballet last year. Two cataclysmic moments, when the music and dancing stopped dead and the lights changed drastically, seemed like Wheeldon’s answer to Forsythe bringing the curtain down with a thud to interrupt the dancing in Artifact.

 

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma was like plunging into ice water. The piercing music (by Joby Talbot) and aggressive extensions, pushed beyond ballerina decorum, made you shiver at first, but after a while the water was fine. Better than fine. The choreography pried the dancers’ bodies open in unsettling and exhilarating ways. The partnering was killer and the counterpoint satisfying. Each of the 10 dancers, stretched to extremes, was awesome.

Philadanco
The Joyce Theater, NYC
June 15–21, 2009
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

Taken on its own terms, Philadanco is a triumph: nearly 40 years in existence under the leadership of Joan Myers Brown; an African American troupe, bearing up now in a climate that’s tough on arts groups from every culture; a rock-solid Philadelphia institution with a world-class reputation; a robust engine of dance education for its city and state.

 

Felicitous imperfections and bits of individuality sing out from each Philadancer. Your eye can skip from one performer to the next with the enjoyment of discovery. They remind us of gifted, dedicated youngsters we might know from around the way, kids who have grown and done well for themselves, not airbrushed gods and god­desses of the stage.

 

Guest choreographer Rennie Harris made the best use of this realness, deploying his mass of dancers to reflect the character of an entire city without losing that precious texture of individuality. Philadelphia Experiment succeeds as a can’t stop/won’t stop celebration of the hometown and a sly praisesong to decades and two hemispheres of black dance culture.

 

There’s a social issues undercurrent here, too, indicated by photo slides, truncated voiceover material hinting at a disturbing incident, and program notes acknowledging “political, social and economic change.” But the dance itself? Nothing but a party partying down pretty hard.

 

“Do you remember the days of slavery?” a voice chants over a locomotive rhythm, and a projected piece of art reads, “We the people of the United States are sick and tired of getting the runaround.” Meanwhile, 15 bodies dance the invincibility of black life—life so unbeatable, in fact, that even when you think Experiment is over and the dancers take a bow, it flares up again, driving the audience wild.

 

But not all of Philadanco’s experiments yield useful results. Guest choreographers Camille A. Brown (Those Who See Light) and Hope Boykin (Be Ye Not) proffer ideas that get smothered in the busyness onstage.

 

Brown, a movement whiz on the rise, for once gets done in by her own inexhaustible cleverness and her dancers’ skill. Her piece seems less about its stated theme of seeking and manifesting spiri­tual light than about how many ways you can move your body. And Kurt “KC” Clayton’s inexplicable original score should really be paired with a chase scene in an action flick.

 

For Be Ye Not, Boykin links her premise—being your true, if lonely, self vs. conforming to the crowd—to obvious interactions and a well-worn movement style. It’s pasteboard. Were it not for the doe-like sweetness of lead dancer Dawn Marie Watson, there’d be little reason to pay attention.

 

Philadanco’s audiences dearly love Enemy Behind The Gates (2002), by Christopher L. Huggins. The pairing of heady Steve Reich music with a virtuosic corps hinting at military rectitude and valor went over well at the Joyce. Like the Boykin and Brown pieces, Enemy inspires everyone to stow that Playbill—with its confusing, distracting program notes about “enemies that look like you”—and just rest back and take in the passing show. The dancers deliver a knockout. That’s swell, but I think we can get more from art, and I vote for more Harris, more coherence, more invention, and far more provocation.

LAFA & Artists
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Doris Duke Theatre Becket, MA July 1–5, 2009
Reviewed by Theodore Bale

 

Last August in the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, I sat rapt while a 20-foot digital image of Fang-Yi Sheu floated above the audience in David Michalek’s extraordinary Slow Dancing. I didn’t know then that his elegant digital portrait would foreshadow the U.S. debut of Sheu’s company, LAFA & Artists, in the same theater less than a year later. Neither did I appreciate then the formidable talents of Bulareyaung Pagarlava, LAFA’s co-artistic director and principal choreographer. After all, I had seen only a few seconds of his work (albeit stretched out over 10 minutes) in Michalek’s film.

 

The ensemble’s introduction at the Pillow was thrilling news for dance fans, and buzz about the group is catching like wildfire. Sheu is well-known for her prowess as an interpreter of Martha Graham’s work. With her own company, however, she has made a radical shift in aesthetics. The only woman in her seven-member company, she is a triumphant diva in the midst of six handsome young men who are accomplished gymnasts and acrobats as well as commanding dancers.

 

The company acronym is a blend of letters from the names of its founders: Bu-LA-re-yaung (Pagarlava) and FAng-Yi (Sheu). Both are from Taiwan and have worked with that city’s celebrated Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.

 

Pagarlava’s three dances were sepa­rated by intermissions, but they are actually better suited as movements in one evening-length work. Single Room (Excerpts) is an extended solo in which Sheu hovers and balances over a simple long table, never revealing her method of support, and moving so skillfully that it is impossible to discern where one phrase stops and another begins. Like a hummingbird possessed of colossal strength, she defies gravity just as she did in Slow Dancing, but here in real time.

 

The two surrounding dances, 37 Arts and Summer Fantasia Part I–Summer at Jacob’s Pillow, expertly layer and shift between disparate events. The former begins with a fight over a milk bottle and leads to episodes of hand­stands, boomerang-tossing, balancing folded newspaper pages on the nose, and jumping through hoops. Suddenly it shifts to a rough, erotic duet for Ming-Cheng Huang and Sheu set to Renaissance songs by Dowland, and later a ragged tango for two men. In Summer Fantasia the men dance through an endless series of archetypal scenes, all provoked by a blue-and-white striped beach towel, and clearly making an ironic commentary on Ted Shawn’s legendary Men Dancers.

 

Graham had her start in vaudeville; nearly a century later Sheu and Pagarlava are using the same format to radiant physical and metaphorical effect.

 

 

Photo by Karli Cadel, Courtesty Jacob’s Pillow

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Reviews

“Three Solos and a Duet”
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ana Laguna
The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College • Santa Monica, CA
September 4–5, 2009

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

 

If there’s anything that Mikhail Baryshnikov cannot do—besides, perhaps, split atoms—nobody’s told him. Now 61, he could have rested on his ballet laurels, but having moved into the contemporary realm nearly two decades ago, Baryshnikov still has the power to seduce, surprise, and satisfy. And, let’s face it, the iconic dancer can turn a simple saunter onstage into a riveting event.

Which is what he did to open the program with Alexei Ratmansky’s capricious Valse-Fantasie. A story of lost love, the 10-minute work, set to music of Glinka, features a jaunty Baryshnikov in mime mode, his über-expressive hands equal to his eternally fleet footwork. Windmill arms swoop and shoulders shrug while a series of sharply etched ballet steps flow into knee-slapping lunges.

Benjamin Millepied’s Years Later offers a peek into Baryshnikov’s past with film of the dancer at the start of his career. From 2006, the work now features haunting saxophone music by Philip Glass as a live Baryshnikov ponders his celluloid self, abetted by Asa Mader’s video projections. A meditation on aging, the work blends nostalgia and reality as the two figures not only collide but coalesce to reveal a startlingly authentic artist, one who today acknowledges his limitations by mining gold from a tiny jump, a swiveled hip, a bopping head.

In an excerpt from Mats Ek’s Solo for Two (1996) Baryshnikov appears briefly while the glorious Ana Laguna, Ek’s wife and muse, displays her actorly dancing. At 54, Spanish-born Laguna commands the stage with elongated lunges, backward skittering, and exquisite balancing poses, all set to a plaintive Arvo Pärt score.

In Ek’s 22-minute Place, created for Baryshnikov and Laguna two years ago, the duo interacts with a table and carpet in this kinetic story of a couple who reunites. Light-hearted and loving one moment, squaring off separately the next, the pair looks splendid. Laguna, phoenix-like, rises into an arabesque before moving into Baryshnikov’s arms. They also bound about in unison and do battle with the table, moving on and under it as well as dragging it around the stage. Generating full-throttle emotion, the dancers surge with fidgety moves, their urgent passions nothing less than infectious.

 

Growing old never looked so good.

 

 

Mark Morris Dance Group
Mostly Mozart Festival • Rose Theater, NYC
August 19–22, 2009
Reviewed by Susan Yung

Mostly Mozart co-commissioned two new works by Mark Morris that showed—and expanded—his range, as well as his integral relationship with music. Morris’ dances, often refreshingly unembellished and legible, nonetheless always feel like special occasions. His two new works were no exception. Visitation is set to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major, played live by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Dallas McMurray greets the other dancers in a meaningful way, one by one—locking hands, then pulling away with regret. It’s unclear whether he’s arriving or leaving, or if they are, but it feels profound, like a visitation should.

A melancholy sense of parting imbues much of the movement, performed in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s earth-toned pajama separates and lit tenderly by Nicole Pearce. Arms float down from overhead, or arc up and back as the body’s weight sighs into a plié. At other times, McMurray strides with great purpose, striking his heels percussively, or leaps and throws open his chest, arms raked back, as if to cheer the mood of the dancers he’s leaving. And Morris’ trademark humor appears toward the end of the short dance in the horseplay and ostentatious entrances of the women, borne like Cleopatras by teams of men.

Empire Garden contrasts sharply. Morris bravely chose Charles Ives’ Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (Ma and Ax were joined by Colin Jacobsen on violin), which is dotted with Americana musical quotes and more than one melody vying for dominance. Kurtzman’s flag-inspired uniforms, which separate into three color groups, conjure imagery of marching bands, the military, and sports teams. The movement begins with starts and stops and intriguing gestures; the dancers might be using a secret sign language. The music, at first dark and mysterious, becomes more boisterous and rhythmic, shifting into a march. As snippets of American songs pass by, the choreography seems to react with vaguely militaristic miming, a competition of some sort, nautical jigs.

Teams hoist mates aloft, possibly in victory or as lookouts; partners interlock and scuttle like crabs, gazes locked. Recurring motifs include flattened-out barrel jumps, and pairs in which one dancer grand-jetés and the other responds with an overhead fan kick. The entire group of 15 forms a triangular tableau ascending in height, one of the few moments of geometric symmetry in a visually and aurally ambitious, cacophonous dance that extends Morris’ breadth.

V (2001) completed the program. This repertory staple seems to have softened over the years but remains a vivid and haunting telling of its Schumann score.

 

 

Tulsa Ballet
The Joyce, NYC
August 10–17, 2009
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This company of international dancers made a fine debut in New York, with a (mostly) well-chosen program, excellent dancing, and vivid character portrayals.

We don’t see enough MacMillan in this country, so his Elite Syncopations was much appreciated. Although it looks like a historic piece, perhaps a cross between Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne and the musclemen of Nijinska’s Les Biches, it was made in 1974. Couples moved in Vernon Castle–type steps, like a tame version of the roaring ’20s. Once you got past Ian Spurling’s elaborately silly costumes, the humor of the piece, performed to the lilting piano rags of Scott Joplin and others, became infectious. One of the highlights was a hilariously ingenious duet with the tall Marit van der Wolde and the short Mugen Kazama. Small and quick, with a shock of black hair, Kazama is the funniest ballet dancer I’ve seen in years. Another highlight was the beautiful dancing of Karina Gonzalez, a principal after only three years with the company. Never overdoing, she projects a natural joy, contained only by clean lines. Also admirable was the freshness of Ashley Blade-Martín’s presence.

Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero (1996)—grounded yet ethereal, modern yet medieval, sensual yet chaste—showed the range of these spirited dancers. The luscious weightiness of Duato’s sweeps and swoops is not something every ballet company can master. But Tulsa Ballet did a great job, especially its shining star, Gonzalez. The blood red curtains and dark panels of Duato’s own set design added a sense of mystery. The quiet moments of interaction with this visual element—a hand caressing a panel, a face disappearing behind it—revealed his poetic genius.

This Is Your Life (2008), choreographed by Young Soon Hue, was the kind of piece college kids made in the ’70s when they discovered that dancers could talk. Based on a dorky game show, the narrative of the cocky TV host lacked irony. And the dancing/acting out of each contestant’s life was so literal that when all the men donned black tutus, you just went “Whaaa?” The love duet at the end, which showed that Young Soon Hue can really choreograph, also did not fit the story. However the dancers carried the day. Ricardo Graziano transcended the role of gay hairdresser with real kinetic wit. Ma Cong was fierce as a trapped businessman with the shakes. Gonzalez was again meltingly lovely in the out-of-place pas de deux. And the terrific Kazama returned with uproarious mock braggadocio as a super-confident tango guy.

 

 

jill sigman/thinkdance
Solar One: Stuyvesant Cove Park, NYC
September 5–6, 10, 12, 2009
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

One man’s trash might be another man’s treasure, but in Our Lady of Detritus, Jill Sigman gives us a good measure of both. From late summer to early fall, Sigman toured this “portable, interdisciplinary performance installation” to several New York City parks, providing a free spectacle and a blend of wonder, mystification, education, expiation, and motivation to folks who just happened to be hanging around or passing through. I caught it on a perfect day by the East River at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Cove Park, home of the green energy arts and education center Solar One.

Sigman portrays the hallowed lady, festooned in flourescent orange and hot pink and—look closely now—recycled plastic doodads, found or donated. In a procession launched from Solar One’s headquarters, Our Lady is borne on an elaborately decorated wagon, pulled through the park’s esplanade by her composer/singer/DJ (Kristin Norderval) on a pedal-powered “food for thought” vending cart, and heralded by a carnival barker (Mariana Ferreira). The remarkable sights and sounds might remind viewers of religious processions honoring Hindu deities or Mediterranean, Mexican, or Afro-Atlantic saints.

 

The Lady has come to hear our sins—all about the trash that individuals and industries discard without concern for environmental and health consequences. She has come laden with the green tech of solar panels and rechargeable batteries; a voicemail system that, when called from our cellphones, serves as a 21st-century confessional booth; and a wagonload of Cheez Doodles, apparently the saint’s sacrificial offering of choice.

 

The description sounds nutty, but the visual and aural effects—particularly the colorful, exacting display designed by Sig­man and Norderval’s operatic chant­ing—can be captivating. All the better to get folks to stop, look, listen, and maybe pick up an informational brochure on composting or a postcard listing numerous green-friendly resources. And, if that’s not enough, there’s Ferreira holding a contorted pose—she rolls herself up like a blanket—while manically chattering about a floating garbage patch in the Pacific. It’s huge, and she suggests that we might like to vacation or even relocate. “Celebrities buy land there,” she cries, “because it will last forever!”

 

When the heat of the late summer sun got to be too much—and the sight of the Sainted One walking around with orange snack food stuck to her butt too absurd—I made my way past the gibbering Ferreira, the fishermen dipping rods into the toxic river, and the imposing view of Con Edison’s plant just south of the park’s end. All the way home, though, I noticed, with more intensity, all the trash on our streets.

 

 

Wayne McGregor/ Random Dance
Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MNSeptember 11, 2009
Review by Camille LeFevre

 

In Entity, Wayne McGregor presents a new species of dancer. With this hour-long 2009 work, the British choreographer set out to create an “autonomous choreographic agent—an ‘Entity’—that can think—and propose moves—for itself,” a program note states. And indeed he has.
The dancers in Entity are physically sentient creatures whose driving impetus is curiosity. Their means of exploring space and each other is their elastic corporeality. And their method of articulation is a movement vocabulary abstracted, it seems, from the instinctive gestures of insects, birds, and animals.

 

McGregor opens and closes the piece with a Muybridge-like image of a loping greyhound, which signals his intentions almost too neatly. Just as greyhounds are bred to run, so this breed of dancers exists only to move. Their DNA is classical ballet technique, taken to a kinetic extreme. Their lines are drawn, and every move extracted from their bodies with crystalline precision.

 

Offsetting this drastic classicism are sporadic shudders, sensual ripples of an upper arm or torso, a flickering hand across a belly. The dancers hyper-extend their rib cages or shoulders, and cock their heads like preening birds. Their arms and legs scythe through and around each other, as if they were praying mantises doing battle. Their hands cleave like mandibles. They sidle up to each other, nudging or touching, before curving around or leaping from each other, often with legs splayed.

 

They’re also a striking amalgam of femininity and phallus—slim, sleek, and androgynous in their little white T-shirts, black briefs, and slicked-back hair. The severity of their physiques underscores the feral intention behind each movement.

 

At one point, the men remove their shirts and exit, and the set’s three scrim-like walls become hovering screens, projected with grainy images: a microscopic honeycomb of cells, math problems, close-ups of a dancer’s body, and streams of computer code. After three women who’ve melted quietly to the floor begin testing the air with tentacle-like limbs, the stage fills again with the virtuosic company. Only this time their bodies appear as rigorous etchings of kinetic code.

 

Curiously, McGregor winds down with a smoothing of the choreography’s sharp edges. Suddenly, Random Dance could be any garden-variety contemporary dance company. Moreover, the piece ends as one dancer carries another off with a clunky run, and the greyhound film returns.
What is McGregor saying about the future of dance, the capriciousness of a choreographic intelligence, the limits of the human body and its inventive potential? We may have witnessed the exhilarating birth of a new dance species, but in the end, it’s only human.

 

 

New Chamber Ballet
City Center Studios, NYC
September 11–12, 2009
Reviewed by Margaret Fuhrer

 

This small troupe is so earnest that you want to root for it. Artistic director Miro Magloire’s commitment to live music, and his avoidance of fussy costumes and fancy lights, means that Chamber Ballet performances are tasteful, charmingly unpretentious affairs. It’s a special pleasure, too, to see Magloire’s lovely dancers—former New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet members among them—up close in Studio 4’s intimate space.

 

Headlining this program was the premiere of All the Rage by Constantine Baecher, an American dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet and a veteran Chamber Ballet collaborator. To Martin Stauning’s stormy, uneasy score for piano and violin, Elizabeth Brown, Madeline Deavenport, and Lauren Toole stalked slinkily forwards and backwards on pointe, occasionally deviating from their narrow prescribed routes to wriggle through twisty, syncopated solos. With its serpentine shoulder and hip rolls, Rage was sexier than most of the Chamber Ballet’s wholesome classical fare. Ultimately, however, Baecher’s dreamy dance world couldn’t match the intensity of the insistent, menacing score.

 

The program’s four other short works, all by Magloire, were demurely pleasant. Most appealing was Echoes, in which Anton Webern’s Four Pieces for Piano and Violin alternate with dancing so that, as Magloire explained in his brief introduction, the choreography won’t overwhelm the music’s subtleties. The concept proves surprisingly resilient; “echoes” of the score are, indeed, apparent in the steps, and searching for those correspondences becomes an attractive kind of parlor game. In the end, Echoes was solidly satisfying for its good craftsmanship but didn’t grab us as great art can.

 

Bravo to Magloire for realizing that there are endless possibilities in the simplicity of a group of dancers responding to live music. But it will take a slightly more sophisticated dancemaker than he, or Baecher, to make something truly memorable out of those most basic ingredients.

 

 

Pictured: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ana Laguna. Photo courtesy Baryshnikov Arts Center

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Reviews

Two Views of Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham Dance Company • Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC • April 16–19, 2009

 

Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

At 90, Merce Cunningham remains an artist beloved by many, still delighting in the intellectual pleasures of work. His example has inspired generations of our most notable contemporary dancemakers and performers. And so, his spring season at BAM should have been more than a birthday celebration. It could have offered the vision of an elder still scouting new terrain and tempting us with a possible future.

Unfortunately, the 90-or-so minutes of Nearly Ninety are not essential, transcendent Cunningham, nor is this piece particularly revelatory. Collaborating with rock musicians (John Paul Jones, Sonic Youth) who mostly produce pointless, ear-lacerating noises is so 20th century. Dressing dancers in Romeo Gigli’s unitards that only underscore the movement’s arid, artificial, and confining atmosphere is old-school, and it does these esteemed performers a disservice. It looks not just unflattering but repressive, even punishing.

Nearly Ninety has its isolated rewards, most often provided by dancers whose inherent beauty can be pinched back only so much. The iconic Holley Farmer and Andrea Weber seem to be in touch with irrepressible inner selves which make their outward dancing selves gleam. Rashaun Mitchell interprets Cunningham’s dictates with a subtle, palpable softness that, while sacrificing nothing of precise form, makes room for the human viewer in a human world of his own imagining. Nearly Ninety needs these points of focus because, without them, it would be a robotic, awkward exercise in physical manipulation and juxtaposition.

The unusual décor by Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue has won little critical respect, but why single her out for scorn? Her glittery, off-centered structure—which conceals and reveals the musicians—might look like an ungainly, silly mess. But it’s also the skeletal base of an eye-popping, sensual light show provided by Brian MacDevitt and video designer Franc Aleu. Tagliabue’s sci-fi mothership and the images that slide and splash across it are just plain fun to watch. Too bad that Nearly Ninety’s collaborators could find only a few tentative ways to integrate the human body into this exhilarating display—as when a high platform suddenly folds out from the structure, and willowy Julie Cunningham climbs up to dance atop it like a cross between a music-box figurine and ET.

Nearly Ninety gives us too much of what we no longer need—the astringent, inexpressive movement, the anarchic music. Risking heresy, I’ll suggest that acolytes who revere aging dance masters can perhaps be forgiven for clinging to the storied past. But forgive the artists themselves? Never.

 

 

Reviewed by Gus Solomons Jr. 

Nearly Ninety may not be one of Cunningham’s masterpieces, but it’s still better choreography than you’ll see anywhere else. Its premiere at BAM on April 16—Merce’s actual 90th birthday—drew a glittering audience of culturati, eager for a taste of the master’s work. And Merce fans ate it up.

What’s striking about Cunningham’s dances is their ubiquitous calmness. They move extremely slowly or extremely quickly through time in the simplest and the most convoluted imaginable shapes and patterns, but the purpose is always utter clarity. And the excellent dancers’ apparent serenity helps them survive the rigor of those mercilessly exposed balances, extensions, and jumps.

The piece unfolds on a bare floor, backed by a scrim, behind which rises elaborate scaffolding by architect Benedetta Tagliabue that suggests an alien craft. It houses the sound makers—Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting casts looming shadows of the hulking set. Franc Aleu’s video montage of slow-motion water droplets and inverted images of the dancers adds visual layering. The saturated environment at once distracts from and enhances the dancing.

Cunningham composes brilliantly, using random methods, conventional devices—unison, canon, and counterpoint—and flawless instinct to arrange computer-generated motifs into ravishing episodes: Daniel Madoff sinking impossibly low on one leg as Julie Cunningham zigzags behind him; Holley Farmer, entwined with Koji Mizuta and Silas Riener, who tilt her at glacial speed as if she were gravity-immune.

After intermission, the structure gets revealed, revolved, and even danced upon by Ms. Cunningham on a cantilevered platform 10 feet up. A series of miraculous solos give several dancers moments to shine.

Action grows faster-paced with coordination-challenging phrases. Every body part has its own motor, making dancers resemble short-circuiting computer avatars. They dart on and offstage with jagged triplets and airy leaps while torsos curve and arms slice. After a dense, finale-like flurry, the dance ends with a relatively subdued quartet. The lights black out, but the dance seems to con­tinue eternally, beyond our view.

Ballet Preljocaj
UCLA Live’s Royce Hall • Los Angeles, CA • May 1–2, 2009

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

Tossing ideological concepts to the wind, Angelin Preljocaj called upon the visual senses when he created Les 4 Saisons in 2005 for his acclaimed France-based troupe, Ballet Preljocaj. And yes, the 90-minute, multi-scene work is set to Vivaldi’s beloved score (“The Four Seasons”), with smatterings from some of the Venetian’s concertos thrown in for good measure.    

Also thrown in, tossed around, and even plopped down from the ceiling are whimsical, outré objects—a potted plant, sponges, black stilettos—designed by French sculptor Fabrice Hyber, who cocreated the beguiling costumes with Preljocaj. In addition, a kinetic, meteorologically bent mobile hangs from the rafters. Bedecked with clouds, weather balloons and the like, it’s part of what Hyber calls “chaosgraphy,” something he said was intended to “disrupt order.”

Such a disruptive flight of fancy is a departure from Preljocaj’s darker side (the French-Albanian’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet featured the heroine as the daughter of a Ceausescu-style dictator to Romeo’s homeless drifter), and while this phantasmagorical journey may only be as deep as a child’s wading pool, there is much to marvel at in the production.

Especially the movement.

From the opening entrance of a pair of galumphing, plastic-encased Teddies (Davide Di Pretoro and Yang Wang) to the arrival of an enticing Queen of Greenies (Caroline Finn, who begs to be kissed by one of four nimble, neon-green-suited men), and the final march of some adorable Porcupines, Preljocaj unleashes a bag of choreographic wonders.

An intriguing Masque trio had Nagisa Shirai and Claudia de Smet taking turns insinuating their bodies into Julien Thibault’s, as well as positioning their heads into a mask fixed to Thibault’s face. Indeed, confrontations, whether joyful or menacing, were another constant. De Smet and Shirai, in S&M mode, gripped each other’s flesh during a duet; Emilie Lalande and Ayo Jackson dueled in difficult balancing poses; and two groups squared off in a jump-rope romp, as a number of dancers displayed arabesques and balletic leaps while others kept the oversized rope in lofty motion.

Childlike notions ingeniously rendered—and exquisitely danced—are welcome in any season.

 

 

Photo: Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM

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Reviews

Ballet Hispanico

The Joyce Theater, NYC
December 1-13, 2009
Reviewed by Robert Johnson

 

One look at Batucada Fantástica is all it takes to see how Ballet Hispanico has changed since 1982, when Vicente Nebrada’s jazzy piece first entered the repertory. On Program A of their fall season, the dancers pranced and kicked their way through its extravagant solos, accessorized with glittering sequins and heavy-lidded eye makeup (and that was just the men). Bathed in Technicolor spotlights, they shivered to the samba-infused score of Brazilian percussionist Luciano Perrone. Batucada Fantástica is the sex and drug-fueled parties of the 1970s reconfigured for the stage, and when the curtain goes up you feel as if you’ve stumbled into the delirium of a nightclub in the middle of the Amazon.

 

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, however, this party scene unraveled. In 1994 company founder Tina Ramirez introduced Goodnight Paradise, a weightier and more finicky work by Spanish choreographer Ramón Oller, and a new movement aesthetic began creeping into the repertory. Now we have Eduardo Vilaro, who succeeded Ramirez in August, and who just presented his first season as the company’s director.

 

By reviving Batucada, Vilaro reminded us how much fun people used to have, when no one felt guilty showing off or indulging in hedonistic excess. Batucada looks and feels marvelous, but it would be impossible to watch this ballet today—we would be blinded; it would look dated—if it were not exquisitely balanced by the more sober works that Vilaro has either commissioned or acquired.

 

Ron de Jesús created Tríptico, a series of taut duets in which the women are launched like missiles or hang from their partners’ rigid frames. Here the color scheme is gun-powder black. The atmosphere sizzles, and Oscar Hernández’s original score for piano and percussion, played live, whips the dancers onward, eliciting strong performances from newcomer Marina Fabila and from company stalwarts Jessica Batten and Waldemar Quiñones Villanueva.

 

Andrea Miller’s Nací is a round-shouldered, wrist-shaking lament for the homeless Jews expelled from Spain. Here the dancers are postmodern peasants, accompanied by a shuffling playlist. Boisterous folk music by A Hawk and a Hacksaw is especially infectious. Like most of this dance, the image of Jessica Alejandra Wyatt lip-synching a torch song, while held upside-down, is wonderfully bold.

 

In Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s imported duet Locked Up Laura, the title character, a ballerina fed up with performing, is so limp with psychological fatigue that her caring partner can barely prop her up. Angelica Burgos and Jeffery Hover make “Laura’s” case study compelling, but this is ballet for a tough and cynical age.

 

On Program B, Pedro Ruiz’s divinely elegant Club Havana took Batucada’s role as the evening closer, setting the audience down softly. Goodnight Paradise, however, substituted props and swathes of fabric for choreographic drama, and it is worth remembering that if real dance values do not inform contemporary work, it risks becoming shallower than a night out on the town.

 

 

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
Monaco Dance Forum
December 26–28, 2009
Reviewed by Karyn Bauer

 

There was an oriental feeling to the sparkling lights of Monaco this past holiday season. Here more than anywhere, the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes could be felt, in this Mediterra­nean city the company once called home. The storefronts on Serge de Diaghilev street displayed period costumes, while at the glittering Grimaldi Forum, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo saluted their Russian ancestors. The triple bill featured Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, and, in its world premiere, artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s very contemporary version of Fokine’s Scheherazade.

 

Revisiting Rimsky-Korsakov’s provo­cative score was a daunting yet exciting idea that Maillot has been secretly harboring for 20 years. The results are hot and spicy, bringing together love, lust, jealousy, and rage. The magnificent Bernice Coppieters dominates the stage as the sultry and enticing Zobeide, one of the Sultan Shahryar’s wives whom the Sultan (a stoic Gaëtan Morlotti), suspects is unfaithful. Indeed, it is Zobeide’s own brother, Sha-Zeman, delightfully interpreted by the droll and compelling Leart Duraku, whose unveiling of his sister’s infidelities leads to an explosive final scene.

 

The dancers came to life on a colorful yet dimly lit set of pink and turquoise. Their movements, if at times repetitive, were erotic, acrobatic, and passionate. In their billowing costumes of glitz and glitter the many wives and their partners evoked the flavors of the Orient. The Sultan and his brother, in their extravagant wigs and pantaloons, cavorted like circus buffoons, a cherished Monaco tradition. Coppieters was memorable for her extraordinary performance of Zobeide in the throes of passion with the golden slaves Alexis and George Oliveira, until arriving at her violent death under the murderous eye of the Sultan Shahryar. Maillot’s darkly expressive choreography was warmly received by crowds here.

 

On a more historic note, Balanchine’s 90-year-old choreography for Prodigal Son fit the dancers like a glove. The young and sprightly Belgian dancer Jeroen Verbruggen was convincing and playful in this, his premiere performance as the Son. Coppieters was again riveting as the Siren who, in her majestic white headpiece and flowing crimson cape, enraptures the unwitting prodigal.

 

The evening closed with a rare performance of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, impeccably staged by Millicent Hodgson and Kenneth Archer. From the cotton costumes to the forceful rhythmic gestures and hypnotizing geometric movements, Nijinsky’s spirit seemed to inhabit the Grimaldi Forum. What the dancers lacked in synchronicity, they compen­sated for with enthusiasm and energy. Maud Sabourin’s final sacrificial dance honored both Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s memory. The production set the stage for a year-long celebration that will keep the essence of the Ballets Russes alive in this scintillating city of Monaco.

 

 

Pictured: Ballet Hispanico’s Vanessa Valecillos and Yesid Lopez in Andrea Miller’s Naci. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico

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Kimberly Bartosik/daela
Dance Theater Workshop, NYC • February 3–6, 2010 • Reviewed by Siobhan Burke

 

What’s a choreographer to do with all the words in her head, when her first language is movement? At the beginning of The Materiality of Impermanence, Kimberly Bartosik tells us that she doesn’t know. “I wish I could just write a song,” she says, backing cautiously down an aisle of stairs through the audience. Lighting/set designer Roderick Murray and composer Luke Fasano, both members of her ensemble daela, follow attentively, holding up a microphone and pages of text that Bartosik peels away one by one. “I have lines and lines and words and verses and lines and lines,” she continues. “I have had them for a very long time, but I don’t know what to do with them.”

 

Whatever uncertainty Bartosik feels, it finds intriguing expression in Materiality, her newest work and her first using spoken text (her own, with excerpts from French author Alain Robbe-Grillet). When an artist claims to be exploring a “liminal space,” as she does in the program notes, the results can be either muddled or poetic in their ambiguity. The latter happens here.

 

Picture the floor plan of a house—a maze of right angles—traced onto DTW’s cavernous stage, then outlined in LED lights, and you have Murray and Bartosik’s eerie, luminescent set, sections of which light up and fade away at random. Navigating its chambers, the wiry Bartosik and her partner Marc Mann could be inhabiting rooms of a home or avenues of the mind, where they are themselves memories—chasing, repelling, getting enmeshed in one another, or settling into charged stillness.

 

In this quietly urgent space, actions are both as fickle and as pressing as the fractured thoughts that Bartosik and Mann utter—into a dangling upside-down microphone, into another mic cast on the ground, into the fabric of each other’s sweatshirts. They murmur streams of hurried, unintelligible verse, and elsewhere, cryptic fragments like, “They were in my mouth.” Their tense, craning quality of movement suggests an effort to transform motion, with its notorious impermanence, into something material.

 

Bartosik danced with Merce Cunningham for a decade, and her vocabulary resembles a scuffed-up version of his orderly dialect—lunges teetering on the balls of feet, torsos twisting and bending mathematically but with a flippant edge. Arms swipe like weed-whackers, fingers splay, footfalls land with a thud. There is much partial undressing and dressing, folding and unfolding of clothes, adjusting of pant legs and shirt sleeves, like a refusal to commit to one state of being. The sound score by Fasano comes and goes, melodious crossings of nature and industry.

 

About 45 minutes in, this 55-minute dance takes an abrupt turn. It seems to have ended—props have been cleared—when a glamorous Joanna Kotze descends through the house. With her glittery jumpsuit, choppy black hair, and ruby-red pout—not to mention crescent-moon feet and liquid extensions—she is fascinating. Her strutting echoes what we’ve seen, but it’s angrier, more virtuosic, exuding ego. Fasano stands by, singing a melancholy tune. The words of his verses and lines are hard to decipher, but it’s a beautiful song.

 

Lemi Ponifasio/MAU
Théâtre de la Ville
Paris, France
January 27–30, 2010
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

A mysterious, cataclysmic piece, Tempest: Without a Body descended on the audience like an apocalypse. Starting in dimness with noise so loud that you felt your seat vibrate (sound composition by Russel Walder, Marc Chesterman, and Ponifasio), Tempest features a visual object that is as large and ominous as the music: a huge, thick, textured wall that hangs or floats. The dimness and loudness take a long time to lift while a lone man inches forward, his gestures barely visible.

 

But the six or seven men of Ponifasio’s New Zealand–based group MAU are benevolent, moving their arms steadily like some semaphoric code in crisp unison. One gesture may be a salute or a slap while another looks like pulling a thread from one’s heart. They scurry across space with tiny quick steps like a Georgian women’s folk dance. All in black, they could be messengers of either good or bad luck. Or they could be a Greek chorus, warning of impending doom.

 

The single woman, Ade Suharto, is a strange, disheveled angel who screams in long exhalations. Perhaps this angel is a murderess because when she raises her right hand, we see the palm is blood red. A corresponding red stain inexplicably appears on the huge wall; it broadens in seething splotches.

 

Upstage on a table, a man painted silver wriggles like a fish and pulls himself down into a hole—but gets stuck midway. Later, Tame Iti, an elder with a tattooed face, comes forward and addresses us in a foreign tongue, mounting his case forcefully, even spitting—an angry Buddha. This must be part of a culturally specific ritual, one thinks. (Ponifasio is from Samoa, but his dancers are from several Pacific islands, including Java, Tonga, and Samoa.)

 

The final episode is the most frightening. One man, alone onstage, lifts what looks like a plate of glass covered with dust. He throws it to the floor, shattering it, sending white powder everywhere. The music amplifies the shattering sound to an almost unbearable degree. The other dancers rush in one at a time, each one hurling an object to the floor, each object breaking into many dusty pieces. It seems to happen a thousand times, and I can’t help but think of the multiple earthquakes that have demolished Haiti.

 

David Zambrano
PLATFORMS 2010: “i get lost”
Danspace Project,
St. Mark’s Church, NYC
January 21–23, 2010
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Launching its new PLATFORMS 2010 series, Danspace Project proposes to enrich our notions of what contemporary dance can contain and whose realities might be embraced by this work. To these ends, Danspace has engaged provocative artists to curate its first two “platforms”—Ralph Lemon (“i get lost”) and Juliette Mapp (“Back to New York City”). The first of Lemon’s programs, the electrifying Soul Project, was created by Venezuela-born, Amsterdam-based David Zambrano and performed by him and five gutsy colleagues originally hailing from Mozambique, Slovakia, and the Netherlands.

 

 infuses contemporary dance with the full-throttle exuberance of soul singers. Indeed, black music drives it—a changeable roster of thrilling diva and divo turns, like Patti LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow” and James Brown’s “The Man in the Glass,” played at bone-shaking pitch. The audience, denied formal seating, is instead encouraged to roam the space as one after another solo breaks out, each danced in a succession of pools of light.

 

Fanciful costumes help us guess where to turn for the next solo. Look—there’s agile Peter Jasko in skintight satin and sparkly eyelashes. And there’s Nina Fajdiga in her little grass skirt that perfectly matches her hair and the lei that sheds baby pompoms when she erupts into a cross between postmodern hula and Janis Joplin on acid. For up to 90 minutes—apparently the dance and number of performers can expand or contract—audience members drift and settle around the floor as each soloist probes the outer limits of music and body/mind. The movement is taut, wrenching, convulsive.

 

Spirits, in various cultural rituals, relish the chance to ride the bodies of their human mounts, plying and pressing these borrowed bodies into grotesque expressions, propelling them into dangerous maneuvers that somehow resolve without actual harm to doer or watcher. The snake spirit Damballah surely signals his presence by Milan Herich’s darting, waggling tongue; Hindu goddess Kali shows up in Fajdiga’s rigid, trembling limbs. The skinny, preternaturally limber Edivaldo Ernesto moves like he’s battling one hurricane while gestating another in his belly. His rider must be the roaring storm spirit, Oya. How fascinating to see St. Mark’s—not only an Episcopal church but home to innovative performance—take on the feeling of a terreiro (what practitioners of Candomblé call their house of worship).

 

Horacio Macuacua’s performance is at once repellant and compelling. Dressed only in a skirt, he makes sudden lurches, frenzied gestures, odd twitches, and manic grimaces. (Sumo wrestling, Javanese dance, and Kabuki come to mind.) He looks like the human equivalent of an out-of-control racecar about to rip into the stands. But just as you find yourself mentally inching away from him, lyrics from that Dreamgirls song ring out—“We’re part of the same place…we both have the same mind…” Zap!

 

 

Pictured: Joanna Kotze and Luke Fasano in The Materiality of Impermanence. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy DTW

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Limón Dance Company

Harkness Dance Festival • 92nd Street Y • March 5–7, 2010 • Reviewed by Gus Solomons jr.

 

The Harkness Dance Festival moved in-house this year to the close quarters of the Y’s Buttenweiser Hall. Limited seating meant sold-out shows, and the intimacy of the space made watching dances there a more personal experience. The second week of the festival, which marked the Y’s 75th year as a home for dance, featured the Limón Company in short dances and excerpts by José Limón and choreographers associated with his troupe: Daniel Nagrin, Donald McKayle, and Anna Sokolow.

 

Beautifully reconstructed by legendary Limón dancer Sarah Stackhouse, La Malinche (1947) clearly resembles Graham’s El Penitente (1940). Like Graham’s trio, Limón’s depicts street performers, here re-enacting a Mexican legend about an Indian princess (Kathryn Alter), who helps El Conquistador (Jonathan Fredrickson) conquer the natives, then returns after her death to liberate those he enslaved, represented by El Indio (Daniel Fetecua Soto).

 

Raphaël Boumaïla’s interpretation of Daniel Nagrin’s Dance in the Sun (1951) is more lyrical than Nagrin’s, whose dancing was dynamically abrupt. Boumaïla ebulliently leaps and darts, basking in the sun to an original piano score by Ralph Gilbert that closely matches the movement’s phrasing.

 

Two sections from artistic mentor Donald McKayle’s 1997 Heartbeats—“He Mele Aloha” and “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”— demonstrate McKayle’s assertive dancing for men and his more overtly emotional, female side, respectively. His classic Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder (1959) more deeply embodies these qualities. But fearless attack into deep lunges and jumps in the first part—danced by Boumaïla, Dante Puleio, Durell R. Comedy, and Ashley Lindsey—and in the second part, Kristin Foote’s restrained grief that bursts into dignified rage, make the choreography entirely convincing.

 

Anna Sokolow’s seminal Rooms (1955), which innovated setting modern dance to progressive jazz, retains its power in two sections staged by Sokolow alumnus Jim May. Wiry and muscular Puleio spars and claps his hands angrily as a tightly wound, wannabe prizefighter in “Going.” Then, in “Desire,” an ode to isolation, he joins five others: six lonely people, seated on folding chairs, restlessly shuffling their feet and rolling on the floor, close enough to kiss but never connecting.

 

Finally, a major revival of Limón’s There Is a Time (1956) reminded us how powerful interpretive modern dance can be even now. A dozen sections illustrate the text from Ecclesiastes—a time to be born, to die, to kill, to heal, to laugh…. Yet Limón’s poetic choices of theatrically eloquent movement transcend their literalism.

 

The intimacy of the stage—lit masterfully with limited instruments by David Ferri—made this by far the most emotionally pungent version I can recall. At close range, movement and characters took on fresh urgency, and the splendid troupe danced with uniform technical élan and spiritual eloquence.

 

Toronto Dance Theatre
Fleck Dance Theatre
Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, CanadaFebruary 16–20, 2010

Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

Choreographers’ inspirations sometimes get the better of them, which appears to be what’s happened to TDT’s artistic director Christopher House. Pteros Tactics, his latest work, was spurred by Canadian scholar Anne Carson’s disquisition on the ancient Greek concept of “eros,” the sensual longing part of what we mean by the grab-all word “love.” However, what makes intellectual sense in Carson’s essay “Eros the Bittersweet” does not necessarily translate into the more visceral language of dance.

 

House, of course, is not really attempting a translation. Instead, he takes certain ideas from Carson and runs with them. Unfortunately he does not get very far.

 

As explained in an obtuse program note by Belgian dramaturge Guy Cools, House picked up on the idea of desire as an act of reaching out to fill a sense of incompleteness. He was also intrigued by the theory that desire can only exist if there is some third entity potentially preventing its consummation.

 

House moves this up another notch by conceiving eros (or Pteros) as a metaphor for the creative act itself in a triangulation of choreographer, perfor­mers, and audience. This neatly ties in with House’s continuing interest in the performer/audience relationship.

 

So much for theory; the actual dance begins unpromisingly. TDT’s 10 perfor­mers wander out one by one and introduce themselves, supplementing their names with teasing comments or inconsequential snippets of personal information.

 

Despite a number of ensemble passages, the choreographic meat of Pteros Tactics is—predictably, given the subject—delivered in duets of varying gender combinations. The relationships are fraught—plenty of bitter and little sweet—and range from flirtatious to provocative to almost violently hostile.

 

Dancers collapse like a line of dominoes, and a symbolic ballgame spills into the audience. House also draws on a metaphor from the Greek poet Sappho: “Eros once again limbloosener whirls me sweetbitter.” Loose limbs, jutting and whirling in sometimes frenetic bursts of movement, are predominant choreographic features of Pteros Tactics. They are not enough to make it absorbing or coherent. Oddly for a dance about love, it ends up being an arid 60 minutes.

 

 

Photo of the Limon Company by Meems, courtesy Limon Dance Company

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ODC/Dance
Yerba Buena Center • San Francisco • March 12–28, 2010 • Reviewed by Rita Felciano

 

With Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance), choreographer Brenda Way offered audiences dainty needle pricks, while KT Nelson’s Labor of Love cut to the bone. For ODC’s spring season, the two premieres joined repertory works by the co-artistic directors, most notably, from 2009, Way’s In the Memory of the Forest and Nelson’s Grassland.

 

Taking her inspiration from a French version of Emily Post’s book on etiquette (which was probably outdated even when published in 1963), Way used a blessedly light touch for Waving, a modestly amusing foray into the world of socially imposed codes of behavior. Even Anne Zivolich’s unruly curls were pulled back into a proper chignon. Composer/singer Pamela Z collaged a lush score of vocalizations and readings from the French manual, including a litany of “should’s” that smartly complemented Way’s intricate choreography.

 

ODC’s intrepid dancers patiently rearranged themselves and each other into stiff-legged mannequins or alluring photo ops. Waving darkened as the men manipulated the acquiescent women in increasingly self-serving ways until a somnolent Vanessa Thiessen woke up and, at the end of an erotically abusive duet, knocked Jeremy Smith into the wings.

 

Just when you wondered where Way was going to take these depersonalized male/female encounters, she switched gears. Getting even is fair play, Waving suggested. A robust Yayoi Kambara stripped Aaron Perlstein to his skivvies. Then, armed with reams of paper, scissors, and tape, ODC’s women cut, draped, and glued the most fantastical garments on the men. Elizabeth Farotte adorned Corey Brady with a hoop skirt; Thiessen turned Smith into an angel. The results looked almost as good as those on “Project Runway.”

 

More emotionally involving was In the Memory of the Forest, a haunting evocation of a generation that faced exile from everything they knew. Based on Way’s memories of her Jewish mother-in-law, the choreography and David and Hi-Jin Hodge’s vernal video—which opened with images of the dancers cavorting in a sun-filled forest—suggested sweet nostalgia without a drop of sentimentality. Performing superbly throughout, Kambara and Smith shyly danced the young lovers, Zivolich and Daniel Santos a lustier version of them.

 

A physically aggressive take on relationship troubles, Nelson’s hyper-volatile Labor was set to Mozart’s ominous but wistful Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. The sound of the women dropping the men like cement bags set off struggles in which partners tried to get away and also hang on. Zivolich pinned down Smith’s feet and twisted around his legs as he tried to hop away. Quilet Rarang—who danced like a rocket about to explode—crawled away with Brady on top like a blanket about to suffocate her. The earth seemed to shake as these frantic citizens leapt, fell, scooted, rolled, flailed, and were stepped on. Dragging an inert Santos, Farrotte wore a look of merciless triumph. If this was war, Labor worked towards an armistice in respites of side-to-side waltz steps, quiet walks, or a hug freely given. Finally, the dancers shaped themselves into a wedge, at peace for the moment but ready to go.

 

A more benign volatility reigned in Nelson’s paradise of cohabitation she named Grassland. Egged on by Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos’ driving score, the dancers resembled pulsating life forms that mutated in the air, on the ground, and underwater. Though Grassland circled back to its opening allusion of nature’s cyclical awakening, the tip-toeing walks, overhead stretched arms, and upward glances proposed a dynamic verticality, perhaps a longing toward the light that streamed from above.

 

Carolyn Carlson
Théâtre National de Chaillot and the Louvre Museum
Paris, France
March 10–26, 2010
Reviewed by Karyn Bauer

 

Throughout March, Carolyn Carlson’s ambitious presentation of four works in two prestigious Parisian venues proved that at 67 she remains a master of her art. This San Francisco native is as iconic to improvisation as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Possessed by an intimate sense of movement, her mystic and physically powerful universe continues to inspire.

 

Carlson opened the performances at the Théâtre National de Chaillot with  Blue Lady (revisited), her emblematic 1983 solo performed for the first time by a man. When Finland’s Tero Saarinen donned Carlson’s shoes, hat, and dress, winnowing through the stages of a woman’s life, spectators wondered whether he was dancing Blue Lady or performing Carlson’s performance of the work. The confusion was intriguing.

 

Saarinen’s interpretation was at once unsettling in its similarities and completely new. Where Carlson’s ethereal extensions sparked with femininity, he appeared more grounded, more masculine, like her reflection in a warped mirror. Films of the original performance, projected periodically onto the backdrop, further enhanced this sharing of roles. At the show’s end, to the audience’s heartfelt applause, the two performed together in an unforgettably upbeat and dynamic improvised duo.

 

In a second program at the Chaillot, Carlson offered a hypnotizing short solo in the theater lobby, prior to the Parisian premiere of eau (water). In program notes, she wrote that she dances not for the eyes, but for the soul. As she weaved through a range of emotions, bringing herself and spectators into a trancelike state, that idea took on its full meaning.

 

Eau, for the Roubaix-based Ballet du Nord, which Carlson has directed since 2004, explored five aspects of water: primal, deep, violent, dirty, and pure. While the staging was dark and dramatic, sometimes lacking in clarity, the dancers were precise and intense. They evoked sensations from harmony and pleasure to suffocation and agony. When they shook and convulsed, they were bursting with poetry.

 

Petrified Movement brought dancers of the Junior Ballet of Paris and Ballet du Nord to the monumental sculpture rooms of the Louvre. A drumming score hummed as the public wandered through the galleries. As if incarnating their thoughts in slow motion, the dancers breathed life into echoing halls, creating an otherwordly conversation. With these performances, Carlson affirmed once again her ongoing love affair with Paris.

 

Dance Salad
Wortham Center, Cullen Theater
Houston, TX
April 1–3, 2010
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

Dance Salad offered a tantalizing array of mostly European companies that we rarely see in the United States.

 

The festival reached a poetic peak with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Loin, performed by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. In the last of three excerpts, one man dragged two others who were limp but alive. Two more joined, and finally the one in charge—a Mother Courage figure—was hoisted aloft. He ended standing tall with the others nested below like a family that has seen all sides of a war.

 

Another high point was Christian Spuck’s The Return of Ulysses (adapted for the festival), danced with bite by seven men and one woman from the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Eva Dewaele, as the reluctant Penelope, kept looking offstage right, waiting for Ulysses to come home, while the men tried to seduce her, mount her, tire her out. She emerged a hero—and so did Spuck for his witty and bold choreography.

 

Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk’s luscious dancing lent Lightfoot/Leon’s Softly As I Leave You a richly melancholy tone. She began thrashing in a box, they found each other, he ended inside the box alone. Along the way you came to admire how they brushed past each other and somehow helped each other become themselves.

 

Admirable too was Mark Godden’s Miroirs for Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. In three excerpts, serene symmetrical moves eventually—haiku-like—resolved into surprising asymmetrical images.

 

The extravagantly tall Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, guesting from Dresden SemperOper Ballet, and lithe Esteban Berlanga of English National Ballet took turns watching each other dance in David Dawson’s Faun(e). Androgynous, sensual, stretching like taffy, they performed what was more like two overlapping solos than a duet.

 

Leticia Oliveira of Texas Ballet Theater shone in Ben Stevenson’s rhapsodic From the Corner, Pas de Deux, in which she and Carl Coomer circled one another with caresses and swirling lifts. Just the elegant way she turned her head revealed her to be a ballerina of the first order.

 

Netherlands Dance Theater contributed a stealthy, noirish excerpt of Kylián’s Toss of a Dice that held one’s attention completely. Lesley Telford and Medhi Walerski performed it with quiet intensity.

 

Companies from Spain, Hungary, France, and Norway presented less than stellar excerpts. Perhaps they would have fared better had they done whole pieces. Taken out of context, excerpts don’t always work. But whatever the shortcomings as seen by this viewer (who was a guest of Dance Salad), the level of dancing never dipped below excellent.

 

 

Pictured: Brenda Way’s Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance). Photo by Steve diBartolomeo, courtesy ODC

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Diavolo

The Hollywood Bowl • Hollywood, CA September 9, 2010

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

 

Terpsichore herself may have held her breath during much of the world premiere of Fearful Symmetries. Choreographed by Diavolo’s artistic director Jacques Heim, the opus, set to the relentless throbbings of John Adams’ 28-minute minimalist score and the second in a planned trilogy with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leaves absolutely no room for error.

 

Amid shifting tableaux that variously resemble urban apartment dwellings, Stonehenge, and a zany factory (think Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times), 10 dancers perform heart-stopping feats of derring-do. They accomplish these while manipulating a pair of 150-pound U-shaped arches and a 360-pound cube that breaks apart into more configurations than Mr. Rubik’s. Upping the danger ante is a trifurcated 5,000-pound motorized “field” that rises 17 degrees.

 

With Bramwell Tovey conducting an onstage 84-piece L.A. Philharmonic, the dancers scored Olympian gold as they back-flipped off of the cube’s 6′ 3 ” columns, hopscotched atop the monoliths, and executed serious swan dives into the welcoming arms of able partners.

 

An E-ticket ride on steroids, the company kept frenetic pace with Adams’ music, which balletgoers might have recognized from Peter Martins’ 1990 work of the same name. Opening in silence, Symmetries featured the performers, clad in Laura Brody’s workman-like garb, peering through quasi-telescopes before the densely layered sounds began their constant churnings. Within moments, dancers were slithering around and through the cube, breaking it apart much the way a master chef would separate an egg, if it were, well, a dinosaur’s.

 

Alternately mystical and concrete, the cube is a metaphorical building block: Made of aluminum and wood, it is DNA writ large as it spawns creation; it also presents near-crushing obstacles. At one point, two dancers are squeezed between a pair of pillars before disappearing from view, only to pop up elsewhere in yet another geometric configuration.

 

At the core of Symmetries, though, is real humanity. Couples come together, with episodic smooching against a backdrop of shifting scenery in one section, a joyous bout of neo–Lindy Hopping in another. As the rhythms of Adams’ work—one the composer calls a big “boogie-woogie”—surged and receded (mostly the former, with tympanic climaxes and bleating horns echoing throughout the Cahuenga Pass), the divine dancers of Diavolo became a single beating heart, a solitary pulse, with the unabashed ability to awe.

 

Such is the power of the human body; such is the power of dance.

 

 

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange • Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland • College Park, MD • September 10 and 12, 2010

Reviewed by Kate Mattingly

 

“What you see here. What you do here… Let it stay here.”

 

These words, projected during The Matter of Origins, come from Los Alamos, New Mexico, where physicists worked in secret to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s.

 

They are also the antithesis of Liz Lerman’s intentions: Her newest creation opens dialogue on multiple levels.

 

Inspired, in part, by her discovery of Edith Warner’s role as a tea-house proprietor who hosted the Los Alamos physicists, Lerman wanted to bring an audience together to eat, talk, question, and wonder.

 

Act One, performed by the 11 members of Lerman’s intergenerational company, unfolds onstage, while Act Two takes the audience to dance studios for a tea party. At each table of 8 to 10 people, a provocateur (there are 50 total) encourages discussion on subjects explored during the performance, while local dancers serve tea and chocolate cake (one of Warner’s recipes).

 

An ambitious collaboration, Origins took almost three years to develop, as Lerman traveled to laboratories and spoke with physicists around the world. The first part weaves scientific findings and formulas through the dancers’ partnering, lifts, and leaps. A semi-circle of screens provides an entry point for the performers, as well as a surface for projections (designed by Logan Kibens), which include images from New Mexico, then from Switzerland’s European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), then from the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

Lerman’s performers are stunning, particularly Ted Johnson in an exquisitely pure solo. Benjamin Wegman, Sarah Levitt, and Ami Dowden-Fant explode in athletic jumps. Keith Thompson appears alone in front of pictures from the Hubble. The juxtaposition of these breathtaking sights and his decidedly human, vulnerable actions is poignant.

 

Naoko Nagata’s gorgeous grey costumes include pants and shirts of different cuts for the men and dresses of various styles for the women. Darron L. West’s score almost overpowers parts of the performance: while other elements acclimate to the multidisciplinary setting, his soundscape is the least integrated part.

 

Tea-time offered varying experiences: Conversations ranged from theological questions about origins to the latest scientific research on the Big Bang, according to friends at other tables. (My table was disappointing: The provocateur introduced himself as a “colleague of Liz’s” and then told us how he taught choreography to students at the University of Maryland.)

 

Lerman’s approach, like lab work, embraces investigation, observation, analysis, and meaningful impact. Even during the performance, research had a constant presence. We were handed surveys when we walked into the theater and completed a second survey between Acts One and Two. A third survey awaited us underneath our placemats at the end of tea and cake. I am curious to learn how the collaborators will use these findings.

 

In conjunction with Lerman’s project, UMD astronomy professors gave an introduction to scientific origin-of-the-universe theories, two days before the premiere of Origins. Visitors could glimpse Jupiter through their telescopes. It was a fantastic and enriching event.

 

Universities are terrific places for such projects: they bring together inquisitive minds, different disciplines, and a desire to explore.

 

 

Photo of Diavolo in Jacques Heim’s Fearful Symmetries by Rose Eichenbaum

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Reviews

Biennale de la Danse de Lyon
Lyon, France • September 9–October 3, 2010

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

Where else does a dance festival overtake an entire city? With 40 companies spread out over 34 venues (plus three outdoor sites), this year’s Biennale de la Danse was the main event in the second- largest city in France. It attracted 95,000 spectators, young and old (not counting the even larger number that showed up for the défilé that opens the festival). Tickets are moderately priced, and most shows were sold out; even a national transit strike didn’t put a dent in attendance. Performances routinely ended with rhythmic clapping, especially for Lyon’s favorites like Bill T. Jones, Deborah Colker, and Compagnie Käfig.

 

My week (as a guest of the festival) started off with a bang. Pina Bausch’s Nelken (1982), gorgeous and giddy, planted the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal in a field of carnations—as intoxicating as a field of poppies. They played a raucous street game led by the droll Lutz Förster in a dress. Their antics exposed the power plays of children—or, rather, children as played by adults—with hilarity mounting. In a later episode, Dominique Mercy yelled in French, “You want to see a manège? I’ll show you a manège,” and furiously tossed off leaps and turns in a circle. “You want to see entrechat six? I’ll show you…” and he executed a few perfect sixes. He exhausted himself, and yet he was still willing, and it was terribly entertaining. Mercy has the gift of being funny and sad at once.

 

Of the commissioned works, the greatest achievement was Lieu d’Être—utterly delightful from the first meanderings to the last airborne swoops. A site-specific work masterminded by Lyon’s Annick Charlot, it combined her five luscious dancers (herself included) with 55 residents of an apartment building in the commercial center of Lyon. One of the dancers’ tasks was to lead the crowd to the right place; another was to gently embrace a resident of the building; and another was to shepherd residents in tableaux on the terraces high up. Every danced conversation was infused with charm, wit, sensuality, and humanity.

 

Some of the big guns misfired. Angelin Preljocaj’s elaborate collaboration with Bolshoi dancers, And Then, One Thousand Years of Peace, was so hard-edged that it didn’t seem to be about collaboration at all. (The year 2010 was designated the “French-Russian year” by the cultural ministries of both countries.) In one scene, all dancers (more than 20) had their heads wrapped in flags of many different countries. Perhaps it was meant as a statement about the blindness of nationalism—though a slightly sinister way of expressing that.

 

The duets were more human than the group sections. For those of us who had been to the press conference and heard Preljocaj say that every duet united one French and one Russian dancer, it helped. Plus the duets had a touch of vulnerability, which was lacking in the group sections. In one of them, two men alternated violence and tenderness, and ended up in a locked kiss. (The Bolshoi authorities couldn’t have been too happy about that.) In a sexy, slinky hetero duet, each partner pinned the other against a wall. But the loveliest section was for three women moving stealthily with what looked like samovars on their heads.

 

The musical high point of the week was the Debussy String Quartet, which played selections from its classical repertoire for Compagnie Käfig’s Boxe Boxe. Dipping into his past as a boxer, artistic director Mourad Merzouki wove an unlikely mix of hip hop, boxing, and classical music (Schubert, Ravel, Mendelssohn, etc.). Although the skit-like bits with red boxing gloves and punching bags were too literal and too long, the whole amalgam, with some nice interaction between the dancers and musicians, was admirable. My favorite moment came during a Philip Glass section where three dancers (including, in the center, the sole woman), wearing silky white boxer robes, moved through ghostly versions of hip hop or boxing warm-ups. But the extended peak moment was Teddy Verardo’s intense solo to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, showing the agony and the ecstasy of a prizefighter. In a coda, the musicians fiddled fast while the dancers pulled out all their hip hop tricks, making us wildly happy.

 

The hip hop dancer who stole my heart, however, was Artem Orlov, who appeared in Na Grani (“no boundaries”) by Mickaël Le Mer. Another effort to bring together dancers from France (Le Mer’s Compagnie S’poart) and Russia (guests from Ekaterinburg), this piece combined contemporary and hip hop. Orlov’s virtuosity broke through the dim lighting. His speed, precision, sensitivity, and soaring energy captivated. Even when standing dead still, his charisma and focus were startling. Na Grani used a set of large movable blocks (by Guillaume Cousin) to suggest an urban environment. The performers climbed on top of the blocks as though they were city rooftops. We waited because the choreography seemed on the verge of taking off, but never really did.

 

Algerian choreographer Nacera Belaza’s extremely simple trio Le Temps Scellé (“fixed time”) required even more patience. A super-gradual fade from darkness to visibility wrapped us in a meditative experience. But once we absorbed the lushness of Belaza’s movement, there was nothing else to take in. A second performer danced in a similar uninflected vein, and then a third, all separate. At the end, the three danced together briefly. But our patience went unrewarded.

 

At the Maison de la Danse, an 1,100-seat house just for dance, Bill T. Jones presented the European premiere of Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray (see “Reviews,” Dec. 2009). Though his text was spoken in English (subtitles were projected high above), and the subject matter was very American (Lincoln and the Civil War), the French audience responded warmly.

 

The Lyon festival has had a long relationship with Brazilian artists, and this year Deborah Colker brought 12 young dancers from shantytowns she’s been working with. They performed her snappy three-part Partida with precision, humor, and great exuberance. Popular tunes by Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed helped make the piece both exhilarating and touching.

 

I missed major performances, including the Lyon Opera Ballet’s Forsythe evening, Hofesh Shechter, Ailey II, Maguy Marin and a clutch of other French choreographers. The only part of the Trisha Brown tribute I caught was the exhibition at Musée d’Art Contemporain, which included her drawings as well as posters and films—more evidence of Lyon’s commitment to the artists it loves.

 

Sadly, this was the last biennale directed by Guy Darmet, who built the festival into the glory that it is.

 

Akram Khan Company
Sadler’s Wells
London, EnglandOctober 5–9, 2010Reviewed by Barbara Newman

 

What would happen to modern dance if program notes vanished? Wouldn’t every work then have to stand on its own feet and define itself purely in movement?

 

Created to mark his company’s 10th anniversary, Akram Khan’s latest piece, Vertical Road, opens with a shadowy figure, backlit behind a plastic scrim at the rear of the stage, punching the scrim and drawing mysterious patterns on it. After a blackout, seven figures in front of the scrim rise slowly from a floor strewn with fine sand and begin a long unison dance of juddering contractions and flailing arms. Clouds of sand fly off their bodies as they jerk and twist, and the quiet tick of a metronome grows steadily into a pounding roar of drums.

 

Identically clad in long, draped tunics over loose trousers, these eight dancers remain onstage for 70 minutes, mostly moving in perfect unison despite their complex contortions. Their configuration changes, from a wedge to lines to a circle, and occasionally they pass a phrase between them, once, beautifully, whipping it from body to body with such intensity that its path acquires depth and shape.

 

A brief, fascinating battle develops between two men who seldom touch; the whiplash force of their energy renders each dominant in turn. A couple steps into a loose embrace, slides to the ground, and rolls in slow motion, always remaining at arms’ length. A man stands behind a woman, holding her by the neck and the back of her tunic, and flings her around in front of him like a rag doll, yanking her in all directions at will.

However, this violent activity yields few clues to the choreographer’s overall intention. Although Khan has rearranged the dancers skillfully in space, the propulsive, fragmented vocabulary repeats almost obsessively without developing. As the relatively short evening began feeling long, my concentration sometimes abandoned the dancers and shifted to Nitin Sawhney’s commissioned score, a compelling blend of ferocious rhythmic drumming, gentle passages for solo piano, and the sort of hypnotic tuneless phrases that often accompany Indian dancing.

 

Vertical Road could be read as an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world or an exploration of fanaticism and religious ecstasy—at moments it resembles Rite of Spring—or a nightmare of demonic possession. A program note called the piece “a meditation on the journey from gravity to grace.” Khan’s explanation claimed that he was “in search of what it might mean to be connected not just spiritually, but also vertically.” So what exactly were we watching?

 

 

Pictured: Pina Bausch’s Nelken. Photo by Michael Cavalca

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Reviews

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, NYC. May 18–July 11, 2009
Reviewed by Lynn Garafola

 

With two repertory programs, six full-length ballets, and wildly cheering crowds, the eight-week American Ballet Theatre season at the Metropolitan Opera was in many ways business as usual. However, with Nina Ananiashvili’s farewell performance, the presence of exciting newcomers, and the appointment of Alexei Ratmansky as ABT’s artist in residence, the season marked both the passing of a torch and a welcome shift in artistic direction.

 

To honor this year’s Ballets Russes centenary, ABT mounted an All-Prokofiev Celebration. Only one of the three ballets, Balanchine’s 1929 Prodigal Son, was actually created for the Ballets Russes, and musically, it was the strongest of the three. It was also the tightest dramatically. Filling in for an injured Ethan Stiefel, Herman Cornejo danced the lead role magnificently. He made it a piece of living theater, conveying the heat of the Son’s desire, his vulnerability, and in the scene of his despoiling, the tortured beauty of a Catholic saint. The very young Daniil Simkin gave a thrilling performance that time will certainly deepen.

 

Like Prodigal, Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper, his first ballet for ABT, is a dramatic work grounded in music, in this case Prokofiev’s last ballet score before returning to the Soviet Union. Like a number of Ratmansky works, Dnieper takes place in a Soviet world innocent of politics and hunger. A young soldier, Sergei (Marcelo Gomes) returns to his village in the Ukraine, but instead of marrying his loyal sweetheart, Natalia (Veronika Part), he falls in love with Olga (Paloma Herrera). Her fiancé (David Hallberg) challenges Sergei; a brawl ensues; and the lovers ultimately flee, with the help of a heartbroken Natalia. It’s an old story, and Ratmansky tells it well, revealing his ability to give gestural meaning to dance movement and create both sympathetic characters and wonderful choreography for his dancers. In the case of Herrera, he has tapped a reservoir of banked passion that transforms this sometimes reticent dancer into a ballerina of great emotional depth.

 

Nevertheless, the first half of Dnieper comes alive only intermittently. The stage is often busy, and the music divorced from the action. But once everything drops away, leaving only the members of the love triangle, the ballet quickens, registering the emotions of the protagonists in a passionate duet for the lovers, fated, like Romeo and Juliet, to love, and a lament for the woman they salute and then abandon. Simon Pastukh’s minimalist setting contributes to the mood of sensuous possibility, although his fence-like components restrict the space for dancing.

 

James Kudelka‘s Désir, to excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Waltz Suite, Op. 110, was thin stuff, by contrast, despite the composer’s modernist textured waltzes and a lyrical pas de deux that capitalized on Isabella Boylston’s glamorous extensions. With Prodigal the only first-rate score, this Prokofiev evening fell musically flat.

 

Natalia Osipova paid a flying visit from the Bolshoi Ballet. In Giselle she left an indelible impression, with her astonishing lightness and elevation, huge leaps and back-traveling cabrioles. She was less impressive in La Sylphide, although this partly reflects the eccentricities of Erik Bruhn’s staging, with its coquettish sylph, overbearing James, and comic Madge. Diana Vishneva danced another spellbinding Giselle and a wonderful Sylvia—by turns a warrior Amazon, seductive mistress, and love-struck maiden. Yuriko Kajiya, a soloist, made a charming Gulnare (although Le Corsaire is looking tired). Hee Seo, a corps de ballet member, made her debut in La Sylphide and danced her first Juliet with Cory Stearns, debuting as Romeo (a performance I did not see). Tall, good-looking, but emotionally stolid, Roberto Bolle (new principal from La Scala via the Royal Ballet) danced Swan Lake with Veronika Part, who gave one of the great performances of her career. How different from Marcelo Gomes, who partners all his ballerinas with gallantry, and David Hallberg, who seems to “swing” with the music, no matter what he dances. As for Nina Ananiashvili, the first of the glasnost ballerinas, she cast a glow of autumnal pleasure over this farewell season, performing as always with beauty and artistry.

 

 

Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in On The Dnieper, Ratmansky’s first work for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

 

 

Montpellier Dance Festival
Various venues. Montpellier, France. June 19–July 4, 2009
Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

 

Talk about an emotional roller coaster ride! A pall washed over this normally sunny town when dance aficionados learned of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Pina Bausch. Two names not generally found in the same sentence, their untimely passing nevertheless elicited profound reactions during the 29th edition of one of Europe’s most adventurous festivals.

 

The best tribute, then, was to go on with the show(s). With 28 choreographers from 10 countries presenting 17 new works in 16 days to some 38,000 spectators, the festival’s scope was mind-boggling. Founded in 1981 by dancer-choreographer Dominique Bagouet (he died of AIDS at age 41 in 1992), it’s been directed by Jean-Paul Montanari since 1983.

 

Curiously, the solos and duets resonated most. At 52, Angelin Preljocaj danced onstage for the first time in 16 years in Un funambule (The Tightrope Walker). Based on Jean Genet’s meditation on love, death, and being an artist, the premiere featured the elfin choreographer reciting the text while swooping about a set strewn with rolls of butcher paper. Tossing off a cartwheel one moment, balancing on a lighting grid the next, Preljocaj ended by showering himself with gold glitter, an apt metaphor.

 

Less a meditation than action painting, El final de este estado de cosas, Redux, is Israel Galván’s one-man Guernica. A 75-minute work in which the Spaniard deconstructs flamenco, the piece is a convention-smashing triumph. Donning falsies during one segment, Galván ran his body through a cubistic wringer, reshaping it from centaur and steed to warrior and lover, all through astonishing footwork, balletic jumps, and dying-swan–like arms. The finale? Galván standing upright in—gulp—a plain wooden coffin.

 

Also thrilling: Winter Variations, Emanuel Gat’s latest work. A study in heterosexual male bonding, danced by the choreographer and Roy Assaf, the 50 minutes teem with perfect unisons, militaristic marching (on their knees, no less), and minuet-like stylings to taped music, including Strauss and the Beatles. Gat’s lighting design—an exotic abyss—creates an intimate tableau on the vast stage of the 2,000-seat Opéra Berlioz.
Raimund Hoghe’s new concept piece, Sans-titre, proved less successful. Paired with young Congolese dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula, Hoghe, an erstwhile dramaturge for Bausch and a middle-aged cerebral German who happens to be humpbacked, is limited by his body. Hoghe primarily walks, bends, and lies on the floor, while Linyekula indulged in some ecstatic dance, all set to the emotionally manipulative music of Bach, Purcell, and gospel.

 

After Hoghe had plunked down squares of blank paper and removed his shirt, Linyekula placed stones on and around the hump of the prone Hoghe. Yes, the Teuton exudes a sense of dignity, but his work begs the question: Is it art (à la Diane Arbus); a voyeuristic spa treatment; or does the emperor need a robe?

 

Mathilde Monnier didn’t need clothes but needed more dance in her hour-long City Maquette. Having premiered in Berlin last year with more than a hundred amateurs and Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (playing music from Heiner Goebbels’ opera Surrogate Cities), the Montpellier version took place in a church with 80 participants from four generations moving to taped music. Somewhat pedestrian, the piece obviously lost something in translation.

 

Spanish-born Andrés Marín also failed to connect. His agonizing, two-and-a-half-hour El cielo de tu boca featured the flamenco dancer stamping, turning, and clapping to the live bell-janglings of composer/musician Llorenç Barber. Another Spaniard, Mercedes Ruiz, displayed more technique than duende in her one-note Mi último secreto, which never really got off the ground, her aggressive shawl-twirling notwithstanding. 

 

A different kind of aggression coursed through Rita Cioffi’s premiere, Passengers. Grooving to the onstage sounds of rock group Rinôçérôse, Cioffi gyrated and flailed about. That her partner, Claude Bardouil, was a non-dancer gave the scattershot work a Spinal Tap feel, with wigs, strobe lights, and amped-up rock riffings creating sound but little fury, at least movement-wise. 

 

The premiere Manta, choreographed by Héla Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux (both from France, as is Cioffi), was danced by a hijab-clad Fattoumi. Promising to reveal what lay beneath the garment, Fattoumi instead did slow quarter turns, flaunting an occasional hand and finally resorting to cliché—singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

 

Stephen Petronio’s premiere, Tragic/Love, a multimedia take on Romeo and Juliet, fared better. Making use of 30 dancers of Ballet de Lorraine and set to a musical collage, including Prokofiev, the evening-length work employed two actors reading letters written to the Juliette Foundation (a kind of Santa Claus clearing house for desperate lovers), while the hard-working dancers offered sensual duets and exquisite line formations.

The same troupe performed Bagouet’s 1988 classic Les Petites Pièces de Berlin. Restaged by Sylvie Giron, the five quirky works were reminiscent of an earlier time, the whimsical backdrops enhancing an occasionally robust—and robotic—vocabulary.    

 

Bruno Beltrão’s H3 is a high-octane hip hop romp for nine men, stuffed with armless flips, backwards hops, and pinball machine–like maneuverings. Exploring the Machine Age more comically than this Brazilian group were Turkey’s Filiz Sizanli and Mustafa Kaplan, whose premiere, Dokuman generated much-needed laughter. The Tunisian actor/comedian Nejib Ben Khalfallah failed to elicit yuks in his misconceived new solo, Falsou.   

 

Closing the festival, which also offered free outdoor events and a critics’ symposium, were performances by Portugal’s Vera Mantero and the Mark Morris Dance Group. While two sections of Morris’ Mozart Dances were tepidly received, his 1993 Grand Duo, set to the late Lou Harrison’s funky modalities and hard-charging rhythms, drew wild applause.

 

Dance, like life, is fleeting. With mortality hovering over the festival, it was gratifying to be in this dance lovers’ paradise, where emotions could be expressed in so many ways with the body.

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Reviews

Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly With Me
Alliance Theatre at the Woodruff. Atlanta, GA. September 15-October 11, 2009.
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

At her best, Tharp challenges extraordinary dancers to create extraordinary performances. This she has done in Come Fly With Me, her new “dansical” that could/should/might come to Broadway next season. She built the quasi-narrative situation around a few strong performers and gave them juicy dancing to go with their outsized personalities.

The sweet, self-effacing Charlie Neshyba-Hodges ushers us into a nightclub setting with the merest nothing of a shrug. It’s a deliciously sly way to begin an evening of technical and seductive prowess. He falls for a girl just as innocent as he is (Laura Mead), and in doing so reveals what a brilliant physical comedian he is. (I don’t think I’ve seen such an expert comic on Tharp’s stage since she herself danced the drunk in Eight Jelly Rolls.)

In the past Tharp has gotten into trouble when trying to tie a narrative to her over-the-top inventive choreography. This time it comes more naturally, perhaps because Frank Sinatra is her collaborator—31 songs this time (a few are sung live by Dee Daniels). The childish cavorting of Neshyba-Hodges and Mead forms a perfect foil for three steamy couples. One of those is the tigress Karine Plantadit paired with the elegant Keith Roberts. Another is John Selya, looking like a gambler right out of Guys and Dolls, with the languorous Holley Farmer, who is like catnip to the men. The last couple is Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto. The story (or non-story) shuttles between these four couples, spicing up the honeyed comfort of Sinatra’s voice.

Plantadit, with her predatory sexiness and fiery energy, almost overwhelms the whole show. She dives into a group of men with reckless abandon, dances on a tabletop, and takes her clothes off. She and Roberts throw each other around in a mutually abusive rendition of “That’s Life” (yes, the very same terrific choreography as in Nine Sinatra Songs) that would be disturbing if it weren’t so kinetically exciting.

An antidote to Plantadit’s heat is Holley Farmer’s cool. Gracious and glamorous, with a proud, open chest, she has transformed herself from an energized Merce dancer into a temptress who revels in her power over men.

And yet the sexiest part is a make-out scene between Dibble and Okamoto. They hook up so gradually that you can feel the inevitability of their attraction—and suddenly he has her up against the proscenium wall.

I only wish there were one tomboy thumping around, or one outdoor scene. It can get a bit claustrophobic to have the entire show take place in a hopping juke joint. But this is a show of stars, and Tharp knows how to let her dancers shine—in all different colors.

 

 

Photo of Karine Plantadit by Greg Mooney, courtesy Ellen Jadobs Associates

 

 

American Ballet Theatre
Avery Fisher Hall
. Lincoln Center, NYC. October 7–10, 2009.
Reviewed by Gus Solomons jr

Avery Fisher Hall may be a fine venue for the Philharmonic, but for ABT, it’s a challenge. Their brief four-day fall season comprised three new commissions, two old pas de deux—one on each of two programs—and one Dying Swan (danced by Veronika Part on gala night). Since dancers and musicians had to share the stage, musical scores ranged from solo piano to a six-musician ensemble.

It was fun to see the dancers warming up on the big, bare stage as we entered the hall, and they seemed to enjoy it too. What was difficult for them, though, was making all entrances and exits through only two doors on each side. And lighting designer Brad Fields had to make do with paltry lighting that had two settings, on and off, and left the corners of the stage dim.

Robbins’ Other Dances (1976), labeled by some as outtakes from Dances at a Gathering, is technically a bear of a pas de deux. Set to four Chopin mazurkas (and a waltz), it could be a thesis project in Russian character dancing. Champion technicians Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg earn kudos for getting through it gracefully.

Some Assembly Required (1989) by Clark Tippett is a physical romance, set to William Bolcom’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano. Its main attraction is precarious lifts, like balancing the woman by her shins. On the Friday matinee, Maria Riccetto and Jared Matthews gave it a passionately muted performance.

For the first premiere, Alexei Ratmansky fashioned the choreographically intricate Seven Sonatas to pieces by Scarlatti, played with authority by pianist Barbara Bilach. Three couples intertwine in complex counterpoint—playful, sexy duets that would feel at home in Romeo and Juliet.

Aszure Barton’s One of Three, set to Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G, is surely not the first example of a choreographer with a unique voice getting lost in her infatuation with ballet dancers’ skills. The opening male solo and trio show Barton’s quirky dynamics and offbeat wittiness. But when the women enter (Michelle Wiles, Misty Copeland, and Paloma Herrera on October 8) the movement becomes generic toe dancing, and who knows whether the eight guys in black suits are being seduced by three sirens or vice versa?

Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once is Benjamin Millepied’s latest concoction. To three selections for small ensemble by David Lang, Millepied deploys two dozen bodies in dense phalanxes, pinwheels, and splicing lines. He even creates a virtual setting by arraying dancers around the central action.

In the second section, a striking motif involves pairs of men supporting a woman, walking slowly at an impossible tilt. The idea recurs at the end of the central duet, which also features power lifts, the woman held horizontal over her partner’s head, and gliding carries, where she lightly skims the ground. In the second cast, Cory Stearns and Stella Abrera make the choreography magically seamless. Everything may be Millepied’s strongest ballet to date, especially in its modulation of space and density with a large cast.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. San Francisco, CA. October 1–3, 2009
Reviewed by Rita Felciano

Burdened by the sheer weight of the material packed into this 85-minute meditation on Abraham Lincoln, Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray is kept afloat by the extraordinary dancers and collaborators of his company. But it is a bumpy ride.

Jones’ mind ranges far and wide trying to sort out what works and what doesn’t in this country. No wonder his fragmented vision turns problematic onstage. The robust lyricism of the text—both his and what he borrows—approaches the rhapsodic intensity of Walt Whitman. This type of language is, perhaps, more at home in poetry than in the theater. Ultimately Fondly runs away from us like the train whose shadowy image recurs throughout the piece.

Although the voyage is a little rough, it’s also noble and grand, befitting a work commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. (Fondly was commissioned for that occasion by the Ravinia Festival.) Lincoln (Paul Matteson) and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Asli Bulbul), join a canvas of portrait sketches of ordinary folk: a soldier, a factory worker, a dancer. The actor Jamyl Dobson assumes the role of Lincoln/Jones as a seer/prophet figure.

Giving flesh to the words is the dancers’ job. Except in a few instances—in particular Bulbul as Mary Todd and Peter Chamberlin as Lady Liberty—the choreography doesn’t so much interpret as comment on the text. Signifying the march of history, the ensemble travels in circles and lines, one behind the other, men and women on the move. Inside a luminous white-curtain enclosure, they look like a diorama of humankind or faint memories that assert themselves when they re-emerge into our consciousness.

As the dancers step into the limelight downstage left, they don’t act out their biographies, which we hear in a recorded narration. Their physical movements—fierce, articulate, abstract—do the work of conveying their dignity as individuals. But when Jones follows a rancorous legal debate with high-pitched ensemble dancing, it falls flat; the choreography looks like an afterthought.

Perhaps Jones’ most inspired moment comes at the beginning, where he uses the slave auction section from Whitman’s “The Body Electric” to set the tone for Fondly. (The text returns “updated” in a clamorous war episode later on.) Hearing that degrading sales pitch while watching the glorious Shayla-Vie Jenkins calmly focus on her articulated stretches and curls was bone-chilling.

The beautifully integrated production of Fondly owes a debt to Janet Wong (video); Bjorn Amelan (décor); Robert Wierzel (light); Lindsay Jones (sound); Liz Prince (costumes); musicians Jerome Begin, Christopher Antonio, William Lancaster, George Lewis, Jr., and Wynne Bennett; and, above all, the astounding singer Clarissa Sinceno.

VelocityDC Dance Festival
Sidney Harman Hall. Washington, DC. October 2–3, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Macel

Delphina Parenti of DC’s CityDance Ensemble trembled and convulsed, her shaking limbs reflected in one of the many angled mirrors that make up the set for Paul Taylor’s Last Look. The group brought this work to VelocityDC, a first annual festival of 19 companies that drew sold-out audiences, proving that dance is not only alive in DC—it’s thriving.

Donning re-created costumes by Kristina Lucka, Parenti and the other women wore glamorous dresses reminiscent of 1950s film stars—in vibrant hues of orange, chartreuse, magenta, and yellow—while the men wore green shirts and pants resembling upscale surgeon’s scrubs. The nine dancers were as creepy as characters in a Hitchcock film and rendered Taylor’s choreography (staged by former Taylor dancer Patrick Corbin) in a precise and enthralling way. Conveying the timelessness of modern dance, the lengthy work could have kept going on for this reviewer.

The October 2 performance began with Gesel Mason’s laugh-out-loud How to Watch a Modern Dance, performed by Mason and emcee Peter DiMuro (who is director of Dance/Metro DC). As DiMuro described styles of modern dance, from Graham to Ailey, from abstract to literal, Mason humorously interpreted the words into modern dance gestures, setting a lighthearted tone, and welcoming those in the audience who were not seasoned dance viewers.

Edwin Aparicio, a 2009 “25 to Watch,” displayed such quick footwork and rhythmic precision that one wondered why flamenco doesn’t receive as much critical attention as other forms of concert dance. His dynamism and flare held the audience on the edge of their seats, eliciting rowdy bravos.

The all-male group Edgeworks Dance Theater performed a series of slow-moving duets in In Progress: Traveling, to the accompaniment of Meredith Monk’s occasional dissonant warbles. Their move­ment quality was appealing, and the fluidity of the choreography contrasted nicely with the music, but the piece lacked momentum and fizzled out at the end.

Ron K. Brown’s Upside Down and excerpts from Nejla Yatkin’s Wallstories offered two very different perspectives on group dynamics. While in Brown’s work the dancers radiated feelings of joy and hope, Yatkin’s dancers were introspective and at times self-absorbed, using solos to express singular voices rather than a collective, unified whole. Wallstories (which received its full-length premiere that same weekend in DC), honored the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Performing to Pink Floyd, the dancers played with notions of sharing weight, possibly symbolic of the wall’s weighty place in history and society. Particularly captivating were moments in which two dancers lifted a third, who then walked through the air as if on water. (On October 3, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange replaced Yatkin.)

The Washington Ballet, in Edwaard Liang’s contemporary, starkly geometric Wunderland, wrapped up the evening on an awe-inspiring note. Five women began in a grand plié on pointe, vibrant against a white backdrop and floor. Maki Onuki and Luis R. Torres explored oppositions in a compelling duet—heavy and light movement qualities, high leaps and low pliés, counterbalances and lifts that lingered in the mind’s eye long after the curtain went down. In the penultimate duet, Morgann Frederick and Corey Landolt performed as snow fell from the rafters—their melancholy mood reflected in the music—like small, intricate figures gliding around inside a snow globe. Each spin and fouetté left a visible ring on the powdered floor.

The pre-show event was Willi Dorner’s Bodies in Urban Spaces (which has also been staged in Paris, London, and Philadelphia). As the audience followed behind, dancers jogged around the city in brightly colored sweats, wedging themselves between buildings, perching upon awnings, and creating totem poles of color in between parking meters or newspaper boxes. The irony of attempting to blend into urban space while costumed in neon colors was pleasant to stumble upon amid DC’s sometimes drab cityscapes. It was fun to see the city dressed up with dance, both in Dorner’s site-specific work and in the festival overall.

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Reviews

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York City Center, NYC • December 1, 2010–January 2, 2011 • Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

A certain dancer, dressed for Judith Jamison’s parasol-toting role in Revelations and photographed by Paul Kolnik, graces the cover of this season’s press kit. With her torso and head thrown way back, her face hidden, she could be any of Ailey’s beauties. Without an identifying credit, you’d never guess she was Renee Robinson. Some of this winter’s works reminded me of this photo in the way technical glamour obscured individual expression. The brilliant machine that is the Ailey company makes millions of fans happy, but what is sacrificed for that pleasure?

 

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is, undoubtedly, the world’s best loved and most secure dance organization. It claims respect for its disciplined ensemble and, in recent generations, has steadily honed a glossy, exuberant technique. Now, with Jamison retiring as artistic director, passing the torch to Robert Battle, this hardy troupe could enter a new phase of exploration and potential excellence. It would be grand to see Ailey dancers break through and let more individuality out.

 

The celebratory, ceremonial mood surrounding this season—with Revelations mega-casts and Wynton Marsalis at the helm of his orchestra—cannot obscure the reality of the coming change and risk. Nor can it sidestep the fact that Jamison’s gorgeous company has yet to dance anywhere near a risky artistic edge and, this winter, had little freshness to offer.

 

Instead, this is what transition looks like: “new productions” of works hailing from as far back as the 1960s, like The Prodigal Prince, Geoffrey Holder’s voudon-inspired fantasia, and company premieres of Battle’s The Hunt (2001) and The Evolution of a Secured Feminine, a 2007 solo tour de force created by and still identified with super dancer and independent choreographer Camille A. Brown. Danced this season by lightfooted Ghrai DeVore, Evolution seems far zippier than I remember. But it’s also so much more about that zip and fashion-plate stylishness than about the surface tension and concealed desperation so dramatically embodied by Brown. DeVore wrapped the audience around her little finger, and they’ll most likely remember this star turn without getting to know much at all about their emerging star.

 

Christopher L. Huggins’ Anointed, the only brand-new piece, reads like a compendium of all things Ailey and, true to its name, an anointing of company saints past, present, and future. With Moby’s music and Al Crawford’s hazy lighting hinting at the environment of a church, Huggins addresses the perennial Ailey desire for praise-song–style dance. Its opening-section heroes—Alvin Ailey and Jamison figures, to be sure—are Glenn Allen Sims and a twirling, birdlike Olivia Bowman-Jackson, both clad in black, skintight costumes. Their partnering unfortunately looks claustrophobic. All that clutching, locking together, lifting, and draping of one over the other, occurs within a restricted patch of space until Bowman-Jackson finally moves off by herself.

 

In the next section, she takes the lead in a squadron of women whose every slicing, dicing move shouts, “Don’t mess with me!” In a tried-and-true formula, the Ailey dancers throw out energy to the audience; the crowd catches it and lobs it back with interest. (Battle’s The Hunt does much the same with a sextet of men.) In the third and final section, women scamper in shivering red micro-skirts. (Huggins’ costume choices, here and elsewhere, are inexplicable.) The spirit of Ailey? A foreshadow of Battle? It’s hard to know what Huggins intends. You just go with it as a jubilant ensemble ports Bowman-Jackson aloft on the uplift of anthem-like music.

 

Works like Anointed and Jamison’s meticulous Forgotten Time (1989) made me glad to find the company dipping back into a real praise dance by Ailey himself—Mary Lou’s Mass (1971). Exploring this Catholic service by jazz composer Mary Lou Williams, Clifton Brown, Jamar Roberts, and an elegant Renee Robinson fervently lead an ensemble that reclaims some of the earthy, expressive vitality of a previous Ailey era.

 

The Hunt brought the house down. And no surprise. Battle’s ingredients include six male knockouts—Roberts, Brown, Sims, Antonio Douthit, Kirven James Boyd, and Matthew Rushing—bare-chested, aswirl in skirts, and enacting a driving ritual to the thunderous percussion of Les Tambours du Bronx. Burke Wilmore’s lighting makes their images pop, and industrial-strength choral movement socks home the message, “I am Man. Hear me roar!” Once again, the emphasis on design buries individuality and meaning. More damaging, The Hunt betrays its tone and—unintentionally, I’m sure—begins to resemble disco dancing.

 

No matter. Battle clearly knows how to beguile an Ailey audience. Now, can he forget what he knows and find a new revelation?

 

 

Robert Battle’s The Hunt. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT

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Camille A. Brown/Andrea Miller/Kate Weare/Monica Bill Barnes

The Joyce Theater, NYC • August 9–14, 2010 • Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

“She pushes them hard,” said a guy behind me at the Joyce, his tone admiring. His friend concurred. Did they mean Gallim Dance’s Andrea Miller? Or Camille A. Brown, the other dancemaker on the program? Kate Weare and Monica Bill Barnes—whose equally remarkable troupes teamed up the following night on the alternate program—could fit that description too.

 

Miller’s dystopian Wonderland, a world premiere, strips its dozen dancers of civilization’s surface niceties. We fall through Miller’s invisible mirror into a place of floating reverberations: toddlers’ laughter; familiar snippets of The Mickey Mouse Club theme song; brassy, grinding, growling music. Rough-edged denizens—the most threatening and secretly most fearful aspects of our human nature—pull and push at one another, hurtling around like a pack of animals on their way to nothing but trouble. Busby Berkeley arrangements and rave scenarios flare up like acid hallucinations. Rubbery bodies turn this cautionary tale into a contortion-ary one, at once repellent and compelling.

 

When Brown observes the human condition—and an ensemble of dancers—she sees indomitability. Her excerpt from New Second Line (2006), inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, sings the energy of rebirth. There’s a flowing ease and simplicity that Brown abandons elsewhere. With the septet Girls Verse 1 (a New York premiere) and City of Rain (a world premiere for 10), the choreographer stuffs phrases with jerky tics. They read like an accelerated film, like visual noise. It’s as if the faster dancers move, the harder it might be for bad luck or floodwaters or even death itself to catch them.

 

Fans of Brown’s 2007 ensemble piece for Ailey, The Groove to Nobody’s Business, know her strength lies in the specificity of dramatic characters. Two works shown here, as New York premieres, demonstrate this too. She’s in total control of her solo, Good & Grown, set to a dreamy lite-jazz version of “It Was a Very Good Year” by Wes Montgomery and a smokin’ one by Saycon Sengbloh. Though typically busy, the choreographic lines cut clean. Brown makes that empty space around her tough little body seem like a doughy opponent that she’s pinned to the rope. Clever, expert timing makes her comic/romantic duet with Juel D. Lane (Been There, Done That) resonate with audiences, too. She’s clearly Broadway-bound.
Kate Weare’s new Bright Land—with its gorgeous, old-time mountain music performed live by The Crooked Jades—and Monica Bill Barnes’ Another Parade (2009) score knockouts with very different approaches to character.

 

In a dramatic atmosphere of charged intimacy, Weare introduces us to unidentified characters, and we imagine their stories. First we see them at their strangest as they bounce stiffly against the floor and abruptly cut phrases short. She can toss them together in sensuously weighted momentum and suspension. Or she can shear that sensuality away in a flash, replacing it with rigid gestures as stark as the singers’ gravelly and piercing call-and-response. With superbly gifted dancers—Adrian Clark, Douglas Gillespie, Marlena Penney Oden, and Leslie Kraus—Weare helps us feel the passage of time in a challenging terrain; the gathering, release, and drift of emotional weather among a resilient people.

 

The key to the entirety of Barnes’ Another Parade, I suspect, is the skinny, gawky, self-conscious girl (Celia Rowlson-Hall) who’s first to venture onto the stage. She’s also the first to bare her belly—twice!—and first to deliver and take a few imaginary blows. So American. She just wants to be out there and be loved. And that’s Barnes, I suspect, pulling everything out farther than it would normally go, anything to get your attention, and making you root for her because of it. Taking impetus from Bach, Bachrach/David and, most hilariously, James Brown, Barnes and her fellow dancers work their butts off to connect with us. Finally tearing down that (fourth) wall, they choose audience members as partners to take onstage for a little shimmy lesson and some slow dancing among the confetti. What’s not to love?

 

It’s a safe bet that Joyce audiences, rarely adventurous, will bring the noise for dancers giving their last ounce of strength for the cause. Each of these exciting, dedicated troupes did just that—and often more. Because of these four women choreographers, the Joyce now seems a more vibrant place, one capable of embracing innovation.

 

 

Yin Mei Dance
Doris Duke Theatre
Jacob’s Pillow Dance FestivalAugust 4–8, 2010Reviewed by Rose Anne Thom

 

In City of Paper, Yin Mei uses copious amounts of white paper to frame the dancing in compelling ways. The two men and two women, costumed simply in gray and black, construct and then interact with their paper environment in a series of discreet scenes while a lone violist, Stephanie Griffin, occasionally meanders onstage, focusing Sam Crawford’s sound design.

 

Walking backwards to begin the dance, Mei stretches taut an endless sheath of paper, moving from the left wing to the right. Dancers then send rolls of paper unraveling across the stage to create horizontal pathways, or they balance stiffened rectangles of paper in their palms. Kota Yamazaki creates random patterns as he lobs paint at vertical panels suspended above the stage. And, with their backs covered in paint, Kanako Yokota and Dai Jian tumble over a white drop cloth, generating unpredictable designs. (Yamazaki and Jian collaborated with Mei on the choreography.)

 

Mei’s inspiration for this dance, as described in the program notes, is her native Luoyang, “a city in central China…believed to be the place where the Chinese invented paper…a magnet for scholars, writers and artists.” Through projected images and animation on upstage screens, Mei suggests Luoyang’s demise, the damaging effects of the Cultural Revolution, and the efforts to recapture the city’s identity.

 

The dancers’ relationships with the paper convey this story rather obliquely. A clearer narrative connection exists between the reiteration of danced phrases and recurring projections of Luoyang’s townspeople at distinct periods of history.

 

Yamazaki’s first solo, a hyperkinetic, circling eruption, displays the fluid use of the torso and shaping of limbs that are signatures of Mei’s style. The trio that follows, with each dancer progressing horizontally on a paper path, is more contemplative. As they fold gently into the floor, balance on shoulders, and roll about extending their arms and legs, their routine marries sensibilities of tai chi and postmodernism—especially when they loudly crumple up their paper paths. The high points of the piece are synchronized solos for Mei and Yokota that extend this physical exploration. Their arms reach and retract, pelvises languidly revolve, and legs lunge and thrust in a calm series of repetitions that alter ever so slightly until the dancers have exchanged positions in space. Upstage, silhouettes of flying birds complement their deliberate serenity.

 

The dancers are less effective when they come in contact with one another, as when their bodies create a traveling sculpture, or in a brief duet for Mei and Jian. It’s as solitary figures that they evoke the relationship of artist and paper most poignantly.

 

 

Pilobolus Dance Theater
The Joyce Theater, NYC
July 12–August 7, 2010 Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Pilobolus dedicated its three-week run at the Joyce to late cofounder Jonathan Wolken, who died just a month before opening night. Program A included Wolken’s Redline (2009), featuring his high-intensity, fearless style, and three other works with choreography by co-artistic directors Michael Tracy and Robby Barnett.

 

The evening’s centerpiece was the New York premiere of Hapless Hooligan in “Still Moving” (2010), a graphic novel-meets-silent film collaboration between Tracy and comic artist Art Spiegelman. Inspired by Frederick Burr Opper’s early 20th-century comic Happy Hooligan, the work put Spiegelman’s drawings into motion, with the help of animators Jason Patterson and Dan Abdo. 

 

The story of the ill-fated Hap and his love interest, Lulu (played by Annika Sheaff and Eriko Jimbo), starts out innocently enough. Toward the beginning, most of the action takes place behind a large screen, where the dancers, silhouetted, interact with projected animations, their sizes and proportions distorted by Robert Wierzel’s lighting. Like Harold and the Purple Crayon, items drawn around Hap come to life. A flower grows, then whaps him in the face; a line becomes a box that traps him inside. Then he pushes the line forward and it transforms into a building.

 

The plot takes a dark turn when Lulu leaves Hap for a menacing hat-and-trench-coat-wearing villain. He forcefully seduces Lulu (in a section subtitled “Sex and Violence Together at Last”), eventually killing her after a burlesque-style dance-fight, which brings the characters out from behind the screen for the first time. Hap is so distraught that he takes his own life (humorously—by throwing a shadow brick into the air and bopping himself on the head) to retrieve Lulu from the underworld.

 

In a multimedia piece like this, the dancing could easily become secondary to the plot and stage elements. But what Pilobolus does so well is to keep movement in the foreground. Jun Kuriba­yashi’s leaps are incredible whether in shadow dance or real life; animation can’t match Sheaff’s extensions as she crawls through the air to fight for her life. Throughout all the farce and charade, the choreography pushes the dancers’ bodies to their limits.

 

And really, that’s what Pilobolus is all about. Michael Tracy’s Symbiosis (2001), performed by Manelich Minniefee and Jenny Mendez, embodies extremes. The two nearly nude dancers move as if through water, with no regard for gravity. Wolken’s Redline challenges the dancers with a blend of martial arts, militaristic movements, and a suspended weight reminiscent of The Matrix.

 

The evening ended with (2007), which again relied on the cast’s acting skills as much as its dancing. Most memorable was the way in which Winston Dynamite Brown, playing an old man, shuffled through a maze of chairs carrying Sheaff on his shoulders. Eventually Matt Del Rosario and Christopher Whitney slid dozens of chairs across the stage to create a constantly shifting, elevated pathway for Brown to walk on. These kinds of surreal moments, which lift audiences into a dreamworld, are a strong suit of Pilobolus and shone through this season.

 

 

Photo of Miller’s Wonderland by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Joyce.

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“Architecture of Dance”
New York City Ballet • David H. Koch Theater • Lincoln Center, NYC

April 29–June 27, 2010 • Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

When he invited architect Santiago Calatrava, famous for his radical designs of museums and bridges, to collaborate with commissioned choreographers, Peter Martins had intended this festival to emphasize “the new.” But at least half of the seven premieres looked back to the past.

The most contemporary—and most exciting—ballet came from Wayne McGregor, who chose to design his own set. For Outlier, the first backdrop looked like a deep hole in space, as if it could suck dancers into a vacuum. From the moment Craig Hall began stalking Tiler Peck, the softly menacing quality of the ballet was riveting. To Thomas Adès’ sometimes explosive music, partners tangled, locked in ornate eroticism, a bit like Balanchine’s Bugaku but rougher. A woman being held high pumped back and forth like she was trying to get away. There were no simple, sweeping phrases. Many moves seemed like frenetic adjustments: Hall’s hand churned in space before it went to lift Wendy Whelan. Entering late, Whelan leavened the proceedings with her gentleness and vulnerability. Near the end, three groups of three dancers launched into a barrage of astounding choreographic connections under hurricane lighting (by Lucy Carter, who also helped design the set).

 

Of the five choreographers who did collaborate with the architect, Martins got the best results. His Mirage allowed time for Calatrava’s suspended multi-stringed form to morph from what faintly resembled a dove into other shapes. The dancing was expansive but delicate, with extensions swiveling slowly in the joint. Lightness of the legs (breathtakingly slow reverse développés) echoed the fineness of the strings in Calatrava’s sculpture. Violinist Leila Josefowicz stretched out long, tremulous notes for Robert Fairchild and Kathryn Morgan’s tender duet. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music was at once light and dark (think Arvo Pärt). Jennie Somogyi, as the lead woman, danced with a gorgeous, grounded fullness.

Finally, the Calatrava figure tipped forward like a hawk swooping down in slow motion. Only in the last seconds did you see its congruence with the pitched-over partnering shape that recurred throughout the piece. Mark Stanley bathed the sculpture in rainbow colors that seemed to radiate a celestial blessing.

 

For Mauro Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light), Calatrava devised a cluster of golden discs that grew from a single disc—a thing of dark, glowing beauty and a metaphor for expanding time. These multiplying orbs presided over a strange kind of life where living beings were dangerous to each other. The hunched-over partnering looked part animal, part insect-y. Jabbing, spiky fingers and flexed feet suggested some kind of electrified existence. The women looked terrific in Marc Happel’s long-sleeved, black two-piece outfits, with bare midriffs and tutus that emphasized pelvic tipping.

 

The climaxes of Bruno Moretti’s commissioned score were too big for Luce Nascosta. You felt them coming but there was no narrative reason for them. A sense of urgency, however, pushed the dancers beyond their comfort zones, especially those who tend to be tame, like Gonzalo Garcia. Often a woman would run and slide recklessly to her partner. When Teresa Reichlen entered, the other women backed away from her. She then embarked on a fantastic, oozy solo. Craig Hall also had an intense solo, reaching to deep places in the spine. Peck pressed her foot on her partner’s shoulder (annoyingly similar to the move that wowed ’em in Bigonzetti’s Oltremare from 2008). Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski wrangled in an off-kilter duet. Ashley Bouder and Adrian Danchig-Waring nearly strangled each other. Eventually the several discs slid back into place behind the first one. In sync with that closure, the women’s daring slides melted to the floor.

 

Like McGregor, Alexei Ratmansky chose not to work with Calatrava. Following his interest in history, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement used music by the 19th-century composer Édouard Lalo. It harked back to Petipa’s sense of pageantry, but with sweet, gentle twists. The quaint look of it reminded me of Nijinska’s Les Biches, where you’re not sure if something (choreography or costume) is a joke. There were charming moments, for instance Jenifer Ringer furiously smoking a cigarette, and Daniel Ulbricht picking up one girl and then another and setting them down just a few inches away. But mostly it was lots of women in billowy yellow dresses and black pixie wigs forming lines and circles. The men’s helmets and women’s wigs (costumes by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov) robbed them of personality. Were the men from the military? Were they goons from Prodigal Son? The saving grace was an enchanting scene where the 16 corps women, now wearing tunics and turbans, alighted in Isadora-style repose under the moonlight.

 

Christopher Wheeldon and Melissa Barak opted for story ballets, choosing two-dimensional backdrops. Calatrava made beautiful impressionist paintings: the Argentine pampas for him, the Las Vegas desert for her. But one wondered why these two choreographers didn’t take the three-dimensional challenge.

 

Wheeldon’s Estancia was a bit like Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, except that a city boy has to win the cowgirl’s heart. With a singer occasionally piping up from the corner, it seemed more like an operetta than a ballet. The play-acting was strangely conventional, much like his An American in Paris of 2005. The biggest lost opportunity was to make something really wild for the lead Wild Horse, played by Andrew Veyette, who knows how to let loose.

 

Barak’s Call Me Ben, to music by Jay Greenberg, had a thin script and even thinner choreography. One scene with gangsters at a table, scissor-kicking over the chairs, seemed taken right out of Jooss’ The Green Table.

 

Benjamin Millepied’s piece did use a sculpture by Calatrava, but he too tried to tell a story. Why am I not where you are had to do with a man (Sean Suozzi) who is invisible to a woman (Kathryn Morgan) because he dresses differently from the crowd. He gets forced by local bullies (Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns) to dress like them. These same bullies strip the girl until she’s wearing only white. Then she can’t be seen by him, and ends up alone. There was little interplay with the set, which was a stunning white arch with spokes.

 

The two major revivals of the season were Martins’ Morgen and Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes. The former is a lush, romantic reverie for six—beautifully danced. The latter is relentlessly cute, with a few elegant choreographic touches at the end of each of four trios. It’s one of those ballets, like Cortège Hongrois, that round out a program but have little connection with life today.

 

Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet was the most unevenly danced ballet. Jennie Somogyi and Jenifer Ringer both gave beautiful performances. Savannah Lowery was totally miscast; the romantic tutu only emphasized her lack of grace. Millepied looked uninvolved in partnering Yvonne Borree, while Maria Kowroski kicked up a storm, her final pirouette devilishly off balance.

 

If Calatrava wasn’t well used, the architecture of pure dancing was. Joaquin De Luz was a forceful Prodigal Son. Ashley Bouder was softer than air in Scotch Symphony. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall were heavenly in Wheeldon’s . And Robert Fairchild was terrific in everything.

On a sad note, we bade farewell to Yvonne Borree, Albert Evans, Philip Neal, conductor Maurice Kaplow, and, most notably, Darci Kistler (see “Transitions,” page 66).

 

 

Pictured: The final moment of Peter Martins’ Mirage; set by Calatrava. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

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San Francisco Ballet

Highlights of the Spring Season • War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA • February 9–May 9, 2010 • Reviewed by Rachel Howard

 

In its 77th year, the San Francisco Ballet stretched its repertory with unexpected acquisitions from both ends of the past century. By far the event of the season was the American premiere of John Neumeier’s evening-length The Little Mermaid, commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005. SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson first fell in love with this surprisingly violent metafictional take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale at a performance by Neumeier’s Hamburg troupe. He took a tremendous gamble bringing it to San Francisco, where Neumeier is little known and European dance-drama is rarely seen.

 

The risk was rewarded with a rapturous reception for the dazzling, surreal images created by Neumeier’s self-designed sets and costumes, and for breakthrough performances from two of San Francisco’s leading ballerinas. The delicate Yuan Yuan Tan was a natural physical match for the Mermaid’s hyper-flexibility. (Much of the Mermaid’s movement is waist-up; Neumeier dresses the role in trailing Japanese-style trousers that fan out like fins.) More surprising than Tan’s arching back was the grotesque self-abasement of her second act, where she beat at the walls with a gaping mouth, like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream come to life.

 

Sarah Van Patten was a more human Mermaid, less pliant, but even more extreme in capturing the masochism, throwing herself at the narcissistic prince so despondently that you feared bodily injury. The Little Mermaid is not one of Neumeier’s strongest works—the repetitive storyline drags on, and Lera Auerbach’s grim score is unmemorable—but the whole company looked at home in the boldly theatrical style, and standing ovations suggested the ballet will make a popular return soon.

 

Less novel to SFB audiences is the work of Christopher Wheeldon, whose fifth commission for the company premiered early in the season. Ghosts combined alluringly haunting elements: a lyrical classical score by rock musician C. F. Kip Winger, diaphanous costumes (by Mark Zappone) that clung like cobwebs, and Laura Jellinek’s enormous over­head sculpture, which shifted ominously now and again, like a restless raptor.

 

The movement overflowed with formal inventiveness, and yet the choreography seemed to use abstraction as a hedge, gesturing towards deep meaning while denying any evolving relationships among the dancers. When the powerful Sofiane Sylve tore between Tiit Helimets and Brett Bauer, was she a force from time past, or simply a useful dynamic contrast? Why did she eventually soften, except to create resolution? How was this tempest meant to relate to the serenely tender duet for Tan and Damian Smith? (In the second cast this duet was danced beautifully by Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz, both having standout seasons.) Did Wheeldon himself have an idea, or was he hoping we would fill in connections where he had failed to make them?

 

A few weeks later, on the fourth of eight programs, Fokine’s Petrouchka left behind more intentional and satisfying mysteries. Fokine’s granddaughter Isabelle directed the meticulous restaging of this 1911 Ballets Russes touchstone. The riotously colorful sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois looked resplendent, and the Stravinsky score sounded exuberant. Pascal Molat drew real pathos out of the title’s abused puppet (Nijinksy’s legendary role), while corps member Clara Blanco gave a wide-eyed, creepily disconnected rendition of the ballerina doll who does not requite his love.

 

Does the Charlatan who denies Petrouchka’s humanity represent an indifferent God against whom we hopelessly rebel? The provocations raised by SFB’s Petrouchka this spring were as dark and irreducible as they must have been at its premiere nearly 100 years ago. But the ballet did not come off as a museum piece; it was alive.

 

The Ballets Russes heritage is not often interpreted by SFB, where the company’s international roster trades more easily in contemporary athleticism—and indeed, the program closed with a high-voltage revival of William Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated. But the loving performances of Petrouchka revealed a company that prizes innovation past and present, led by an artistic director who nurtures the full artistic range of his dancers.

 

 

Necessary Weather
Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC
May 13–15, 2010
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

An oasis of calm, light, and exquisite simplicity, Necessary Weather is a revival of the extraordinary 1994 collaboration between two dancers and a lighting master. Although Dana Reitz came up with the concept, Jennifer Tipton’s lights and Sara Rudner’s dancing contribute equally.

A beautiful restraint guides all decisions. As in a Japanese tea ceremony, each action is completed before the next action begins. You can lavish your attention on each single movement as it happens—so different from other artistic and social stimuli these days.

 

Circles of light divide the space or sneak up on the dancers. The shadow of one dancer grows large and conceals the dancing of the other. Light/dark is a third character, so this really is a trio, not a duet. The light finds them in the space, tells them what to do, invites them to investigate. They look at their hands in the light as though for the first time. The quality of attention is intensified by silence.

 

A narrow beam of light falls into the bottom of a straw hat, turning it into a pot of gold. Although the ray comes from above, the light seems to emanate from the inside of the hat, casting a glow on Reitz’s and Rudner’s faces as they hold the hat. And just so the scene doesn’t get too precious, too magical, the two dancers start talking low, as though surrounding a campfire, barely audible. We hear Rudner murmur in delight, “It feels warm now.”

 

Sometimes they separate, free to explore on their own. Rudner plays havoc, gently flailing her limbs with great spirit. Reitz lounges on her side. A recurring phrase, beginning with pushing of the right hand, palm pressing the air, brings them back together.

 

The different qualities of their dancing are very much like they were 16 years ago. Reitz is vertical, contained, precise in her gestures, sharp in her shifts. Rudner’s movement is more rounded; she’s dreamy and creamy and full of pleasure. Her physical, emotional, and spiritual selves merge into a single harmony. One’s eyes and heart follow her, whether she is gesturing with a hand or galloping about the space. Rudner is lit from within.

 

 

Photo of Yuan-Yuan Tan and Lloyd Riggins in The Little Mermaid by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

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Reviews

 

 

Martha Graham Dance Company
Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, NYC • March 16–19, 2011 • Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

Lacking its recent star, Fang-Yi Sheu (who has returned to her home country of Taiwan), the Graham company rose to the occasion of its 85th anniversary. Blakeley White-McGuire emerged as a major Graham interpreter, Katherine Crockett was a towering presence, and Tadej Brdnik portrayed strong characters. A new dancer from China, Xiaochuan Xie, was a ray of sunshine.

 

The revival of Snow on the Mesa (1995) by avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson riveted the eye. Intended as a homage to Graham, the lights (abrupt changes of highly saturated colors), sounds (at times sudden thunder), and props (three wolf heads scattered on the floor) were drastic. A severe Noguchi-like chair slid offstage seemingly on its own. (This season celebrated Graham’s long collaboration with the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.) At least once, the dancers walked with the Primitive Mysteries stride-halt rhythm, but backward. Spliced into the slow movement were split-second flurries of fury and you’d think, Did that just happen? The women looked topless in Donna Karan’s transparent leotard tops with full black skirts. At the end, all 13 dancers wore long white cloths from chin to floor, as though the inner Graham in each had become a sage. Wilson’s glacial pacing is not ideal for a shared program, but he knew how to make the dancers look stunning.

 

Deaths and Entrances (1943) is terribly fraught with very little to go on, plotwise. Only once, during a section where the central woman (Miki Orihara) is pulled between the two suitors, do relationships trump sheer posturing. But Orihara seems more upset by her two sisters walking off in a huff. When she comes eyeball to eyeball with a wine glass just as a sinister rumble erupts (music by Hunter Johnson), you have no idea why this goblet nearly caused an earthquake. Edwin Denby wrote in 1944 that Graham’s own magnetic presence held the ballet together, and here is where one missed the fire of Fang-Yi Sheu. Deaths and Entrances is one of Graham’s weaker works.

 

Therefore, it was quite a challenge to create a “companion piece” to Deaths, which was the assignment given to Taiwanese choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava. His world premiere, Chasing, started out silly, with dancers actually chasing each other as though spotting the new Justin Bieber. But its slow, bleak section (sounds of the wind, people blowing this way and that) gained depth when the focus changed from outward to inward. Brdnik turned in a star performance as a lost soul. From the moment he covered his ears and slowly backed up, he was in a different zone. As he wandered about, a woman he embraced slipped away, leaving him sadly holding the air. Another haunted character, White-McGuire, in a pink gown à la Bausch, drifted to the floor in repeated falls, slightly daft. If this piece could be reworked and pried away from Deaths, it might have a future.

 

In terms of classic Graham, Cave of the Heart (1946) still exerts a spell. In a previous decade, Christine Dakin, with her wholly disturbing jealous convulsions, had been unforgettable as Medea. But White-McGuire was also powerful: A proud woman with the virus of jealousy shuddering deep within her, she was determined to avenge. Xie made a sweet, devoted young lover to Jason, played as an imperious, oblivious hunk by Ben Schultz. Graham was pretty brazen in how she made Jason flaunt his new significant other to Medea. Each character, when not the center of the action, became part of Noguchi’s tableau of stone sculptures, offsetting the intensity of emotion as this Greek drama played out. This formality is partly what dates the ballet. But White-McGuire carried the day, making you believe that good women can do wicked things.

 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Joyce Theater, NYC
March 22–27, 2011
Reviewed by Siobhan Burke

 

As the Cunningham company approaches its final performance on December 31, should we be getting more nostalgic? Six months from now, the group whose founder radically changed the course of dance history—dispensing with narrative, with that direction called “front,” with the notion of dancing to music—will no longer exist. And the nearer its closure draws, the more hallowed the company becomes: We only have so much time left together. Isn’t this cause for the kind of somber reflection that we undertake in times of mourning?

 

Well, no. The company’s recent program at the Joyce resisted any such sorrow or wallowing in the past. The three works, spanning four decades—Antic Meet (1958), Quartet (1982), and especially CRWDSPCR (1993)—looked so brisk, fresh, and alive that they held you captive in the present. If, for a moment, you were sad that you might never see these stunning performers again, you could comfort yourself with the thought that they looked so good precisely because you might never see them again. With the end in sight, they have a good reason to give it their all.
“Dance is an art in space and time,” Cunningham said. “The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.” In CRWDSPCR (1993), the dancers come close. Motion never stops during this dazzling piece for 13 individuals. Yes, individuals—because in spite of the mechanical movement, personalities emerge. Jamie Scott is casual, approachable—you kind of want to be friends with her—as she smiles through even the most awkward balances. And Emma Desjardins displays a calm sophistication in her glacial solo, which warps time—stretching it out, slowing it down—amid the otherwise frenetic activity.

 

Like human Rubik’s Cubes, bodies explore the many possible arrangements of their parts. No permutation goes unconsidered, or so it seems. (This was one of the first pieces Cunningham made using the computer program LifeForms, now known as DanceForms.) Torsos twist in one direction while legs skitter off in another; hips jut out at surprising angles. Arms rifle off odd positions, evoking the fins of a sea creature or the branches of a cherry blossom tree. At every turn, you see the order in randomness that Cunningham was famous for unveiling. Mark Lancaster’s bright blue backdrop and color-block unitards are central to the overall brilliance, as is John King’s electronic blues ’99 (played live by King and Takehisa Kosugi), a sonic forest of unidentifiable noises: gurgles, blips, drones, a sort of melodious lawn-mowing.

 

Quartet (a revival) was darker, moodier, more reminiscent of a humid night than a crisp afternoon. Its relationships seemed more human, less driven by chance. The curtain rose on Robert Swinston—the company’s director of choreography and, at 61, its oldest dancer—facing the audience, his upper body bent sharply to one side. Four others (Desjardins, Scott, John Hinrichs, and Marcie Munnerlyn) arrived, but he remained separate, his solitude intensified by their togetherness. As they whirled through chaînés or intertwined on the ground, he stood utterly still or shifted slowly between poses with animal alertness. Again, Desjardins stood out, extracting a luscious quality from the starkness of the movement.

 

If the evening had one weak link, it was the revival of Antic Meet, which closed the program. The humor of the Martha Graham send-ups and vaudevillian sketches felt dated, despite the dancers’ best efforts. But Rauschenberg’s absurd costumes (the multi-armed sweater, the chair strapped to Daniel Madoff’s back) consistently delighted, so full of personality they were practically characters in themselves.

 

The idea behind the two-year legacy tour—to let Merce’s company go out with a bang—is obviously working. And while it will be bittersweet to see the troupe go, their planned farewell does something to quiet those typically nagging questions of preservation. (Is Appalachian Spring getting better with age, or worse? Is The Moor’s Pavane the same as it used to be?) The finish line has been drawn; now we can all just enjoy the rest of the ride.

 

 

Top: Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik in Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa. Photo by Sinru Ku, Courtesy MGDC

 

Bottom: Melissa Toogood, Brandon Collwes, and Robert Swinston in Quartet. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy MCDC

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Reviews

The Forsythe Company
Sadler’s Wells • London, England • February 22–23, 2011 • Reviewed by Donald Hutera

 

William Forsythe’s work hits shapes, rhythms, and ideas in ways that other choreographer/directors cannot, or for which they don’t even aim. I don’t believe in outer space is a prime example. Created in 2008 for an ensemble of 18, and lasting about 80 minutes, it’s a neo-vaudevillian laugh in the face of death that harbors a surprising poignancy.

 

It kicks off in a tone of aggressive absurdity. The stage is covered with small black rocks, like some kind of cosmic detritus. (They’re actually discarded, balled-up wads of electrician’s tape.) Into this vaguely desolate landscape writhes Dana Caspersen, Forsythe’s compact, wiry little muse. Delivering a dual monologue, this remarkable irritant keeps shape-shifting between roles as a rabid, gruff-voiced alien new to the neighborhood and a good, clean, and doubtless conservative, suburban housewife unsure of how much welcome to extend the peculiarly monstrous creature at her door.

 

Soon the rest of the cast is indulging in a cacophony of declamatory rants, the verbal excrescences matched by the restless, incessantly wriggling vocabulary that has lately become Forsythe’s trademark. The screaming and shouting grate, while the kooky, jittery humor can feel forced. There’s a curious, mimetic game of ping-pong; an hysterically tumbling mutual massage; a visit from a beaming, manic Japanese fitness instructor; and another monologue by a bandaged, squeaky-shoed man. The latter is possibly a scientist, or the victim of a medical experiment gone awry, who declares, “There is no such thing as research, only researchers.” And let’s not forget the giant playing card—a joker, of course.

 

But, like the seemingly chaotic, asylum-ready behavior on display, Forsythe’s motives are deceptive. The emotional content underlying this performance’s fragmented flow sneaks up on you. Alongside the kooky nods to stand-up comedy are references to popular music, especially “I Will Survive.” First heard with its lyrics brayed by a man lying flat on his back, and later given mock-operatic treatment, Gloria Gaynor’s deathless disco anthem is forever retrieved from the realms of karaoke camp. Its words keep popping up like a mutating aural artifact of no little profundity. The show’s crazy shock tactics are further balanced by passages of more pensive movement scored with uncharacteristic restraint by Forsythe’s long-time collaborator Thom Willems. The tone carries over into the finale with Caspersen’s calm recital of all that nonexistence brings (“No more things that fall…No more being 15…No more planning a party, saying ‘Let’s have margaritas!’ and then running out of ice”).

 

Here, quietly questioning the meaning of life, Forsythe risks sentimentalizing mortality. But he gets away with it, as does a pack of dancers who are incredibly adept at going for broke. This may not be the avant-garde maestro’s most striking or innovative piece of dance theater, but its core of feeling will likely prove memorable.

 

Paul Taylor Dance Company
New York City Center
NYC February 22–March 6, 2011 Reviewed by Susan Yung

As reliably as the seasons change, Paul Taylor Dance Company presented two premieres in its annual stint of 15 repertory works at City Center—one dramatic (Three Dubious Memories) and one whimsically macabre (Phantasmagoria).

 

Taylor’s curious and often inspired ideas unspool as Memories progresses. Foremost is a love triangle (Amy Young, Sean Mahoney, Robert Kleinendorst) told from each participant’s viewpoint. A Greek chorus as witness and jury, led by James Samson, observes the protagonists. The trio wears primary hues of red, green, and blue, in vivid contrast to the grayscale jeans and tops of the chorus of seven (Santo Loquasto designed the costumes). The courtship/consummation cycle, refracted through the prism of the trio, ranges from romantic to caustic to jealous; the last viewpoint interestingly pulls the two men into a relationship. Peter Elyakim Taussig’s peculiar music—which varies from easy-listening jazz to a dramatic choral song—reflects the perpetually shifting emotional ground.

 

Taylor here effectively deploys his “archaic” language—epitomized in his Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)—imagery that brings to mind Grecian urns, Rodin’s sculpture, or Nijinsky’s Faun. In this Taylor idiom, stylized gestures are inserted strategically: a fake slap merits a stiff palm rubbed over the stung cheek; a kick elicits a delayed folding in half, cartoon-style. Simple, clear, naïve, it feels completely fresh, indicative of Taylor’s everyman genius. How gratifying to see lead roles being set on Amy Young, an elegant, lucid dancer both lyrical and powerful. Samson, with his Taylor body-double physique, is now deservedly prominent in the repertoire. He projects vulnerability, compassion, and intelligence and has matured into a formidable presence.

 

Phantasmagoria, set to early music, evokes Bruegel’s paintings through Loquasto’s peasant garb (although the multi-hued scrim, designed by Loquasto and lit by Jennifer Tipton, felt atypically inadequate). The characters portray a time not unlike today, in which Dionysian appetites vie with religious zealotry for public sentiment. The cavalcade features a gilded queen and king (Parisa Khobdeh, now the reigning female comic, with Mahoney and a trusty snake), a hypocritical nun (Laura Halzack, putting her peerless posture and sangfroid to work), a hale step-dancer (a beclogged Michelle Fleet), a drunk (Kleinendorst), and three “Isadorables”—incarnations of Duncan (including the lush Annmaria Mazzini, who, sadly, is retiring—see “Transitions,” p. 59). Michael Trusnovec, jolting and electric despite his disintegrating mummy wrappings, transmits a disease named after St. Vitus, the patron saint of dance—one touch quickly, if temporarily, levels the stratified society. Taylor’s perverse black humor comes through loud and clear, despite the piece feeling more sketch than fleshed-out portrait. 

 

 

David Kern, Esther Balfe, and Ander Zabala in I don’t believe in outer space. Photo by Dominik Mentzos, courtesy Sadler’s Wells

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Reviews

“Reflections”
Segerstrom Center for the Arts • Costa Mesa, CA • January 20–23, 2011 • Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

 

Finally: a program with the girls out in force. Unfortunately, their force fields—no matter how magnetic—fizzled in the overly long (nearly three hours), unevenly paced program. Sure, there were fleeting moments of brilliance—both in choreography and technique—but they were in short supply.

 

Modeled after and produced by the same team as “Kings of the Dance,” “Reflections” tried harnessing the estrogen power of seven Russian ballerinas trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in custom-made works. And for those concerned about the dearth of female choreographers these days, this program had them in spades, or at least there was a trio of high-gloss gals: Aszure Barton, Lucinda Childs, and Karole Armitage.

 

Why, then, begin the concert with Nacho Duato’s reworked Remansos? Originally for a male trio, this rendering featured Anastasia Stashkevich, Yekaterina Krysanova (both Bolshoi soloists), and Olga Malinovskaya (Estonian National Ballet), partnered by three Bolshoi men—Denis Savin, Vyacheslav Lopatin, and Ivan Vasiliev, respectively. Pretty, yes. Deep, not exactly, though the feathery armwork and intense pliés made for some nice imagery, performed to Alexey Melentiev playing the music of Enrique Granados, live.

 

After intermission (already?), the gorgeous, elastic-limbed Polina Semionova (Staatsballett Berlin), soared through Strauss Incontra Verdi, a 1995 work by Renato Zanella, adapted for the ballerina last year. Her body adorned in a glitzy pantsuit, Semionova pranced, turned, and leapt in neo-clown mode before wowing with a series of fouettés.

 

So much for the new. In any case, Barton’s Dumka had promise, featuring Bolshoi soloist Yekaterina Shipulina, moving dramatically to Tchaikovsky, her back fluid as rippling water one moment, her demeanor giddy the next. Too bad the short showcase, with lots of show but little to say, lacked cohesion. Childs’ Book of Harmony, featuring Malinovskaya making perpetual motion look easy, was in-your-face choreography that didn’t quite go the distance demanded by John Adams’ propulsive score.

 

With Armitage’s Fractus, a duet for Krysanova and Savin (to Rhys Chatham music), blackouts gave a feeling of urgency that complemented the tough-love partnering, including Savin spinning Krysanova upside-down. San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova tackled Jorma Elo’s One Overture with grit, the classical vocabulary fragmenting into quasi-moonwalking and shoulder-shimmying, while still maintaining hallmark Russian smoothness, enhanced by Mozart and Biber melodies.

 

Longtime partners Osipova and Vasiliev looked sharp in Bigonzetti’s Serenata, while the inexplicable inclusion of Balanchine’s 1955 Pas de Trois was nevertheless welcomed, with Shipulina, Semionova, and Alexander Volchkov displaying articulated footwork and stunning lines. As for Bigonzetti’s grand finale, Cinque, featuring all but Semionova and Malinovskaya, the femmes (though not quite fatales) cavorted on chairs with wigs and hanging tutus, their solos offering preening, backbending, and the occasional wrap-a-leg-around-the-neck trick. Alas, there was nothing earth-shattering, although the Vivaldi pieces, performed live, were sumptuous.

 

“Reflections,” a cool concept, is in need of a thoughtful makeover.

 

Yekaterina Shipulina in Barton’s Dumka. Photo by Steve Dawson, courtesy Segerstrom Center

 

 

Sarah Michelson
The Kitchen
NYCJanuary 13–22, 2011 • Reviewed by Siobhan Burke

 

There are dances that tell stories, and there are those, like Sarah Michelson’s Devotion, that distill familiar ones to an essence, wringing out qualities that you didn’t know were there. In this new work, a collaboration with Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players, the stories are biblical, and the essence resides in a peculiar place between ecstatic and austere. Letting Michelson take you there is a near-transcendent experience.

 

The seats of the blackbox, rotated from their usual configuration, line the long side of the space. In the wide darkness, things loom: from the ceiling, two hulking clusters of scoop lights, with a third sprouting up from the floor; on the walls, four paintings by TM Davy, which look like Baroque portraits. These depict modern men and women cast in a saintly glow, one of whom appears to be Michelson.

 

Not only does Michelson’s image preside over the work—its “creator,” lingering—but also her voice, which delivers Maxwell’s poetic text at the beginning and end. In the opening narration, amid refracted meditations on Genesis and the birth of Christ, we hear the inner dialogues of Adam and Eve in Paradise: “Adam thought, There is so much to share. Thank you.” Eve, tasting knowledge, realizes, “Whatever demons possess me, they are doubled by desire.” The two of them “felt fear together, of falling.”

 

Meanwhile, Rebecca Warner (the Narrator, embodied) plunges through a courageous solo; she is nowhere near falling, but her tension suggests a holding-on-tight. Utterly focused, she strikes one extreme Cunningham-esque pose after another: wide fourth-position pliés, deep lunges, severe side-tilts of her torso. Occasionally, Nicole Mannarino, the Spirit of Religion, appears behind her, whirling rapidly.

 

This rigor, a Michelson hallmark, carries over into a marathon solo for 14-year-old Non Griffiths (Mary), which evolves into a cold duet with the actor James Tyson as Jesus. (Tyson and Jim Fletcher, who plays Adam, are both members of the Players, and do an admirable job of tackling the movement.) Griffiths, dressed in white, may be tiny, but she meets Philip Glass’ exultant Dance IX head-on.

 

Some may recognize Dance IX from Tharp’s In the Upper Room; a few of the steps, and the costumes by James Kidd, Shaina Mote, and Michelson, also recall that 1986 opus. Spliced with original music by Pete Drungle, Glass’ pulsating horns fuel the cyclical motifs, the transfixing repetitiveness, of the choreography. The integral lighting design, by Michelson and Zack Tinkelman, also plays a rhythmic role, as one of the hanging fixtures swings into motion, keeping time like a pendulum.

 

Warner and Griffiths give intrepid performances. But it’s Eleanor Hullihan (Eve) who seems like Devotion’s true heroine. If Griffiths is an emblem of purity, Hullihan is her sensuous counterpart, the abandon to her containment. In her duet with Fletcher, she exudes athletic vitality and feminine strength. (The two wear matching uniforms of red leotards with white on the bottom—pants for him, a mini-skirt for her.) A hopeful glint in her eye, she repeatedly bounds across the length of the space, diving into Fletcher’s arms or onto his shoulders. She takes his hand and pulls him toward the theater doors, a threshold that he is reluctant to cross.

 

“Children. Have to tell you this message…We can live, free, without anxiety.” This refrain from Maxwell’s text echoes in the mind long after Devotion ends. Michelson takes us to many places, but among them, those extremes of freedom and angst, penetrating the rapturous depths of them both.

 

Eleanor Hulihan as Eve in Michelson’s Devotion

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Reviews

Ballet British Columbia
Queen Elizabeth Theatre • Vancouver, Canada • November 18–20, 2010 • Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

Ballet BC’s season opener of three contemporary works was more than an evening of fine dancing. It was a triumphant declaration by the Vancouver-based troupe that it’s back from the brink and, in its 25th year, looking to a brighter future.

 

In January 2009, the company faced the possibility of bankruptcy, the result of lackluster fundraising and dwindling ticket sales—only partly caused by a grim economy. Ballet BC lost artistic momentum and just managed to struggle through a drastically diminished season. Now, after a transitional year,  artistic director John Alleyne has been succeeded by former company principal Emily Molnar, and the 15-dancer company—most of them returning members—is looking strongly confident.

 

Molnar’s Songs of a Wayfarer, a poetic rather than literal response to Mahler’s eponymous song cycle—supplemented by a selection of his early lieder—opened a program that suggests her goal is to offer work that’s fresh and compelling, yet not so radical as to scare away a broad-based audience. It’s also clear that Molnar appreciates the wisdom in mixed programming of visual, stylistic, and musical variety.

 

Within designer Scott Reid’s almost monochromatic, surreally undefined landscape—a stage-wide sloping ramp with angled steps, leafless trees, and a large suspended picture frame—Molnar deploys her gender-balanced cast of 10 in shifting moods of exultant, expansive movement and softer, more lushly lyrical passages. Long ballet lines (the women are on pointe) are inflected with occasional angular distortions. The lifts within inventive pas de deux—up-endings and shape-twisting entwinings—suggest less bonding than emotional exploration.

 

Coming after Mahler, John King’s live guitar/computer-modulated score for Face to Face is a jolting contrast. So, too, is Kevin O’Day’s visceral, unpredictable choreography.

 

A woman emerges from (and ends the ballet) behind one of several low panels, an uncredited set suggesting a rocky, alien wilderness. Perhaps the woman is revisiting her past, trying unsuccessfully to rewrite its outcome. There are many ways to interpret the various encounters and incidents that occur among the cast of six. The three men at times seem potentially predatory, yet the women are also strong and assertive. What is clear is O’Day’s delight in creating high-octane movement. Bodies lunge into space, work writhingly from the floor, and grapple with almost primal eroticism.

 

Montreal-based José Navas’ full-company premiere, The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes, unleashes Ballet BC in a whirling kaleidoscope. Almost a choreographic perpetuum mobile, it thrives on Passages, the score by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, reflecting its minimalism and dynamic shifts. Precision and clarity are maintained at high speed, yet the work’s abstractness enhances the human immediacy of the dancers. The spirit is celebratory and uplifting—a fitting way to close a program that testifies to Ballet BC’s resurrection.

 

National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Toronto, Canada
November 24–28, 2010
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

With this triple bill, NBC plunged headlong into ultra contemporary weirdness in ballet—and came up triumphant. They are the first company outside of The Royal Ballet to dance Wayne McGregor’s astonishing Chroma. In this landmark work, the glare of lights seems to push the dancers into extreme territory, crooking the wrists, splaying the legs, and swaying the spine. One part of the body can be small and cramped, while another part is yanked open. The women can be stretched wide and pressed to the ground—more reptilian than human. In the first duet, Bridgett Zehr is a drastic creature on the edge of control, at times even looking like a cripple. You can’t take your eyes off her. Tanya Howard’s fine articulation is noticeable, and Greta Hodgkinson powers through with serenity.

 

The music by Joby Talbot and Jack White is sometimes pounding and sometimes lilting. There is no affection per se, but there are tender moments, and they are almost shocking within the cold, clinical context. The sense of caring is expressed not in romantic looks or swoons, but in a shared respite from the take-no-prisoners pace.

 

Thank goodness Serenade softened the stage before Crystal Pite’s Emergence, because otherwise there would have been too much pre-human turmoil at one stretch. With the help of NBC’s orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky live, the dancers rendered the Balanchine masterpiece with strength and sweep. Sonia Rodriguez was solid, energetic, and crisp as the Russian Girl. Elena Lobsanova’s beautifully open chest gave the Dark Angel’s arabesque a swelling look. In the final surrender, Xiao Nan Yu, held on high, opened into such a deep arch back that it seemed she might throw herself off balance.

 

In Emergence, dancers emerge from a cave-like barrel upstage. As in the movie Days of Heaven, we see insects crackle and snap and mate close-up, and then from a distance they coagulate into a menacing swarm. In the opening scene, Rodriguez seems glued to the floor, trying to free up her hands by jerking her shoulder—a fly caught in a spider’s web. At times there seems to be a chase between predator and victim. At other times there’s a lovely overlap, for instance, when the guys hunker down with their strong contractions while a few women bourrée through them.

 

In a large group they whisper, making the sound of cicadas on a summer night, only we eventually hear that they are whispering the counts. Everything—the dancing, the hornets’ nest–type set design by Jay Gower Taylor, and Owen Belton’s ominous sound—adds to the feeling of a swarm. Black markings on the men’s upper backs make them look ready to sting. At the end, all 38 dancers are counting and scratching in unison—just before a light from inside the cave blasts at us. And then they are gone.

 

Choreographers like McGregor and Pite are redefining what it means to be organic. The movement may look deliberately odd, but it’s all part of what the contemporary dancer can do, what the curious body wants to do. In both cases, the set and music were organic to the dance, and it all came together into a complete experience. As complete as Serenade, only instead of divine, these ballets are diabolical.

 

Jonah Bokaer and Harrison Atelier
Abrons Arts Center
New York, NY
November 18–21, 2010
Reviewed by Karen Hildebrand

 

You don’t have to be up to speed on the literature of ancient Greece to appreciate Jonah Bokaer’s new 70-minute work, Anchises. Though inspired by a character in Virgil’s The Aeneid, Bokaer’s gentle reflection on aging and familial responsibility stands on its own.

 

In Virgil’s story, Aeneas is allowed to leave town when Troy falls to the Greeks, but he can take only what he is able to carry on his back. He transports his father, Anchises, on his shoulders, along with the family history and traditions that will become the foundation for a new civilization.
Bokaer’s cast of five spans an age range of more than 50 years, bookended by James McGinn, 24, and Valda Setterfield, in her 70s. Meg Harper is in her 60s, Catherine Miller in her 30s, and Bokaer is 29.

 

The dancers perform a series of duets—quiet studies of gesture and weight, first between Bokaer and Setterfield. He reaches out to touch her like a doctor to a patient, and she pointedly removes his hand. She adjusts his collar like a mother, or wife. He kneels before her like a shoe salesman, and she places her foot on his thigh, then pushes him over. He carries her on his shoulders in a literal interpretation of The Aeneid and lays her gently on a slab made from modular cubes that the dancers configure into chairs, walls, beds. They arrange and rearrange the cubes as fluidly as the duets melt into different variations. Gestures repeat and become a song that plays in your head long after the performance ends.
A favorite image is a couple shuffling in a traditional slow-dance embrace when a third person joins them, making a sandwich. Later, the sandwich becomes a double-decker with four people.

 

Anchises is well-composed and restrained. It’s a pleasure to watch the erect Cunningham-esque posture and precise movement (Bokaer, Setterfield, and Harper are all former members of Merce Cunningham’s company), but one yearns for them to let go a little.

 

It’s the set, not the dancers, that ultimately breaks loose. Designers Ariane and Seth Harrison (of the design firm Harrison Atelier, with whom Bokaer shares equal credit as collaborators) have created a sculpture that lurks upstage like a giant iridescent jellyfish (bathed in blue light by Aaron Copp). Midway, it drops eight large white foam cylinders onto the stage to tumble like the fall of Troy. The sound score by Loren Dempster (parts of which were performed live by him and his father, Stuart Dempster) clanks, and the dancers freeze long enough to take in the new information, then scramble to deal with the changes that life, like Bokaer, has rendered, multilayered and insistent.

 

 

Ballet BC’s Donald Sales, Makaila Wallace, and Peter Smida. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC

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Reviews

Two Views of “Unrelated Solos”
Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC • May 19–22, 2010

 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kendall

 

The evening’s name was “Unrelated Solos”—three solo guys, one dancing commissioned work, two, their own. No structural logic. The only thing Barsyhnikov, Paxton, and Neumann have in common is they’ve all been around the block. Yet here they are, still onstage.

 

That was Benjamin Millepied’s subject, in the first solo, Years Later. A slightly shrunken Baryshnikov, in khakis and jazz shoes—blond-gray hair, chiseled jaw—ambled out from the wings and danced amiably in front of his filmed younger self spewing out jumps and pirouettes. It’s a one-(unsubtle)-idea piece. But the precision of the live Baryshnikov’s noodling, his almost grim inner largesse (as if reticence and beatitude exist in the same theatrical persona), offers the audience real spiritual food.

 

Then came Steve Paxton’s The Beast. Heavens, thinks the viewer, both guys have shrunk. Paxton, thin in sweatpants and curiously feminine black tank top over a tee, began his turtle-head-peering, torso-snaking, hands-spasticking solo inside an oval of light, sometimes moving outside of it, to mild popping sounds. With neat goatee, close-cropped hair, and glittering eyes, he looked like a hermit in a private wilderness.

 

Two grizzled veterans, showing the scars of exploration. Here is where an audience member seizes on “unrelatedness” and makes a symmetry. Baryshnikov, ballet king who apprenticed himself to the questing Judsonites, offers his body again to the whims of a young ballet colleague. Paxton, Judson king who went off to the mountains, comes back to the city with sleek stagecraft. We’re in the presence of rare theatrical humility—of two opposite kinds. But are Baryshnikov and Paxton so different? Two uncompromising lives; two guys who’ve somehow maintained, through fame and temptation, the purity of their personal stages.

 

The third soloist, David Neumann, can’t match them. In Dose and Tough the Tough (redux), he shows us, first, some offhand acrobatics (whirling over chairs, pivoting on his head), then slows, both times, to inert movement-philosophizing—sorry, audience, no more fun—matched to wiseguy soundtracks (Tom Waits for the first dance, Will Eno for the second). Neumann oozes the “offhand” ego that’s magically absent from the personae of the other two.

 

The evening, finally, takes the shape of a club sandwich, with Baryshnikov’s three numbers the bread, Paxton’s one, the meat, Neumann’s two, the mayonnaise. But what artisanal bread it is, that encases the whole. In the middle solo, by Ratmansky, Baryshnikov portrays the ballroom agonies of young Glinka, composer of Valse Fantasie—his dancing body revealing the haunted waltz. In the final number, another “idea” piece, by Susan Marshall, but this time with resonances (of space, time, history beyond this moment), Baryshnikov invites three embarrassed viewers onstage one by one. Each sits in a chair, watching him do mild dance-swashbuckling, until, at the end, he sits himself in the fourth chair, at home in his own theater.

 

Reviewed by MJ Thompson

 

How do you hold onto competing ideas and not go nuts? Practice. In “Unrelated Solos,” three artists divided by generation, technique, and fanbase came together, challenging viewers with their range of approaches.

 

David Neumann, wearing business suit and sneakers in Dose (1996) and Tough the Tough (redux) (2006 and 2010), chose material that illuminated his background in theater. Dose, for example, is a sharp portrait of a con artist: a minstrel act that unfolds in a spotlight to Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up.” Playing to the audience, Neumann experiments with laying bare the theater’s need to please. But here a smile morphs into distortion, as fingers pull back cheeks. Or a super-fast soft-shoe slows down into a measured pop-and-lock. “Who is that guy?” said a member of the audience. Like the love child of Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, Neumann combines athleticism with postmodern know-how; kinetic ease with irony; sucker punches with sublimely crafted pastiche.

 

In three commissioned solos, Baryshnikov dealt lightly with the burden of history. Years Later (2006), by Benjamin Millepied, takes on the glory days, with Misha dancing in front of archival footage of himself performing as a younger man. Valse-Fantasie (2009), by Alexei Ratmansky, deadpans the melodrama of a love affair soon forgotten in a kitsch spin on the story ballet. Closing the program with Susan Marshall’s For You, the most compelling of his solos, Baryshnikov invites three members of the crowd to sit onstage in chairs as he dances before them. He singles them out, turns away, returns his gaze to the larger audience, disappears behind the fly. It’s a neat demonstration of the audience’s desire both to be seen and to hide out, as much as the performer’s.

 

Steve Paxton’s The Beast (2010) is a tough-minded, minimalist solo based on his research into movement for the spine. The 71-year-old Paxton walks out into a rotating, oval pool of light and begins working. Periods of silence alternate with sound that could be water droplets or sonic feedback but in fact are the mysterious utterances of red bats. Wearing sweatpants, slippers, and a muscle shirt, Paxton performs without apparent interest in communication of any kind. What can the spine do? he seems to ask. This inner exploration results in unusual configurations of shoulder, arms, and torso, in a steady flow unmarked by dynamics or phrasing. He makes shapes, some vaguely familiar, like the pull-back of a pitcher about to throw. But the work’s magnetic appeal lies in the deeply disturbing way it resists understanding. Movement stands alone, until Paxton’s depth of concentration produces its own effect.

 

With Neumann the bridge between Baryshnikov’s theatrical dance and Paxton’s research-based improv, the night encouraged rumination on different dance traditions. By means of context, it helped clarify the notion of star presence as experienced, exacting artists making choices, thinking on their feet.

 

 

Martha Graham Dance Company
Joyce Theater, NYC
June 8–13, 2010
Reviewed by Lynn Garafola

Context is the Graham company’s new buzzword. A year ago that meant super­titles describing the action in Graham’s Clytemnestra. This year it means spotlighting the radical politics of her work of the 1930s. With curated programs (five in one week) to “provide audiences with new points of access to the art form,” MGDC, according to its latest press release, intends to take its cue from the art world and become a “living museum,” preserving not just its founder’s legacy but the classics of modern dance generally.

 

The two programs I saw accomplished this with varying degrees of success. American Document (2010), a partnership with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, is a remake of Graham’s long-lost American Document—a meditation on what it meant to be an American in 1938, with readings from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Charles L. Mee, who wrote the new script, never quite finds equivalents of those iconic texts, and he wastes too much time evoking yesteryear’s small-town America with readings (one from Green Grow the Lilacs, the play that inspired Oklahoma!) that fail to convey the radicalism of Graham’s ideas of democracy and racial justice. Mee is on surer ground in the second half, where he stitches together a critique of the Iraq War, anti-immigration hysteria, the health care system, homophobia, and AIDS policies that the Graham of the 1930s would surely have supported.

 

Bogart deftly melds her performers into a single unit. Dancers speak and actors move—including Leon Ingulsrud, the descendant of Graham’s interlocutor—with unexpected facility. Signature Graham phrases, contributed by the dancers, run through the piece, eloquent and liberated in their new context. James Schuette puts everyone in individualized street clothes, and this, coupled with the varied body types and voices of dancers with accents from around the world, conveys a vision of multicultural harmony.

 

“Dance is a Weapon,” conceived by MGDC artistic director Janet Eilber, exemplifies the company’s new themed approach. Linked by a media montage created by scholars Victoria Geduld and Ellen Graff, “Weapon” moves from an uneven series of Graham-era “political” solos to a reconstruction of Panorama, a fascinating 1935 work danced by 31 students from the Graham School, Talent Unlimited High School Dancers, and All-City Dancers. The program culminated in a thrilling rendition of Steps in the Street (which distills and intensifies themes from Panorama) and Prelude to Action, led by a stunning Jennifer DePalo. Casting men in solos originated by Isadora Duncan and other women seems to undermine the idea of historical context.

 

Eilber deserves a lot of credit for taking chances on these kinds of curated programs. And, perhaps even more, she deserves praise for giving so many public high school students the chance to experience and perform Graham’s work.

 

 

Pictured: Blakeley White-McGuire in American Document (2010)

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Reviews

 

 

 

 

Tere O’Connor Dance
Dance Theatre Workshop, NYC
November 10-14, 2009
Reviewed by Karen Hildebrand

 

In the world of Tere O’Connor’s Wrought Iron Fog, nothing has “meaning.” From the moment the lights come up on the five dancers, the best viewing approach is to let go of any need for narrative or theme, sit back, and enjoy watching an hour of delicious movement. Never fear, it all makes sense.

 

And what a delight it is to let O’Connor and his collaborators, like Alice, lead you through Wonderland. For instance: A trio of two women and one man, facing downstage, step sideways across the stage from one side to the other then back repeatedly. Their feet slap the floor in syncopated rhythm like a heartbeat: thump-thump, thump-thump. In another sequence, the two men take turns twirling with their arms raised, hands clasped, as if spinning from the end of a tightly wound rope.

 

The ensemble of three women and two men are an odd-lot of body size, bookended by lanky Matthew Rogers and full-bodied Hilary Clark (who received a 2008 Bessie for her work as a performer with O’Connor). They all exude presence and maturity—trained dancers performing movement where virtuosity is not the point. When dancing in unison, the ensemble is crisp and tight. Individuals blend in and out of duos and trios. Entrances and exits are like a shoe dangling from a foot that never clunks to the floor.

 

One group section has the dancers each curling their limbs and torsos like flowering vines. The next is full of angles and diagonal lines. O’Connor’s use of humor is subtle, eliciting chuckles as two women trill their fingers on a man’s stomach, or when two men rise on demi-pointe, hands on hips, and strut like peacocks.

 

The musical score is as inventive as O’Connor’s vocabulary. A soundscape by composer James Baker—with text from the Samuel Beckett novel How It Is—alternates everyday noises (traffic, bells) with words and music.

 

Near the end, all five dancers stand still, panting from the exertion. Erin Gerken turns to look upstage at Rogers, then charges, slamming into him. They fall to the ground and wrestle like animals—or maybe they’re lovers—then exit the stage. The other dancers watch unconcerned.

 

It’s a world of constant change as O’Connor moves from one vignette to the next without apparent relation. It’s like riding the bus in a big city, where at each stop you see a different and novel neighborhood. At the end of the work, the dancers dripping wet, you only wish the ride would continue.

 

Trey McIntyre Project
Institute of Contemporary Art
Boston, MA
November 20–22, 2009
Reviewed by Theodore Bale

 

While certain factions in the ballet world continue to wait for the next Balanchine, choreographer Trey McIntyre makes dances that respect and yet subvert popular notions about classical technique. The company’s Boston debut (presented by World Music/CRASHarts) proved that its artistic director is, quite simply, something very new, even if the program offered a bland vestige of his earlier works.

 

That vestige was Like a Samba (1997), an effective curtain-raiser with its striking silhouettes, sudden unison pairings, and classic Brazilian melodies sung by Astrud Gilberto. The title likely comes from the lyrics of “The Girl from Ipanema”: “When she walks, she’s like a samba, that swings so cool, and sways so gentle.” But this reference translates into a long, plain dance that lacks the lilt of its namesake, especially without live music. It is a confident divertissement with traditional partnering, several lords-a-leaping, and lots of pirouettes.

 

It was with the 2009 Shape that McIntyre charted exciting new territory. Lauren Edson, with two enormous red balloons tucked under her T-shirt, delivered a series of nearly impossible backbends, smiling hopelessly while a recording of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” provided an ironic context. Dylan G-Bowley wore another red balloon on the top of his head, and Annali Rose carried one in each hand. As the music turned into the Polyphonic Spree’s menacingly cute “Light and Day,” McIntyre completed a set of happy yet troubling distortions with these simple props.

 

Distortion reached an even greater extreme in (serious), set to chamber music by Henry Cowell. McIntyre should work towards shortening his dances, since he is obviously building a touring repertory. The introductory solos in (serious) were less remarkable than the thrilling trio at the conclusion. Sometimes we don’t need to see all of the building blocks to get the idea.

 

The Sun Road, with music by Paul Simon, Young Grey Horse, and Nina Simone, is a stunningly poetic rumination juxtaposing well-dressed Western bodies with the terrifying vastness of Glacier National Park. McIntyre has integrated his movement clusters with strikingly refined cinematic images and Native American drumming and chanting, making for one of the most truly American ballets I’ve seen in years.

 

Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer
Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC
November 17–19, 2009
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

 

In one of the dance season’s hottest tickets, Performa 09 and Baryshnikov Arts Center paired two works by Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer, revered elders from the seminal Judson era. Hay presented the U.S. premiere of If I Sing to You; Rainer gave Spiraling Down its New York premiere. 

 

In her ensemble piece, Rainer assembles ideas, sound, and imagery from sources as diverse as Merce Cunning­ham, Cyd Charisse, Lily Tomlin, and Serena Williams in nonstop hyperactivity that ranges all over the space. Dancers Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers spread a winning blend of maturity and unruliness over a foundation of marathon running and soccer playing, and somehow making it through the dreaded Ravel Boléro, which has an amusing yet useful presence here.

 

The best thing is how lightly Spiraling Down takes itself and, furthermore, how lightly it takes that lightness. It’s the perfect offering from a woman who, long ago, abandoned her austere, once-revolutionary role in dance for the art of film, then got coaxed back to choreography. We see the near-cinematic splicing of a life’s accumulated doubts, twists, and little daily triumphs, each sticky scrap with a vivacity of its own. Spiraling Down could probably be updated forever and keep revealing us to ourselves.

 

Hay’s If I Sing to You, which opened the program, makes much of a shock value that no longer shocks—at least, not in Manhattan. Gender-bending via the application of a little face hair and a man’s suit? Simulated crotch-grabbing, cock-swinging, humping, and masturbation? Barking like a riled-up dog? The psychic wake-up that Hay’s idiosyn­cratic, transformative techniques go for just doesn’t seem to be there. Which is not to say that watching performers as gifted and brazen as Jeanine Durning, Ros Warby, or Michelle Boulé (among the cast of six), as they put their individual marks on Hay’s instructional gridwork, can’t raise an occasional smile. How they, as adaptors of the Hay design, introduce themselves—through their wary gazes and mumbled gibberish, through their spastic flapping and flight into the space—grabs one’s interest right away. At the very least, we want to know: Who are these people?

 

If I Sing to You’s performers are both more and less cartoonish than Rainer’s team. They push the sex stuff to absur­dity, but they never manage to shake a certain heaviness, a covert pushiness that signals that something important is happening here beneath the non sequiturs. A work of art can be important but should not know that it is—or, if it does, should keep silent about the fact. 

 

 

Pictured: Daniel Clifton, Heather Olson and Erin Gerken in Tere O’Connor’s  Wrought Iron Fog. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy DTW

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Reviews

Martha Graham Dance Company
Skirball Center, NYC • May 12–16, 2009 • Reviewed by Susan Yung

 

Watching Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra (1958) served as a reminder of what might be missing or impossible in today’s cultural climate. Graham’s indelible, un-ironic language of angst—enhanced by Noguchi’s reductive set and elegant costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee—plumbs the pungent psychological depths of Greek mythology. All told it was a remarkable experience, weakened only by certain vocal segments of Halim El-Dabh’s strident score. The other program in the company’s season featured Graham repertory and Lamentation Variations, a collective, morphing homage by contemporary choreographers.

The mere existence of a five-performance, two-program season is welcome after the legal and financial turbulence endured by the company in recent years. The principal dancers are by now familiar faces, which helps to foster audience interest—especially the return of Fang-Yi Sheu, a fine interpreter of Graham’s work. The company’s technique as a whole looks remarkably sharp, without which all of this would be irrelevant, as Graham performed weakly can be more spoof than tribute.

Clytemnestra shifts between recollections and visions in a potentially confusing way, but artistic director Janet Eilber has taken measures to clarify and contextualize the plot. Supertitles help audiences approach what could, without context, come across as a museum piece; spoken, often humorous introductions to the repertory do the same. It is tempting to dismiss these efforts as heretical, but they seem to engage viewers.

By virtue of her technical mastery and dramatic gifts, Sheu conveyed Clytemnestra’s inner machinations brilliantly. Some  Graham dancers tend to manifest emotion so that it reads as very conscious action, but Sheu seems to feel it naturally, simply, deeply. Her renditions may not be as shockingly dramatic as the choreographer’s were, but they have defined Graham’s work for this generation.

Kerville Jack, as the messenger, commanded the stage with his muscular presence. Tadej Brdnik struck the right tragic tone as Orestes, the conflicted son. Blakeley White-McGuire, as Cassandra, balanced passion and desperation, and Maurizio Nardi portrayed Aegisthus with his typical dashing effervescence.

The repertory program reflected Graham’s dual serious and light-hearted sides. Errand Into the Maze (1947), a dark psychological exploration, paired an intense Elizabeth Auclair with the solid David Martinez. Sketches from “Chronicle” (1936), among Graham’s essential works, is a fiercely political dance—from its oracle predicting the horror of war, to its columns of dancers reacting to (or depicting) fascism, wielding limbs like sledgehammers. Subject matter aside, its punchy rhythms and shapes rendered crisply by the women are an invaluable index of Graham’s vocabulary. Jennifer DePalo brought a particularly grounded yet ethereal aura.

Lamentation Variations, a series of tributes to Graham, included Larry Keigwin’s harmonic ensemble movements punctuated by swoons. Katherine Crockett danced Richard Move’s dramatic solo luxuriantly. A new segment by Bulareyaung Pagarlava featured Sheu partnered by three men in cause-and-effect chains, fluid lifts, and a walk suspended in midair.

Graham was probably laughing in the mirror when she made Maple Leaf Rag (1990). A collage of studio-inspired flirtations on an ingenious bouncy plank alternates with deadly serious, self-skewering passages that move across the stage. A few years back, the company seemed somewhat uncomfortable in this giddy vehicle. This time around, they fully embraced the absurd. The emotional range between Clytemnestra and Maple Leaf Rag shows how complete they are right now—a gift that cannot be taken for granted in light of Graham’s tenuously thriving legacy.


Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
The Harris Theater, Chicago, IL • June 4–7, 2009 • Reviewed by Lynn Colburn Shapiro

The company’s summer season served up a three-course meal, falling roughly into appetizer, main course, and dessert. But the appetizer whet the appetite for more than the main course delivered, and dessert was a complete change of cuisine at a different restaurant on the other side of town.

A more-than-tempting appetizer, Alejandro Cerrudo’s Extremely Close (2008) showed off its sleek cast of eight with a burst of striking visual design and arresting movement. Three white rolling panels and a stage covered in white feathers contrast with the dancers’ black athletic togs. Dancers and panels move each other in swift continuum, constantly reconfiguring the space and engineering hidden entrances and exits. The feathery floor lends a floating uncertainty as dancers sweep into long low promenades and lift each other from a sea of weightlessness. Of note are Meredith Dincolo’s strong articulation in the first section and a superbly nuanced solo for Benjamin Wardell, whose love affair with space and suspension culminates in his exquisite descent into the feathers. Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran’s score alternately propels the dancing and seems propelled by it.

The anticipated main course, Slipstream, a premiere by outgoing artistic director Jim Vincent, illustrated the orchestral swells and melodic accents of Benjamin Britten’s music. The work’s strength lies in the unusual architecture of its impeccably danced solos and group segments. But with a movement style so similar to that of Extremely Close, Slipstream disappoints next to the visual novelty of the preceding piece. The group choreography loses focus among too many musical ideas. The fierce energy of a men’s trio and the wild fingers of a female quartet—a response to the increasing dissonance of the score—promise a climax that never fully matches the music.

Nacho Duato’s delectable dessert, Gnawa, created for HSDC in 2005, brought a 180-degree shift in both style and use of music. The score, which combines sounds of nature with flute, voice, and drums, sustains an atmosphere of the folkloric and faraway. The group movement is especially powerful, driving the dancers in rapid exchanges like herds of animals migrating across the Serengeti. Penny Saunders and Terence Marling’s poignant duet builds to a dramatic ceremony, with lit candles lifted by the ensemble in quiet exaltation.

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