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 

28th of April 2014
 

SUMMATION DANCE

This company, formed by choreographer Sumi Clements and executive director Taryn Vander Hoop upon graduation from Tisch School of the Arts Masters’ Program, celebrated its fourth New York season at BAM Fisher Theater, April 2-5.  (Full disclosure: Clements and Vander Hoop were students of at Tisch, my late employer.)

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Taryn Vander Hoop (l) and Sumi Clements

The dances, both premieres show off the women’s unfettered dancing and the vivid presences they bring to the stage, both individually and collectively. The stronger of the two world premieres on the program, “Updating Route, Please Standby.”  It starts with its eight dancers in Brigitte Vosse’s lacy navy tops and textured gray tights crouching and stamping their feet rapidly, while their bodies remain motionless.  Suddenly they all collapse to their knees in a salaam.  So, intriguingly, it begins.  Then they rise and move like chess pieces, focusing intently on each other.

Clements understands how to use stillness skillfully as a contrast to athletic physicality; it creates suspense and keeps us guessing what’s to come.  It’s also nicely articulates duration between spurts of action, brief and extended.  The choreography keeps our attention riveted to its unpredictably mysterious unfolding.  

Though all the dancers are onstage most of the time, Clements modulates foreground and background movement with a canny skill.  We feel we’re part of their community, watching a single woman or a pair engage in specific errands.  Then our focus shifts to the next point of action.  Clements directs our eye with the maturity of a past master at moving groups in space.

Music by Lorn helps maintain dramatic tension, alternating between strong percussive pulsing and atmospheric, electronic ambience that at times drives the motion forward and at others, provides breathing room to highlight a moment of subtle detail – a small gesture, a small shift of weight, a change of focus.  And Simon Cleveland’s lighting keeps modulating the space, keeping the atmosphere dark, but illuminating all the action with pools on the floor and piercing side light. 

Movement caroms around the stage, bouncing from one group to another; a thrust here results in a reaction there; a motif introduced by one dancer is echoed by three of four others, either in tight formation or scattered about the stage.   

The captivating thing about the company is the forcefulness of the movement and the dancing.  Usually with all-women troupes, you eventually start to miss male energy.  Not here.  Summation delivers all the energy and power you could ask for.  In addition, the choreography is structurally satisfying, well modulated, and emotionally engaging.  

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(l-r) Angela Curotto, Sumi Clements, Kristen Schwab, Julie McMillan, Meg Weeks, Taryn Vander Hoop 

Throughout, you root for the clan, the tribe, the community in which these women exist.  Intimate kinetic conversations happen between the larger group passages.  Unison melts into relationship, which then folds back into the larger whole.  Conflicts arise, and tensions resolve.  The family remains steadfast.  Clements shows remarkable skill at directing our focus within a matrix of lively movement without visual confusion.  

Summation affirms the robust health of modern dancing without gimmicks.  Its movement is inventive, beautifully orchestrated, fiercely performed, and entirely satisfying.  The noteworthy dancers are Clements and Vander Hoop, Allie Lochary, Dani McIntosh, Julie McMillan, Meg Weeks, Megan Wubbenhorst, apprentice Allie Harris, and Devin Oshiro, who alternated with McIntosh and did not dance the April 3 performance I attended.

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

Photos by Christopher Duggan 

24th of March 2014
 

ALONZO KING LINES

Behind a scrim, several greenish-blue balls glow in midair, as mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani glides onstage in a voluminous rust-colored robe, the lower part of which is crinkled into oversized accordion pleats.  Lanky Meredith Webster enters diagonally opposite her in a light-colored leotard and tights and dances slippery, hyper-stretched, extravagantly silky lines.  

Dancers in an earlier version of Alonzo King’s Constellation

Thus begins Alonzo King’s evening-length ode to our relationships to light, titled “Constellation” at the Joyce Theater, March 18-23.  The piece, which premiered in King’s home base, San Francisco, in 2012, is a collaboration with set designer Jim Campbell – a renowned, MIT-educated electronic installation artist, who now lives and works in San Francisco.   

As Yujin Kim. David Harvey, and Babatunji dance in, plucking the glowing balls from the air and holding them, the scrim falls away, and Act I of the two-act ballet unspools in a series of nine ravishing episodes, set to original music by Ben Juodvalkis and Leslie Stuck, interspersed with selections by Handel, Vivaldi, and Arvo Pärt.  

King worships the beauty of physical line, and his skilled and sleek dancers pull off the most complicated steps – turns with bodies changing positions, mid-spin, roof-high extensions with controlled descents that swing into scissor-like passés, and startlingly long, stable balances, all with an aplomb that signals expressive intention rather than sheer virtuosity. 

Campbell’s world of light surrounds them.  A sort of bead curtain of tiny orbs at the rear becomes at times a pointillist screen, across which flit images of birds, pedestrians, and clouds behind the dancing.  In fact, the ballets only misstep is the obligatory display of illumination tricks the set is capable of.  The costumes by Robert Rosenwasser and Colleen Quen hug the bodies or expose lots of skin.  The counterpart of Lehyani’s robe is a pair of pantaloons on Keelan Whitmore that he wears in act two.

Keelan Whitmore in an earlier version of

Downstage, high up, hangs a panel of flashing lights, like an animated abstract painting.  One dancer wears lights, strung like a vest; two men have a tug-of-war with a chain of them.  It’s a bit circus-like and out of sync with the overall lyricism of the work.

A triptych of LED panels, manipulated by dancers around and above Caroline Rocher, tends to obscure her sensuous, floor-bound solo with its blindingly bright animation of people walking.  

But the duets that close each of the ballet’s two acts are profoundly beautiful.  Ms Kim and Robb Beresford close Act I with Lahyani singing Vivaldi’s “Spoza Son Disprezzata” (I Am Wife and I Am Scorned).  The aria is the mournful plaint of a woman with an unfaithful spouse.  And Act II ends with Webster and Harvey, dancing to Richard Strauss’s “Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4,” sung by Lahyani.  These lyrics speak of a bright new tomorrow, in which the light of the sun will unite us.   

Meredith Webster and David Harvey in

On the heels of this quietly uplifting moment, the ecstatic audience left with words like “sublime” on their lips.  Movement and light (stage lighting is by Axel Morgenthaler) blend seamlessly.  The physical extravagance of King’s choreography is impressive, and his skill at weaving kinetic tapestries in neoclassical style (post Forsythe) is virtually unmatched. 

Photos by Margo Moritz

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014


16th of February 2014
 

ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET

The Royal New Zealand Ballet under the direction of former New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater star Ethan Stiefel made its New York debut at the Joyce Theater, February 12-16, with a mixed repertory of ballets by L.A. Dance Project director Benjamin Millepied, RNZB alum Andrew Simmons, and Venezuelan Javier De Frutos.  New York is a stop on the first U.S. tour for the thirty-plus dancer troupe under Stiefel’s direction, so the pressure was on.

Opening night jitters showed at the start of Millepied’s 2005 work, “28 Variations on a theme of Paganini.”  It is the choreographer’s homage to classical style, set to Brahms’s eponymous piano score, played by New Zealand’s Jian Liu of the New Zealand School of Music.  Five men in gray knee britches and vests squire five ballerinas, wearing three-quarter length tutus in delicate spring shades.  The dancing improved as the nerves wore off in the first few sections.

photo by Evan Li: Gilliam Murphy and Qi Huan in 28 Variations…

Principal guest artist Gillian Murphy – an ABT principal, and, not incidentally, Stiefel’s fiancée – is cast as first among equals of the women in the piece.  Each of its short sections, matching the variations, depicts a romantic encounter.  In one, Murphy catches her beau, Qi Huan, cheating on her.  Their break up and make up culminates in a lovely, reconciliatory duet a few variations later.  Murphy’s immaculately steady dancing and increasing warmth are dazzling, although her counterparts – pert Lucy Green, statuesque Antonia Hewitt, and Tonia Looker and Bronte Kelly are no slouches.  

 
imagephoto by Evan Li: dancers of RNZB in Of Days

“Of Days” by Simmons, made in 2013, is set to a collection of contemporary music that sounds like movie music, and some of it is.  Lushly orchestrated selections by Olafur Arnalds, Dustin O’Halloran, and Ludavico Einaudi are sentimental and somewhat soporific.  Although the work is well danced, nothing about the choreography burns in memory, and the ultra-dim (un-credited) lighting, especially upstage, obscured some of the dancing.  Of the men, Huan and Kohei Iwamoto are most convincing here.  But this centerpiece ballet, which we expect to be the peak of the evening in emotional substance, doesn’t deliver.

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photo by Bill Cooper: Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in Banderillero

In the closer, Javier De Frutos’s “Banderillero,” danced to Chinese drumming, dancers do quasi-jazzy, spine-rippling riffs, then stand on the periphery of the white dancing square until their next entrances.  The title refers to the toreador’s assistants who stick banderillos into the bull.  But the choreography evokes none of the passion or danger of a bullfight.  It’s staged in the manner of a street dance with the cast standing around the central, lighted square, waiting for their turn to dance, but there’s no cheering the others on from the sidelines and no sense of competition.  The choreographer also designed the bland off-white costumes and the efficient but uninspired lighting.  The dance was made in 2006, and it’s in need of serious editing; it goes on forever.  

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photo by Bill Cooper: Clyte Campbell in Banderillero

The training of RNZB’s dancers shows the precision and refinement that distinguished Stiefel’s own dancing during his illustrious career.  The women are technically and expressively strong and appealing, especially Green, Hewitt, and Clyte Campbell in the opening night casts.  Although the men don’t have either the refined physiques or performing presence of elite troupes we’re so used to seeing nowadays, they acquit themselves creditably – better in the contemporary ballets than in classical style – and they are unmannered, technically adept, and steady partners.

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014

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