Dancers & Companies

Wendy's Best and Worst of 2014

I guess my list is pretty long. Sorry, I couldn't help myself; there were so many performances and artists that ranked high in my personal accounting.

 

Best new choreography

• Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming at Danspace: She broke not only the fourth wall but the floor too, making the audience part of the performance. Every bit of the choreography expressed both struggle and pleasure.

• In Victor Quijada’s Empirical Quotient, the six dancers of Montreal’s RUBBERBANDance Group crept and pounced with stealth. Somewhere in between hip hop, cirque, and ballet, these remarkable dancers reacted to the energy between them as though it were a tangible thing, at Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University.

Of Days, choreographed by Andrew Simmons, part of the New Zealand Ballet’s program at the Joyce: a velvety, shadowy mysteriousness that kept my eyes glued.

Mouth to Mouth, performed and created by Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY (forgive them their invented spelling), at Peridance Capezio Center. This new L.A.–based group, led by former Batsheva dancer Danielle Agami, embraces awkwardness, absurdity and a sophisticated kind of innocence.

• Justin Peck’s Everywhere We Go, at New York City Ballet: teeming with ideas about the relationship of group to individual or group to duet, while deploying a Trisha Brown–like playfulness with the margins of the space.

• John Jasperse’s quartet Within between created a bare space with a growing sense of possibility at New York Live Arts. One dancer started the piece by poking a long pole out toward the audience—poking at the fourth wall. With Jasperse’s typical droll austerity, the choreography gradually built up to a pulsating high.

The Hole, Ohad Naharin’s sometimes harsh yet wondrous site-specific work, created a place where love and battle coexist, at Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. Surprises came from outside the temporary platform, from above and below. When you leave you feel your whole being is vibrating.

• Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition splintered the moods of Mussorgsky’s famous music into a myriad of shapes and dynamics. Infused with the humanity he’s known for, Pictures also had a drop-to-the-floor releasing motif that pulled NYCB’s dancers closer to the earth than I’ve ever seen them.

• Mark Morris’ WORDS, commissioned by Fall for Dance, plumbed the usual A-B-A structure but with such a fertile imagination that it escaped the predictability of that form. Two people carried a banner that concealed some dancers while revealing others, a Vaudevillian device used ingeniously throughout. Supremely musical with violinist and pianist onstage playing Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” A total delight.

• I saw the Batsheva Dance Company perform Ohad Naharin’s Sadeh21 at UCLA’s Royce Hall and BAM. Only Naharin can immerse you in despair and light-heartedness at the same instant. This kind of paradox sparks insight into human behavior and makes you feel psychologically sated.

• Twenty-three bare-chested young men from Escuela Superior Musica y Danza de Monterrey in Mexico surged onto the Koch stage in Legion at the Youth America Grand Prix gala. Choreographer Jaime Sierra made some of them into a human mountain for others to scale and later fly off of. Thrilling.

Best Dance-Plus-Talking Premieres

• David Roussève/REALITY in Roussève’s Stardust at Jacob’s Pillow, a poignant story of deprivation and discrimination that catches at the heart.

• Ilvs Strauss in Manifesto at On the Boards in Seattle: masterfully honed androgynous presence, a sly script, and a bodacious California Red Sea Cucumber costume.

• Mark Dendy’s Dystopia Distractions! Part 1 (excerpt) at Joe’s Pub. Every shyster politician should get the treatment that Dendy gave Donald Rumsfield in this monologue with gestural mimicry that’s uncannily expressive of a dark underside.

Alan Smithee Directed This Play by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson at BAM. Big Dance Theater’s unique brand of fractured fairy tales, enacted by dancer/actors who are arch yet simpatico. The separate components shouldn’t rationally coalesce into a cohesive experience but somehow they do.

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, presented by Ira Glass, choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes with Anna Bass: A meditation on the nature of performing, spliced with witty storytelling and sprinkled with comic flair.

 

Best Revivals or Re-runs

• The central duet of Light Rain was given a tantalizing performance by Ballet West’s Beckanne Sisk and the Joffrey’s Fabrice Calmels at a YAGP gala. It took us back to the sex-drugs-and-percussion haze of the ’60s as envisioned by Gerald Arpino in 1981. The ballet was a hit for the Joffrey in the ’80s but fell out of favor, so this was a welcome, if controversial (some thought it vulgar or acrobatic) pas de deux.

The Second Detail (1991) by William Forsythe, performed by Boston Ballet at the Koch Theater. The brazen display of technique, edgy attitude, riddle-like presentation (what was the word THE doing sitting downstage on blocks?) practically defines contemporary ballet.

BLEED (2013) by Tere O’Connor. How does human behavior make a shape onstage? How does interaction become rhythm? O’Connor’s people explore states of being troubled, harassed, or defiant, all with an ironic, self-commenting theatricality.

• Cincinnati Ballet reprised Chasing Squirrel, a madcap romp made on them by Trey McIntyre in 2004. Women are in control, then coy, then back in control. The partnering is stupendous, the chase is hilarious, and the music by Kronos Quartet is smart and fun.

The Jig Is Up (1984) by Eliot Feld, performed by Juilliard students with a full quotient of zaniness, buoyancy and daring.

• Massine’s Gaieté Parisienne (1938): Some didn’t like Christian Lacroix’s cartoonish costumes in the 1988 revival, which were retained here, and the ballet basically runs on style and froth. But it’s a piece of ballet history that honors ABT’s early years.

• A beautiful melding of body architecture and motion, the “Man Fan” solo of Moses Pendleton’s Botanica (2008) was performed by Jon Eden of MOMIX at the Fire Island Dance Festival. When he unfurled his huge cocoon of a fan, he seemed to brush the sky.

• Hofesh Schechter's Uprising (2006) was given a bold rendition by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center. The all-male cast gave it the menacing watchfulness, propulsive runs and ambiguous camaraderie it deserved.

• Dia:Beacon hosted an afternoon retrospective of Steve Paxton, icon of postmodern dance: willful simplicity, curiosity, a quirkiness rooted in the explorations of the spine, and an ineffable sense of the riddle of life.

Best Performers

• Sara Mearns of NYCB: abandoned in Walpurgisnacht Ballet, commanding in Union Jack, earthy in Pictures at an Exhibition, celestial in Mozartiana, and superwoman in Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse.

• PeiJu Chien-Pott in Depak Ine by Nacho Duato with Martha Graham Dance Company at City Center: Astounding command and presence,  embodying that time-honored Graham intensity.

• Alvaro Dule of Wayne McGregor/Random Dance’s Atomos, at Peak Performances in Montclair: an over-the-top elasticity paired with appealing self-possession.

• Misty Copeland showed verve in everything: slinky in Derek Hough’s premiere Ameska (commissioned by YAGP), playful while precise in Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, and joyfully alluring as the Flower Girl in Gaité Parisienne (the last two with ABT).

• Shay Bares as Laurelai in Hackpolitik by Kate Ladenheim at Here, NYC: Transgender glamour with fabulous technique.

• Steven McRae of The Royal Ballet tapped like a mad hatter in his version of Czardas in Positano, Italy. A total entertainer.

• Misa Kuranaga in Symphony in Three Movements, with Boston Ballet at the Koch Theater. Pure, transcendant dancing the way Balanchine would have wanted it.

• Osnel Delgado, co-founder, choreographer and the force behind Cuban dance company Malpaso, at the Joyce: Wired and wild.

• Stuart Singer in John Jasperse’s Within between: Here I resort to quoting Siobhan Burke, who described him in The New York Times as “the engrossing Mr. Singer, who could be a gladiator or an angsty toddler.”

• Angelica Generosa of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Take Five…More or Less by Susan Stroman and Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement at Jacob’s Pillow: A magnetic performer with a juicy movement quality.

• Paul Hurley in Liz Lerman’s Healing Wars at Peak Performances in Montclair: A real-life amputee who radiated peacefulness whether speaking or moving.

• L. A. Dance Project’s Aaron Carr in works by Millepied, Justin Peck, and Forsythe at BAM: A charisma fueled by energy, commitment, and wit.

• Diana Vishneva in Hans Van Manen’s duet The Old Man and Me, and in Marco Goecke’s solo Tué, in her own festival CONTEXT, Moscow. In the former she reveled in a kind of private womanly grandeur; in the latter she projected an existential despair through hyper nervous hand motions. A strung out addict—or insect, or doomed diva. Magnificent!

• Omagbitse Omagbemi in Neil Greenberg’s This at New York Live Arts: Sensual, impulsive, radiant, with a focus that’s both interior and exterior.

• Heather Olson in BLEED by Tere O’Connor: She’s the Chosen One in this tragicomedy, the one to whom things happen and who instills awe and fear in others. Even at the height of theatrical hysteria, she retains the ironic edge that fits O’Connor’s work like a glove.

• Stella Abrera as Princess Clara in ABT’s Nutcracker by Ratmansky, the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, the Fairy Godmother in Ashton’s Cinderella, and Mercedes in Don Q: All things light and joyous. Her upper body is surrounded by peaceful space.

• Alan Cumming in Cabaret: Larger than life theatricality, double-edged satire oozing from his lips and every other part of his body.

• Taylor Stanley of NYCB: Warmth, clarity, and verve in every role.

• ABT’s Craig Salstein: irrepressible humor as Gamache in Don Q, the Peruvian in Gaieté Parisienne and the Russian (or buffoon) dance in Nutcracker. A masterful sense of theater that makes visible even the smallest gestures.

• André Feijao, he of the beanpole body and urgent energy, still the most riveting member of Companhia Urbana de Dança, at the Joyce.

• Sascha Radetsky as Franz in Coppélia, which was simultaneously his ABT debut in the role and farewell to the company. A joyousness so mischievous that it verged on recklessness.

• Cynthia Loemij in Rosas danst Rosas by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at Lincoln Center Festival. You felt her urgency grow with every repetition of every step.

Peak Partnerships

• Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Lux in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux: With sparkling technique, exciting virtuosity and daring musicality, they brought the house down. An exhilarating highlight of NYCB’s season.

• ABT’s Polina Semionova and David Hallberg: an exquisite and moving Giselle at the Met.

• Herman Cornejo and Maria Kochetkova in ABT’s Don Q: Classy fun.

• Olga Smirnova and Evan McKie in Onegin pas de deux at the YAGP gala: Gloriously tragic.

Most Moving New Musicals

• Cabaret

• Beautiful, the Carole King Musical

• Side Show

Funniest New Broadway Musical

• Bullets Over Broadway

Worst Works

Spectral Evidence, a hokey premiere by Preljocaj (a usually astute choreographer) for NYCB based on women as witches. Nobody liked seeing them burning in their coffins.

Cacti by Alexander Ekman, performed by Boston Ballet at the Koch, was huge, sprawling, and overlong, with a sophomoric script—except for one fabulous little talking duet.

• The Mikhailovsky Ballet’s Le Halte de Cavalerie at Lincoln Center: a silly pointless Petipa ballet resurrected by Peter Gusev in 1975. The kind of ballet where a man peeks under a woman’s skirt and then looks at the audience with a smirk as though he’s done something clever.

• Josh Bergasse’s Stairway to Heaven, for Sara Mearns and a posse of backup guys: a compendium of every cliché in the book, at DRA’s Fire Island Festival.

For trends, endings and beginnings (including Wendy Whelan’s farewell), click here.

Kader Attou - Compagnie Accrorap flying high in Attou's The Roots. Photo by João Garcia, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

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Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
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From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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