September 15, 2009

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.