11th of October 2014
 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET

Making its Joyce Theater debut (October 7-12), Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, under the artistic direction of former New York City Ballet star Peter Boal, brought a selection of three new ballets (one, a preview), commissioned for this, its 40th Anniversary.  Though it might have been informative to see how it is maintaining some of the Balanchine repertory, these pieces represent another prong of the troupe’s mission of commissioning top-notch younger dance makers.   

PNB had a history of making daring choreographic choices under its founding artistic directorship of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell.  It was one of the first ballet companies to commission modernist Lucinda Childs.  Boal’s choices here are less adventurous, although entirely creditable and two of the three reflect Boal’s former affiliation with Balanchine’s troupe.  

Redoubtable Christopher Wheeldon offers “Tide Harmonic,” which takes its name from its score by Joby Talbot. The music has the familiar onrush of contemporary masters like Reich, Glass, Lang, et al, which supports a kaleidoscopic stream of dancing by four couples in blue costumes by Holly Hynes – men in tights and bare-shouldered, women in leotards with a whiff of chiffon.  

Lindsi Dec and Jerome Tisserand in Tide Harmonic. photo by Angela Sterling

Wheeldon displays his skill at close-order canons, movement cascades and swooping lifts in the ensemble passages, which separate smaller groups and lovely, delicately lyrical love duets.  This ballet represents, perhaps, a new high in his fluency.  What you remember is the flow, the momentum, the fleetness and complex inflections of the dancing, which the dancers articulate skillfully.  Despite a surfeit of passion, there’s nothing specific about these people in their generic heterosexuality, even as their movement may delight.

Karla Korbes and Joshua Grant in Tide Harmonic. Photo by Angela Sterling

The final ballet, “Debonair” by the next generation of NYCB dancer turned choreographers, Justin Peck, who also has learned the classical language well and trusts it to express his emotional trajectory without the self-conscious distortions that so often arise from the perceived need to be original.  It is set to George Antheil’s 1948 “Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1),” and the angularity of the music – avant garde in its day – adds just the right acerbity to obliterate sentimentality.  

Karla Korbes and Jerome Tisserand in Debonair. photo by Yi-Chin Wu

An extended duet for Karla Korbes and Jerome Tisserand, the heart and soul of the work, is emotionally mature, physically ample, and genuinely moving.  Their emotionally shaded journey makes them people we’d like to know.

Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s elegant, lushly flowing gowns greatly enhance the impact of the movement; the men wear simple pleated black trousers and short tunic shirts with a shiny top: debonair.  This was billed as a Preview Performance, and the ballet will have its formal premiere in November in Seattle.

Jerome Tisserand and Karla Korbes in Debonair. photo by Yi-Chin Wu

The middle ballet, “Memory Glow” by Alejandro Cerrudo fits the company nicely.  Danced in socks and earthy brown costumes by Mark Zappone, it is notable for consistently connected relationships among the dancers.  The movement is contemporary, angular, and grounded, and Cerrudo finds a million ways for partners to attach to each other physically at unexpected points like the backs of elbows and knees, and the armpits.  

Low-slung lifts and ground-grazing turns keep our focus off virtuosity and on the intense, continuous interactions among the characters.  Each of the three women (energetic, wholesome Leah Merchant, wispy, sharp Elizabeth Murphy, understated, smoldering Angelica Generosa) has a distinctive quality, and passages for the men (Charles McCall, Raphael Bouchard, James Moore, Steven Loch or Eric Hipolito, Jr., Matthew Renko, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson), all seven together or in threes and fours give the piece’s energy a refreshing, persistent rawness.

PNB’s dancers are technically strong, well rehearsed, and versatile.  They are equally adept at classical pointe work and contemporary expression. One does get the impression they’re used to a larger home theater; they tend to punctuate moments unnecessarily with glances toward the audience, as if playing to an operatic-sized house.  And in one phrase in the Wheeldon, half the women dance into the wings and back on, as though they’d run out of stage – unless that was a choreographic choice, in which case… never mind.

(l-r) Margaret Mullin, Raphael Bouchard, Brittan Reid, and James Moore in Debonair. photo by Yi-Chin Wu

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

4th of October 2014
 

ELLEN CORNFIELD DANCE

As a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1974-82, Ellen Cornfield learned about infinite movement possibility.  She also cleaves to the concept that movement is its own message, although her choices often reveal literal sources.  On September 30, to kick of the 25th year of her company Cornfield Dance, she presented three recent dances at the intimate Speyer Hall at University Settlement on the Lower East Side. 

"Furniture Suite" (2012), a women’s duet was made after Cornfield’s recovery from knee surgery, when she needed external support to dance.  "Small Stages" (2013), in which Cornfield and Arnold Margolin appear with three dancers, arose from a performance opportunity with a tiny dancing area.  And "Pas de Detour" (work in progress, 2014) for two men and a woman deals with her renewed appetite for traveling through space.  All three dances have musical scores by collaborating composer Andreas Brade. 

Her cast of elite dancers includes Maggie Cloud, a relative newcomer who can do anything physically but like a young colt has not yet taken full ownership of her abilities.  Cori Kresge – a late member of the Cunningham Repertory Group and dancer with such contemporary powerhouses as Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Riener, Jose Navas, and Rebecca Lazier – oozes passion, control, and all out commitment through every fiber of her honed being. 

The men, Dylan Crossman (from Merce Cunningham and with Pam Tanowitz, et al), Pierre Guilbault (with Liz Gerring and Lazier, etc.), and Joshua Tuason (with Stephen Petronio and formerly Martha Graham Ensemble), as their pedigrees indicate, are among the most proficient technical and kinetically expressive dancers around.  

Cori Kresge in Furniture Suite

Cornfield has traditionally eschewed props, but “Furniture Suite” premiered in the lobby of the boutique Gershwin Hotel, where furniture was a given.  The 30-minute duet alternates solos and duets for Cloud and Kresge in chartreuse tights and matching lace tops.  At various times, they utilize the magenta folding chairs and stool-tables that line the white back wall. 

Maggie Cloud (l) and Cori Kresge 

The women skitter back and forth, alternately pitching into high arabesques; each time one of them gets to use a stool for support, while the other balances.  They plop their fannies on the stools and scissor arms and legs like sea anemones looking for lunch, or they recline across them.  In one solo, Kresge hums, while she pivots on one foot with the other leg extended, while Cloud echoes present participles from the recorded score: “enfolding, rebounding, collapsing, entwining…” Side by side duets in unison or with slight variations showcase the women’s precision.

(l-r) Pierre Guilbault, Cori Kresge, Joshua Tuason in Pas de Detour

"Pas de Detour" begins with a brisk, space-devouring duet by Guilbault and Tuason in flowing wrap pants, before Kresge in a gray tunic and tights glides serenely into the space.  Gradually, the men’s frenetic energy, bursting through the space around her, infects and ultimately dissolves her quietude.  The men sweep her up into walking-on-air lifts, and finally all three spill out the door in a textural tumble of motion.

(l-r) Pierre Guilbault, Cori Kresge, Joshua Tuason

What strikes me about Cornfield’s lively dances, along with their fluency of kinetic invention spinning from her fertile imagination, is her lack of need for transitions.  A section happens, then dancers leave, and someone else enters for the next bit.  This kind of abruptness is common to contemporary choreography, but because of Cornfield’s good-natured hints at literality, the lack of continuity feels like little anecdotes with the punch lines omitted. 

(l-r) Dylan Crossman, Cori Kresge in Small Stages

"Small Stages" (2013), the final dance, takes this choreographic habit to a fault.  All the dancing occurs on a six-foot square, center stage.  It’s no wider or deeper than the dancers are tall.  Two folding chairs on one side and two matching chairs and a cafe table flank the mini-stage.  A solo for Crossman opens the dance, and however intricate his footwork or explosive his hops, he never breaches its boundary.  At the table, Cornfield confiscates Margolin’s newspaper page by page; they leave. Guilbault enters, sits in one of the two opposite chairs, flirts with invisible partner, re-arranges chairs, leaves.  

(l-r) Dylan Crossman, Cori Kresge 

He, Crossman, and Kresge repeatedly gather on the tiny stage to do barrages of quick paced, prancing, jumping, and place swapping phrases, flecked with pantomimic gesturing – pull open shirt, jip jacket, peer through binoculars, visor eyes with a hand and gaze – all to Brade’s up-tempo music.  After the last dancer clump, Cornfield unearths the newspaper from Margolin’s pocket and peruses it with a smug grin.  It’s the button on the running joke of the piece, and it resonates, because it’s not masked in abstraction. 

(l-r) Dylan Crossman, Pierre Guilbault

Photos by Stephen Schreiber

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

25th of September 2014
 

KYLE ABRAHAM / ABRAHAM.IN.MOTION

In his first major New York concert season since becoming one of this year’s MacArthur “genius grant” Fellows, prolific choreographer Kyle Abraham’s company Abraham In Motion opened Tuesday at New York Live Arts for a two-week run (September 23-27 and September 30-October 4) with four premieres, including a previously unannounced ensemble piece.  This body of work represents the culmination of his 2012-2014 term as a NYLA Resident Commissioned Artist.

The opening night audience comprised New York’s modern dance culturati, reflecting  both Abraham’s popularity as well as his new prestige. The genial and expectant crowd was eager with expectation: no pressure!  And the final ovation seemed to indicate that Abraham had indeed met the challenge.

l-r: Catherine Ellis Kirk, Tamisha Guy, Kyle Abraham, Matthew Baker

The evening-length “The Watershed” for nine dancers, including Abraham, is set to an eclectic mashup of work songs, 1960s rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and classical music – from Chopin to contemporary.  The piece consists of a prolog, two acts, and an epilog.  The intermission in the 70-minute piece is needed more for set and costume changes than for the audience’s sake.  

Abraham’s work merges a sensuous, fluid dance style with theatricality and shreds of narrative.  The release describes “The Watershed” as, “a historically referential work rooted in our current cultural, historical, and political milieu.”  The piece references emancipation after the U.S. Civil War, the civil rights turmoil of the 60s, and our current politics of sexual identity but still leaves room for deeper exploration of each issue.

The set by Glenn Ligon covers the wall with a mosaic of veneer panels in brown and gold shades and textures, and places a large tree crafted from PVC plumbing pipe upstage right; its spreading branches are draped with fur hides for foliage.  In the Prolog, accompanied by projected Hollywood film clips of black stereotypes (also by Ligon), three couples – one of them same gender – do a social slow-dance to Otis Redding’s classic “I’m Ready.”  

Kyle Abraham in The Watershed

Then, Abraham sashays on in heels, wearing a beige dress and a big, blond afro and sits on a bench under the tree, daubing on white makeup and flirting with a skinny white man (Jordan Morley), who eventually kicks her to the curb.  Abraham gets up, yanks of the wig, and saunters offstage.  Later in the prolog, he returns in a light gray tunic but still in the white face makeup, half Butoh, half minstrel show.

Abraham, ctr with Guy and Jordan Morley in background

In Act I, two beautiful black men (Jeremy “Jae” Neal and Winston Dynamite Brown) do a lyric duet, more expository than dramatic; three women (Catherine Ellis Kirk, Penda N’diaye, and Connie Shiau) join them, wearing costume designer Karen Young’s poetic rendition of antebellum frocks.  Morley deposits a watermelon at the foot of the tree.  Tamisha Guy runs around the space – lit provocatively by imaginative designer Dan Scully – as if in a desperate sprint to freedom from her slavery.  

l-r: Connie Shiau, Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Winston Dynamite Brown 

The score switches from electric growl to Chopin for Shiau’s solo in counterpoint to Neal and Brown’s slow, minimized extension of their duet.  Abraham’s movement passages keep the stage alive with quick pacing, multiple entrances and exits, occasional clusters of contact where bodies entwine and limbs get pushed and pulled.  There are several extended unison phrases of his slippery, rippling articulations, deftly assimilated by the company’s talented and diverse physiques.

In the first act especially, the casting deftly reinforces the slavery/ emancipation trope with Morley and Matthew Baker often hinting at being “the white masters.”  During a duet, Morley hacks the melon into small portions.  And Baker becomes momentarily the emcee, addressing the audience, and declaring he has a black woman inside him.  

If Abraham intends for the bits of text that flash on the back wall to act as sort of photo captions for the dance images onstage, they disappear too quickly for us to register and absorb in the onrush of action.  But the narrative thread, which might benefit from tweaking for clarity, is inconsequential to our enjoyment of the astute kinetic conception and construction of the piece.

Abraham, Act II solo 

Act II begins with an extended solo by Abraham, an essay in his liquid style, in which his limbs and spine transform into flowing ribbons, snaking around and virtually through his lithe body.  Since movement through space is not a major element of Abraham’s oeuvre, the solo occurs with front curtain partially open, and his corridor of space marked by bands of white light that straddle him like a crosswalk. 

l-r seen: Kirk, Brown, Guy, Penda N’diaye 

The rest of the act is devoted mainly to dance movement that fulfills the premise of progress toward, if not arrival at, freedom. The dancers, now in gray and black close-fitting clothes, move as a close community – a continuum of unison with individuals occasionally falling away and rejoining. We bask in Abraham’s luscious kinetic, while Scully bathes the action in darting stripes of white light on the floor and throws across the back wall film clips of historic and contemporary images, form minstrel shows to vicious attack dogs to police brutality ripped from current headlines.

Abraham.In.Motion in The Watershed

The work draws to a close with the dancers, singly, dropping out of its unison matrix and lying at the base of the tree, which, now stripped of its fur “foliage,” stretches its web of bare white arms upward toward an illusive freedom.  This, Program A, piques one’s curiosity for Program B, mixed repertory.

Photos by Ian Douglas

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

11th of September 2014
 

CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON’S ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

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Artists of the National Ballet of Canada. photo by Bruce Zinger

To call the National Ballet of Canada’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” a Magnum Opus is understatement in the extreme.  The almost three-hour long extravaganza, presented by The Joyce Theater and playing at Lincoln Center (September 9-14), features the kind of hyperbolic pageantry we’d expect to see in a Broadway blockbuster, plus 200-years’ worth of classical ballet history as choreographic reference.  

The ballet, concocted by master dance maker Christopher Wheeldon, dates from 2011; it’s a joint commission by the NBC and the Royal Ballet in Wheeldon’s native England.  It’s a joy ride through every nook and cranny of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which was for this viewer the “Harry Potter” of my long distant childhood.  

With a lively, enchanting score by Joby Talbot; kaleidoscopic projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington; lighting by Natasha Katz; and lavish costumes, set and properties by designer Bob Crowley – who designed Broadway spectacles like “Aida,” and “Coast of Utopia” – Alice (Jillian Vanstone) sweeps us along with her on her fantastic journey down the rabbit hole sweeps us into a land of enchantment.  The production doesn’t try to “update” or impose grownup metaphor on the story.  It cleaves to the children’s tale, an entertaining vortex of literal detail (although I don’t know any kids who wouldn’t squirm through most of a three-hour production, however engaging.)

Act One introduces the Liddell family just before their imminent garden party.  When Mother/Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) banishes Alice’s secret crush the gardener, Jack/Knave of Hearts (Guillaume Côté), party guest Lewis Carroll/White Rabbit (Dylan Tedaldi) consoles her by snapping her photo and emerges from under the cloth transformed into a white rabbit, who then disappears into the jelly mold.  Alice jumps in after him and winds up down the rabbit hole, where she alternately shrinks and grows with the aid of animated, full screen projections, after obeying the “drink this” and “eat this” signs on a bottle and a cake, respectively. 

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Dylan Tedaldi as White Rabbit. photo by Bruce Zinger 

Act Two introduces the Cheshire Cat – a larger-than-life Bunraku-style puppet manipulated by a dozen virtually unseen operators wearing black – which regularly explodes all over the stage, head, body, and limbs flying hither and thither.  The March Hare (Jonathan Renna) keeps plopping the Dormouse (Tiffany Mosher) into the teapot, and the Mad Hatter (Robert Stephen) tap dances fiercely on a rickety stage – a cute twist on Carroll’s benign lunatic.  Alice escapes the party and in her search for the White Rabbit meets an exotic Caterpillar (McGee Maddox) who undulates around his mushroom sofa.

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Elena Lobsanova and Cheshire Cat. photo by Bruce Zinger 

Wheeldon’s wry wit is on view during the Hatter’s tea party, when he quotes a legendary moment from Balanchine’s “Apollo,” as Hatter, Hare, and Dormouse pose behind Alice, extending their back legs in ascending arabesques.  And in Act Three, the Queen’s garden party, where three gardeners futilely try to paint all the white roses red, live hedgehogs double as croquet balls that roll through the wickets no matter where the Queen hits them, and not only does the she finally get to dance, she’s a Terpsichorean comedienne par excellence, alternately apoplectic and torpid.  Her slapstick cavorting of the Queen of Hearts at her third act garden party recalls Bea Arthur, Imogene Coca, and Carol Burnett in its comic timing and zaniness.Only here does Wheeldon give us unequivocal comedy and much needed irony, instead of literalness, albeit visually stunning at times.    

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Greta Hodgkinson and Jillian Vanstone. photo by Cylia von Tiedemann

Here, also, Wheeldon can display his skills by turning the corps de ballet into a symphony of counterpoint, canons, and cascades in passages that dazzle to match the pyrotechnic virtuosity of the elaborate sets and costumes.  Costumed as playing cards, their lively dancing shuffles and re-deals them with joyous abandon.

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Artist of the Ballet. photo by Bruce Zinger

Alice’s displays superhuman stamina; she’s dancing almost the whole time.  But her several duets with her boyfriend, in whichever guise, grow repetitive and are less kinetically inventive than Wheeldon’s usual standard.  Nicholas Wright’s scenario threads the myriad episodes together with Alice’s pursuit of her evanescent beau, Jack/Knave and by giving all the wonderland characters earthly counterparts.  But it turns Alice into a love-struck ingénue, instead of the independent, curious, liberated heroine Carroll created (way before the advent of feminism.)  

The program bios call no one “corps de ballet.”  Of the thirty-odd dancers who are not Principals, Principal Character Artists, all are First or Second Soloists.  How polite!  Likewise, their dancing is cordial and refined.  There’s no show-off, bravura dancing – perhaps surprising even disappointing to some of the New York audience, who love big tricks – six pirouettes, multiple mid-air twirls, self-invented acrobatics – to clap for in the middles of solos and duets.  

We shouldn’t overlook how good the dancers are, how cleanly the men especially live up to their soloist status by whipping off clean double tours en l’aire with aplomb.  And three steady pirouettes are always sufficient, so we are not drawn to virtuosity at the expense of the narrative.  All the principal roles are double or triple cast, giving everyone a chance to shine.  The individuals named above were in the opening night cast.  David Briskin, musical director and principal conductor of the NBC, seems to be having a blast conducting the orchestra of New York City Ballet.   

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

29th of June 2014
 

BOSTON BALLET

Celebrating the end of its 50th anniversary tour, The Boston Ballet arrived at Lincoln Center (June 25-29) for a too-brief stay and blew some of our heads off.  In the very shadow of American Ballet Theater, which is dancing adjacent to them at the Met, the company under the artistic direction of Mikko Nissinen proved its contemporary mettle in a smartly chosen program of dances by William Forsythe – showing off technical chops – Jose Martinez – the more expressive, romantic side – and Alexander Ekman – a visual spectacle.

In Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,” a 1991 ballet premiered by Boston in 2011, we see the dancers in their glory as gifted, precision-trained instruments.  They hold balances long enough to let you know it’s not just luck; the men actually do quadruple pirouettes – not just four spins – that maintain control throughout and end by the dancers’ decision, not by the force of gravity.  The women’s flexibility is astonishing in high, arching arabesques and extensions that literally brush their noses and ears. The men are comparably flexible and their beats and air turns are crisp and clean.

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photo by Gene Schiavone. (l-r) Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Rie Ichikawa in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail 

Forsythe’s ballet captures the flow of classical ballet, taking the dancers flying through space in graceful leaps and French-named steps, but subverting lyricism by bringing them to a standstill at random moments or having them hold a complex balance for one filigree more, one additional body change than you expect, or after a magical, gravity-defying chain of moves, directing them to clomp mundanely away, like shoppers heading to the next bargain table.

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photo by Gene Schiavone. John  Lam in Forsythe’s The Second Detail

Forsythe’s frequent musical collaborator Thom Willems backs the erratic action with his seductive, percussive electric music.  It duplicates the rhythms and amplifies the dynamics with sudden surges and diminishings of volume.  Yumiko Takeshima designed the pale blue unitards and Issey Miyake, the white origami-inspired dress that appears on a mysterious bare-footed dancer (principal Erica Cornejo) well along in the piece.  Her presence seems to organize the dancers into orderly, unisons of four and five people, which counterpoint each other. 

The décor – fourteen backless chairs across the rear of the stage that are occupied briefly by a few dancers at a time – and lighting are also by Forsythe.  The light adds punctuation and phrasing to the nonstop torrent of movement.  In the final moment one of the dancers kicks over a wood sign, printed with big letters, T-H-E, that has stood, inexplicably, downstage center throughout, emphatically signifying “END.”

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photo by Gene Schiavone. Isaac Akiba in Forsythe’s The Second Detail

 “Resonance” by Spanish choreographer Jose Martinez uses music by Franz Liszt, played live by two pianists, Alex Foaksman on the front stage right apron and Freda Locker upstage center, revealed and concealed by gliding, gray panels.  Jean-Marc Puissant designed the industrial looking set and the more elegant costumes.  The first woman to appear (Lia Cirio), glides backward, pensively, across the stage, wearing a dark blue midi-length gown with a décolletage neckline.  Soon, a lissome blond (Dusty Button) in a legless leotard in the same hue enters opposite her, downstage. 

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photo by Rosalie O’Connor. (l-r) Seo Hye Han, Anais Chalendard in Jose Martinez’s Resonance

The women of the corps wear copies of these two looks, changing several times during the ballet.  The men, likewise, wear olive tank tops, weskits, or military-style jackets  over matching trousers, like those worn by male principals Lasha Khozashvili and Alejandro Virelles.  Moody lighting by John Cuff creates a dusky evening pierced by bright white side beams.  

The point of the ballet is illusive but it is an essay, in which individuals and groups – even pianists – echo and mirror, although the intent might have been made more directly and clearly with fewer physical trappings and less manipulation of the mobile setting.  Here, too, the dancing is convincing, if less virtuosic.  Its style borrows from the neoclassicism of Balanchine and Forsythe.  

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photo by Rosalie O’Connor.  Lia Cirio in Martinez’s Resonance 

The performances of the dancers, especially here and in the Forsythe work embody the expressive intention of the works through their physicality; the dancing is clear and unembellished.  But also, they add to it a sense of ownership; they dance as if the movement was made just for them, whether or not it actually was.  This speaks to the high quality of the company’s training, coaching, and esprit de corps. 

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Photo by Gene Schiavone. the cast of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti

For technical machinations, Ekman’s “Cacti” tops everything.  The dancers in nude top and black knee-length cargo pants pose and prance on four-foot square pedestals to a mash-up of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, and Andy Stein, some of it played by a roving string quartet onstage, some by the pit orchestra, conducted by Jonathan McPhee.  On each side of the stage hangs a horizontal scaffolding with LED lights (lighting by Tom Visser) that at times spell out the title and at others stream a glaring, white light onto the space.  Spenser Theberge’s recorded text declaims pretentiously about the artistic process and other things.

A spot from above lights each of the pedestals, and the quick coordination of lights jumping around to catch the dancers’ actions on them at precisely the right moments has the stage manager (Craig Margolis) doing some intricate choreography himself, calling the cues.  In the second movement, the cast upends the pedestals into screens that they hide behind and cavort around.  

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photo by Rosalie O’Connor. (l-r) Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio in Ekman’s Cacti

Then, dancers pile the big squares into a sculptural installation, and the voice, like a vocal puppeteer, instructs Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio what moves to make in their wacky romantic relationship.  Finally, the dancers, now in nude leotards, climb onto the sculpture they’ve built and pose, holding their potted cacti; it’s like some avant-garde museum piece.  The disembodied voice cogitates like a tormented choreographer, “Is this the end?” “This should be the end,” “Yes, this is definitely the end,” as the curtain slowly descends.

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photo by Rosalie O’Connor. the cast of  Ekman’s Cacti

Whether or not the style of the dances in this program is your cup of tea, there’s no question it was danced brilliantly; the corps worked in flawless unison, and all attacked the choreography with secure authority and the controlled recklessness of elite athletes.  Program B comprises Nijinsky, Balanchine, and Jiri Kylian, perhaps more to your esthetic taste.  If you missed them here, it’s well worth a trip to Boston to catch them in their next season on home turf.  

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014 

8th of June 2014
 

EVIDENCE: A DANCE COMPANY

Ronald K Brown’s company made its annual Joyce appearance this year (June 2-8) with two programs.  Program A, which I saw on Wednesday opened with the world premiere of “The Subtle One,” inspired by the music of Jason Moran and a poem by Alan Harris, “Angels of the Sunset For Those with Open Hearts.”  Like almost all Brown’s dances, this one is spiritually uplifting.

Unlike so much aggressive, angst-ridden contemporary concert dance, Brown’s work owes its immense audience appeal to its optimism, compassion, and joyousness.  Onto a bare stage stroll two women and a man, dressed in flowing, white clothes (by Keiko Voltaire), to do a simple, gracious phrase with feet reaching low away from the body and arms stretching out into space.  Clifton Taylor’s expert lighting keeps the dancers in high relief against the black background.  

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Shayla Alayre Caldwell in The Subtle One

Moran’s easy, piano-based jazz sound embraces the dancers, as another man and woman enter.  They dance mostly in twos and threes like family members, sharing their day.  All Brown’s dancers have powerful personas, and when they dance in unison, rhythm not shape holds them together.  Indeed, the sense of family is strong throughout the works.  “The Subtle One” ends with all the dancers leaving the stage with side steps, hands outstretched towards us in offering.

Brown’s by now familiar movement is a blend of West African motifs – stepping low to the ground with arms and spine pumping, small jumps and big ones with bent legs, like a stag jumping over forest undergrowth; hands poke the sir or twine in conversational gesturing – and his classic modern dance training.  The sassy, disco-derived strutting and sashaying of his 80s dances are mostly gone from the newer work.  

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Annique Roberts in The Subtle One

But within his vocabulary he keeps inventing and evolving.  The dynamic flavor is still piquant but less fiery; there is maturity in the dancers’ rendering of it.  Arcell Cabuag, Keon Thoulouis, are company veterans, and Shayla Alayre Caldwell, Maresa D’Amore-Morrison, Clarice Young, and Coral Dolphin have been part of the company for as long as six or seven years.  Annique Roberts, who joined in 2010 after working with Garth Fagan is first among equals of the women with her shimmering stage presence and charisma.  Randall Riley, a young, eager, and very tall young man joined just last year, 2013.  

Brown still dances as one of the ensemble – probably, at least partially, a fiscal decision.  Though Cabuag is associate artistic director, and Young and Roberts are rehearsal director, and associate rehearsal director, respectively, the company’s ensemble work occasionally wants for more rigorous drilling, which Brown, dancing himself, perhaps can’t give it.  

The program would have been more concise without the inclusion of “Ghazals,” a duet for guest artists David Gaulein-Stef and Asha Thomas; Ailey alumna Thomas choreographed it in collaboration with Brown.  Set to alternately atmospheric and percussive music by Derek Gripper and Burial, the piece is an array of ideas, all seriously in need of editing and refining.  A couple of striking images notwithstanding – the pair shaking themselves out of sarong-wrapped white sheets, as if emerging from pupae, and later tossing the sheets into the air and falling down backwards under them – the piece meanders inconclusively from its opening – a rap poem recited by Thomas, as her partner undulates upstage – to its more lyrical ending. 

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Shayla Alayre Caldwell in The Subtle One

Brown created the evening’s standout work, “IFE/My Heart,” in 2005 for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  It is a paragon both of soulfulness and rigorous structural clarity.  Each of its three sections illustrates an element that makes Brown’s dances so substantively appealing.  The first is an articulated processional, moving a clan of people into view to remain momentarily and then moving on to then continue their journey.  The second utilizes a tribal circle for visual complexity and social cohesion.  The third displays Brown’s skill at counterpoint, apposing three groups, each doing something different simultaneously, which creates a rich tapestry to the drum rhythms that accompany it.   

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Annique Roberts and Ronald K Brown in Torch

Watching a concert of Brown’s works is like going to church.  The 2013 “Torch” closes the evening and reminds us why we so appreciate the affirmation of Brown’s choreographic voice.  With his reliable creative team – lighting by Taylor, costumes by Voltaire – and an eclectic mix of music, the choreographer himself as part of the ensemble shepherds his flock through the dance, which shows yet another facet of his unique vision.   

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(l-r) Clarice Young, Maresa D’Amore-Morison, Arcell Cabuag, Randall Ridley, Shayla Caldwell  in Torch 

Photos by Ayodele Casel

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

29th of May 2014
 

MALPASO DANCE COMPANY

Making its U.S. debut – first time outside of Cuba for this young company – MalPaso bursts onto the stage of the Joyce Theater (May 27-June 1) with nuclear energy.  On the program are a works by the founding director, choreographer, and dancer Osnel Delgado and a new commission by Ronald K Brown.  The company, founded in 2012, has made great strides to get itself to stage of the Joyce in so short a time.  Delgado’s dance shows who they are as a company and Brown’s shows what they’re capable of. 

Osnel Delgado and Dunia Acosta Arias in 24 Horas y un Perro

Delgado’s choreography, made in collaboration with the dancers, has many fathers – hip-hop street dance, Cuban indigenous forms, American modern, even yoga.  Flying limbs and complex inversions and rolls characterize the eclectic style, although choreographic logic is hard to fathom.  In a kind of stream of consciousness, passages begin and end willy-nilly, and it’s occasionally hard to tell which is foreground and which background movement; it’s all so dynamically high-pitched.  

Plus, the volume and complexity of the music by composer/instrumentalist Arturo O’Farrill, played live (at all but two performances), by his eight-member Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, threatens to overwhelm the dancing.  And lighting and costume designer Erick Grass tries too hard to follow the dancers move for move with lighting effects that sometimes obscure the action or distract our focus.   

But the charm of watching these dancers is their utter physical and spiritual commitment to the kinetic discoveries they have made and their palpable need to share them with us.  Many of the moves – especially the lifts – are paraphrases of familiar clichés, which makes them seem truly original.  Like learning English by watching TV soap operas, MalPaso has absorbed modern dance by collecting bits and pieces and practicing them till they’ve become their own.

l-r: Isvel Bello Rodriguez, Randy Civico Riva, Joan Rodriguez Hernandez, and Manuel Duran Calzado in Osnel Delgado’s 24 Horas y un Perro

Costumes are casual street wear – nothing fancy.  Delgado wears a white shirt and black trousers, his hair in African-style braids.  The company members wear slacks, simple dresses, and T-shirts, coordinated for muted color.  Two men, Joan Rodriguez Hernandez and Manuel Duran Calzado, like their director, have long hair, bound back into ponytails.  Of the men, only Randy Civico Riva and Isvel Bello Rodriguez have short hair, and they both dance like fire; when they’re onstage, you can’t take your eyes off them.  

Company co-founder Daile Carrazana Gonzalez sports an asymmetrical pageboy bob.  She is also the dancer with the most identifiably classical training.  Both she and Marina Villanueva Arias graduated from the National Ballet School in Havana, while others graduated from regional schools and Havana’s National Dance School, the more contemporary training ground, Delgado’s alma mater.

The long opening ballet introduces the energy and skill of the nine-member troupe, and the second refines and moderates them with greater artistry.  Inspired by one of his own poems about people “rolling down Yoruba Road/like water down a hill,” Ronald K Brown’s 2014 “Por Que Sigues” (Why You Follow) contains both Brown’s reliable choreographic rigor and his infectious Afro-modern movement vocabulary.  

l-r: Manuel Calzado, Joan Hernandez, Osnel Delgado, Marina Villanueva Arias, and Dunia Arias in Ronald K Brown’s Por Que Sigues

Here, he deploys it with light-handed gusto.  The motif that anchors the dance is a clockwise, running skip with the right arm pumping up and down.  Its occurrences demarcate transitions or escalate momentum.  Throughout, the motif picks up and drops off people in the space, and finally, it accumulates the whole cast and carries them joyously “down the road” offstage to the next stop on their joyous journey.

Set to a mix of music by Zap Mama, Gordheaven & Juliano, The Allenko Brotherhood, The Heavy Quarterz, the piece gives each dancer a solo moment to shine and comprises alternating trios, kept animated by dancers switching from all unison to two together, one different, to all three in counterpoint.  Although the piece is less three-dimensional than Brown’s habit – there is a lot of forward facing group unison – it works its expressive power and raises our spirits.

Clifton Taylor’s lighting subtly molds the shape of the space, while keeping the action fully in view.  Keiko Voltaire’s costumes are casual, subdued in palette, and evocative of a youthful community of colleagues.  This scrappy little MalPaso Dance Company could hardly have chosen a better guest choreographer than Brown to channel its exuberance into a coherent choreographic statement at this early stage of its promising career.  

Photos by Roberto Leon

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

21st of May 2014
 

THE LOOK OF FEELING

Denise Jefferson was the beloved and respected director of the Alvin Ailey School for 26 years.  She was a gracious, bold, outrageously beautiful woman who could get whatever she wanted, either with honey or vinegar.  Also, she had the kind of dancer’s body, for which you’d imagine the unforgiving, body-hugging unitard was designed; the body dancers would give anything to have.  But in 2008, she received the devastating diagnosis of ovarian cancer.  She died in 2010.

Her daughter, Francesca Harper, who inherited Jefferson’s fabulous long-limbed physique, and has danced with the likes of William Forsythe and Dance Theater of Harlem, as well as on Broadway in “Fosse,” “The Producers,” and “The Color Purple” among others, is the proverbial triple threat – in Spades.

Harper’s grief at the untimely loss of her mother at age sixty-six and the encouragement and directorial guidance of the formidable Susan Batson has resulted in her creating a one-woman tour de force called “The Look of Feeling.”  A slide on the TV high up on our right, as we enter the intimate, black-box, Susan Batson Theater, declares “This play is a non-linear retrospective and ritual,” and its thirteen sections move back and forth in time from 1793 to the present.  

En route from section one, “THE END,” to the concluding section “THE BEGINNING” of the hour-long piece, Harper, in the roles of her mother and grandmother, recounts family “Herstory,” beginning with slavery in the house of, yes, that Jefferson, but Edwin, Thomas’s brother, the forebear of her family.  Then, the setting jumps to “Paris, sometime between the 20s and 40s,” where Harper’s grandmother, a showgirl, was among the notable black ex-patriots like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, who were the toast of the city of lights.  

Then, “Reality” jumps to New York City, 2008, when Jefferson got the test results an her diagnosis.  Here, Harper uses her radiant, mobile face and breathtaking physical articulation to exorcise her own grief, as she portrays her mother’s anguish, terror, frustration, and fury upon learning her inevitable fate.  

Back to the 70s we go, when Jefferson wanted to expose her own child (Harper) to the gamut of New York’s experiences from soul food in Harlem to high tea at the Plaza.  Repeating the phrase “you know how we do it,” Harper runs through emotions from devil-may-care to sarcastic to threatening to ecstatic to enraged – a virtuosic turn with the rhythm of her words accompanying her jiving, pulsating body.

Another chronological detour elucidates the “3 Red Flags” that led Jefferson into single motherhood in Chicago then New York:  1) her in-laws’ subjecting her to the paper bag test and finding her “too dark” for the family, having complexion darker than the bag; 2) her mother-in- law’s pathological vindictiveness; and 3) her husband’s career swerve into radical politics in his southern home city as president of something called United Citizen’s Party. 

Throughout the performance, Harper’s singing prowess rivals her formidable dancing skills.  She belts out a gospel tune, croons a Piaf-like chanson, impersonates a rock ’n’ roll queen, ala Dianna Ross; and in the vocal highlight of this expertly modulated theater piece, Harper does a hilarious takeoff of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” as it might be rendered by Leontyne Price at the Met Opera with downright operatic elan.  The inspiration for this passage is her mother’s watching the hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia win an Academy Award, no less, for that song in the film “Hustle and Flow.” 

“Hospital the Musical” gets heavy with the pain of the disease and the side effects of its treatment, but as an antidote, “Sonogram” raises the spirits of the ailing Jefferson with the image of her grandchild.  But Jefferson’s rejection of further therapy, despite the pain and her inability to admit defeat in the face of the inevitable hastens her end.  Or rather, “THE BEGINNING,” as TV’s popular dance show, “So You Think You Can Dance?” eulogizes Jefferson on one of its broadcasts after her passing.

Harper’s radiance on the stage is irresistible in any context.  And the creative team has turned her tribute into a moving, unsentimental, and inspiring theater piece, using simple, functional costumes by Elias Gurrola, music by Harper and Fiona Graham, a choreographic assist from Shayla-Vie Jenkins, original music by Earl Maneein, video, assembled and edited by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty, and Batson’s sure directorial (and I’m sure dramaturgical) hand as consultant.  “The Look of Feeling” a piece that deserves a longer life, perhaps Off-Broadway. 

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

Photos by Breton Tyner-Bryant

20th of May 2014
 

SATELLITE COLLECTIVE

This group burst onto the scene seemingly without fanfare – not even a listing in TIME OUT NY, for goodness’s sake – with an evening at BAM Fisher (May 16-17).  The six-year-old collective is headquartered in New York but develops its new pieces in summer workshops in Michigan each summer.  Creative director Kevin Draper assembles composers, choreographers, musicians, dancers, electronic visual artists, and even a poet in an endeavor that is ambitious and seems to be well funded.  If only the artistic vision were bolder.  

Bringing multiple art forms together has resulted in half a dozen mixed media pieces that are attractive on their glossy surfaces but predictable and esthetically unchallenging.  The performers, musicians and dancers, are fist-rate, but the creators don’t stretch the performers’ expressive potential.  Brandon Stirling Baker manages to light the space so we can see the projected video backgrounds sharply, and the dancers, too.  But as is so often the case, in the two dance pieces, the backgrounds compete for our attention with the moving.  

The evening opens with cellist David Moss, playing “Simple Lines” by Bill Ryan.  Moss begins with an intriguing melody; then appears to play multiple voices, melody and accompaniment.  But when he lifts his bow from the strings and the music continues, we realize that he’s got a prerecorded track helping him.  So much for virtuosity!  Next, Nathan Langston reads his poem “Invocation” with a soundscape by Nick Jaina and projected images by Casey Kelbaugh that depict a house, a cameo photo, family snapshots, but also, confusingly, what look like geological formations.

l-r: Lauren Ferguson, Kit McDaniel, Giulia Carotenuto (Ching-I Chang is c-crouched in front of formation) in Emergence

Next, in “Emergence,” after a slide show of irises blooming in time-lapse film by Lora Robertson, Esme Boyce arranges her four women dancers into tableaus that turn them into living screens for more textural projections to play on.  Between these functional groupings, the dancers, wearing beige backless tops and matching short, pleated bloomers by Sue Julien, scatter themselves around the stage, doing a dance with echoes of Graham that seems to have little to do with the projected images of nature. 

l-r: Lauren Ferguson, Kit McDaniel, Giulia Carotenuto, Ching-I Chang in Emergence

The second act begins with Three Compositions for Dance, played mostly live by the musical ensemble in the balcony to our right.  They reveal these composers’ notions of what constitutes “dance music.”  The first by Jaina has a slightly Latin flavor; the second by Nathan Langston is bouncy and percussive; the third is more dramatic with changes of tonal color.  It is all quite polite, easy listening, more bark than bite – and all by male composers by the way.

“Twin Star Event” is a stop-motion animated film by Robertson with a score by Ellis Ludwig-Leone and libretto by Draper.  Some of its images are provocative, like the colorful candles that melt into each other or the articulated wooden horse that stomps on a toy car and tangles in ribbon.  But the libretto fails the film; the hyperactive editing gives us no clues about the concept behind the imagery. 

The big finale is “Rituals” with choreography by Vignoulle, music (part live, part recorded) by Jaina, Langston, and Amanda Lawrence, and projections by Draper and Simon Harding.  The projected backdrop consists of two white curved rectangles that drift in space and morph into four-pointed pinwheels; the program says they were created with mathematical formulas. Three women wear gray dresses and heels and their beaus in gray suits and socks.  They are “diving into the volcanic beginnings of relationships.”

The dancers work up a considerable sweat, doing every step in the book that Broadway dance has appropriated from contact improvisation, street dancing, even Jose Limon, all peppered with the “lyric” style popular in dance competitions.  However volcanic the dancing, the relationships are just aggressive.  The brave performers have been duly drilled in the shapes of their steps and the many precarious lifts, but seem to have no consistent idea – other than the considerable difficulty of the athleticism – what the steps add up to.  Occasionally, smiles do flicker across their faces, as if they’re enjoying the kinetic rollercoaster they’re on.  

l-r: Mistral Hay, Jennifer Rose, Elena Valls, Isaies Santamaria, (Alexander Anderson and Michael Wright are lined up behind Isaies) in Rituals

What Satellite Collective demonstrates is that juxtaposition, however facile, doesn’t automatically produce expressive meaning.  If such a collective first considers its artistic need, then find how – or whether – its impressive technical toys can best enhance it, it would be on firmer ground.  And some research into the 1960s, when multimedia meant 8-mm film projectors, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and homemade musical instruments would be enlightening.  Back then, the sheer mechanical effort involved in mixing media made it more vitally expressive than all today’s slick, digital hocus-pocus.

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

Photos by Lora Robertson

9th of May 2014
 

CINCINNATI BALLET

Making its Joyce Theater debut, Cincinnati Ballet presents a supercharged program of three ballets that bristle with energy (May 6-11).  Victoria Morgan, artistic director and C.E.O. (yes, art and business have morphed), demonstrates that the artistry can remain intact, while also delivering accessibility.  The repertory for this engagement requires sixteen of the troupe’s 25 dancers, who do themselves proud in technical skill and performing vibrancy.

“Hummingbird in a Box” by the company’s young resident choreographer Adam Hougland is a setting of seven songs by pop/rocker Peter Frampton and Gordon Kennedy.  The title song is a solo for Janessa Touchet, but the relationship between the songs and the dancing seems purely rhythmic with no significant narrative.  The form of the piece is satisfyingly predictable – full cast opening, female solo, men’s trio, male solo, pas de deux, women’s trio, full cast finale.  Any surprises lie in the movement not the structure. 

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Janessa Touchet in Adam Hougland’s Hummingbird in a Box

The women wear black bras and tutus and the bare-chested men sport white jeans. Costumes are by Diana Adams.  The mood stays light, abetted by Trad A. Burns’s intense side lighting.  Hougland’s ballet grammar is coherent, spiced with some slangy hip slides into the floor, torso ripples, and even pushups.  The women do a lot of what the Rockettes call “the wedge” – demurely turning in one leg and sitting into the opposite hip.  There’s little romantic chemistry apparent between Touchet and her beau Patric Palkens (who has a distracting tattoo on his left abs) although both are confident performers.

While “Hummingbird” is more modern dance with ballet inflection, the second ballet, Val Caniparoli’s 2013 “Caprice,” is classical ballet with modern inflection.  Although both dances share one similar move – an awkward-looking step where the women slide on the top of one toe shoe, as they hop backwards, looking like they’ve tripped – Caniparoli’s ballet seems like a more grown-up version of Hougland’s.   

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Cincinnati’s agile men in Val Caniparoli’s Caprice

“Caprice” is set to nine “Caprices for Solo Violin” by Niccolo Paganini, played live by violinists Haoli Lin and Yabing Tang, who alternate sections, standing onstage at the far left and right sides.  The dancers, five couples, in Sandra Woodall’s elegant black outfits and lighted, notably visibly, again by Burns rush on and offstage in lines, pair up and split apart.  Trios for women and then men follow, then a couple (Zach Grubbs and Maizyalet Velazquez), backed by the others. 

Next comes a challenging men’s duet for Grubbs and Palkens, in a weight-sharing partnership, whose homoerotic undertones are highlighted by Grubbs and Velazquez’s preceding hetero pairing.  But any potential controversy aroused by the male-male coupling is put to rest by three subsequent man/woman duets.  

In this work, the dancers get to show off their considerable technical chops more extensively.  First, Rodrigo Almarales and Abigail Morwood pull out some virtuoso leaps and spins with aplomb. Next, James Gilmer and Sarah Hairston have a more lyric episode of sensitive partnering, and finally, Danielle Bausinger and Palkens engage in a combative encounter before the group finale, accompanied by one of Paganini’s most familiar caprices.  Caniparoli shows his mastery of form and style in this architecturally elegant ballet that exhibits both technical brio and expressive nuance.

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Trey McIntyre’s Chasing Squirrel

Trey McIntyre’s raucous “Chasing Squirrel,” set to the predictably maverick Kronos Quartet playing selections from “Nuevo,” is an audience-pleasing romp for five couples.  The women tease and the men preen, but in the end, it’s the ladies who rule, sashaying off into the night and leaving the men prostrate.  The provocative opening tableau of this 2004 work has the women ogling the hunky men in their skivvies (Grubbs wears only a Stetson hat to hide his privates.)  But the promise of more raunchiness to come devolves into coy flirtation and gender one-upmanship. 

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Sarah Hairston in Chasing Squirrel

The opening night audience rewarded this confident Joyce debut, with a warm ovation.  Cincinnati can be rightly proud of its Ballet and its capable direction, and we hope the Joyce adds this appealing troupe to its roster of regulars.

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

Photos by Amy Harris 

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