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.

image

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.  

image

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

12th of February 2014
 

LEESAAR THE COMPANY

A tall, lean woman (Hsin-Yi Hsiang) reclines in a downstage corner, lit dimly in silhouette by a beam from across the stage and a small foot light in front of her.  The floor is light gray but her shiny black body suit remains obscure, as she arches and stretches. We can see that her eyebrows are thickened and black, giving her a simian look.  Occasionally, she grins broadly.

Four other women enter, two from each side, upstage, similarly clad and made up.  They move like wild animals – scratching, twitching pulsing, shuddering, pulling their legs over their heads – a herd of agile beasts ranging their habitat.  The shadowy lighting of Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi) washes over their action.  Bueno also designed the eerie backdrop that looks like a subterranean cave wall, which is alternately revealed in changing hues and obscured behind a black scrim.

So begins “Grass and Jackals,” an hour long dance by LeeSaar The Company, a troupe founded in 2000 in Israel and led by partners Lee Sher and Saar Harari.  Sher and Harari are authorized teachers in America of Ohad Naharin’s gaga movement form, so it’s no surprise that the feral movement of the seven dancers has the kinetic fluidity of gaga style.    

The seven creatures (Hsiang, Jye-Hwei Lin, Candice Schnurr, Hyerin Lee, Isabel Umali, Motrya Kozbur, and Delphina Parenti) move about independently, barely acknowledging each other’s presences but intent in their self-involvement.  They stalk.  They enter and leave.  One by one, they amble to center stage, assume a frog-like squat, and regard us watchers quizzically. The sound score is a jaggedly edited collage of musical selections, ranging from ambient to disco, by composers like Rudy Adrian, Deuter, Atlas Sound, Brian Eno and David Byrne, and others.  

Except for a mating by two women, crawling on their knees, sniffing and grooming one another, and a repeating embrace by two others, who soon reject and fight each other,  the relationships among the dancers remain impersonal or nonexistent.  They prowl in tight clumps or stand in formations that attractively adorn the space but don’t give us more information about who these creatures are than what we saw at the start.  Even the solos reiterate the beastly vocabulary without adding to the discussion.

This dance, made in 2013 and premiered at American Dance Festival, is LeeSaar’s most ambitious work to date.  Its vignettes were inspired by the physical rigors of Harari’s six-year career as an officer in the Israeli army.  Physically strenuous as the movement may be, it never engages our emotion in the covert scenario we’re seeing.

During one solo, the other six cross the space, grunting.  Yet another woman grimaces in a mock lip-syncing of a prayer on the sound track.  Midway through the piece, Hsiang distinguishes herself from the others by donning a yellow body suit for a brief solo that looks almost jocular.

But the episodes, arranged sequentially not causally, in the manner of a Japanese folding screen, without hierarchy, do not gather emotional momentum.  In her final solo, Hsiang molts her black outer skin, revealing a shimmering gold one beneath.  She dances by herself, as the others, clumped together tightly, crawl forward in supplication, while a gossamer rain falls.  It’s a spectacular stage effect, made of some kind of plastic material, not actual water.  If only we could tell how it relates to all we have seen, it might be as moving as it is gorgeous.

photos by Christopher Duggan

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014 

8th of February 2014
 

PAM TANOWITZ DANCE

gussolomonsjrtest:

In a concise, fifty-minute program comprising three dances – two, world premieres – choreographer Pam Tanowitz showed in her Joyce Theater debut (February 4-6) what a skilled modern dance maker can do with a cast of superb dancers and a pocketful of bold choreographic choices.

In the premiere…

7th of February 2014
 

PAM TANOWITZ DANCE

In a concise, fifty-minute program comprising three dances – two, world premieres – choreographer Pam Tanowitz showed in her Joyce Theater debut (February 4-6) what a skilled modern dance maker can do with a cast of superb dancers and a pocketful of bold choreographic choices.

In the premiere “Passagen” that takes its name from the John Zorn violin piece that accompanies it, dancers Maggie Cloud and Melissa Toogood dance in canon, unison, and near unison, doing articulate phrases that show strong Cunningham and ballet influences but have a modern dance sensibility and a confident voice that is Tanowitz’s own.  
image

The two women’s individual approaches to the same movement reveal their personalities within Tanowitz’s rigorous structure.  Toogood’s spine is pliant, Clouds, more erect; Cloud’s leg rises higher than Toogood’s, as they inch their way around in a side by side promenade turn; walking upstage, Cloud bends her knee sharply, lifting her foot high behind her, while Toogood lets hers lift more lightly off the floor.

Diminutive guest violinist Pauline Kim Harris in her modest kimono dodges between the dancers in order to reach her score, which is divided among three music stands, one upstage center and one at each side, adding a pedestrian counterpart to the refined dancing and helping to bond the two dancers into a unit, the better to highlight the subtleties of their different points of view about their steps.
image

Tanowitz stitches thoughtfully designed motifs into intelligently musical movement phrases, whose rhythms counterpoint those of Zorn’s highly textural, contemporary music.  Hers is not the impulsive motion of postmodernism but rather familiar movement tropes, deftly reconfigured to avoid cliché.

The world premiere “Heaven on One’s Head” is a lucid, physically vibrant work for five men and four women, all wearing rich, crimson shorts-length jump suits by former dancer/designer Reid Bartelme, who understands with couture-worthy inventiveness both the dancers’ need for freedom of movement and the choreographer’s vision.  Here, Bartelme’s costumes precisely match the crimson of the Joyce’s front curtain.  Davison Scandrett bathes the stage with its exposed brick rear wall in dramatically matter-of-fact lighting that deftly sculpts the space and dancers in it.  
image

With the FLUX Quartet – Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violins, Max Mandel, viola, and Felix Fan, cello – playing Conlon Nancarrow’s String Quartets 1 and 3 at audience level by the stage, the dancers trade linear phrases, moving briskly across the stage with leaps and stretchy extensions; you glimpse a jumping arabesque fouetté by one dancer on the left, then at staggered times catch the same move by another and another in different locations.  Gradually, the stage clears, leaving Cloud dancing solo on one side and men on the other, lazily falling and sliding in from the wings.  

Tanowitz makes bold spatial choices both horizontally and vertically.  Often she has dancers populate the extreme sides of the space, leaving the center bare.  In “Heaven,” there’s a striking passage where she arrays four duets from downstage to up.  The density of action is intensified by contrast to the emptiness opposite it.
image

And in the short duet for Dylan Crossman and Sarah Haarmann that follows a short pause – descriptively titled “Pause Dance” – the curtain rises to a point just above their heads.  Later, in “Heaven,” into which the duet flows seamlessly, the curtain drops to within two feet of the floor, as we watch Toogood’s solo – done far downstage left on a small extension of the stage opposite the musicians – in relation to the prancing shins and reclining bodies of the other dancers onstage.

Cannily using pure movement, Tanowitz mines the drama of juxtaposition, speed, and rhythm into highly engaging movement essays without the least bit of applied drama.  They become highly theatrical, nonetheless. The other spectacular dancers are Andreew Champlin, Jason Collins, Lindsey Jones, Vincent McCloskey, and Max King.  

photos by Yi-Chun Wu

Gus Solomons jr, © 2014 



17th of November 2013
 

HOFESH SHECHTER

In his desire to make a light and sunny dance – understandable, since he lives in foggy London town – Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter created a work called “Sun,” in the Next Wave Festival at BAM’s Gilman Opera House, November 14-16.  Costumes by Christina Cunningham for the sixteen-person company – loosely fitting in mostly whites and tans – give the impression of peasants or slaves – or characters in a minstrel show.

Tall, broad Philip Hulford with dreadlocks and tall, slim blond, Kim Kohlmann, wear white clown smocks, his with big black buttons, hers with white pompoms in front.  Handsome Erion Kruja in a white suit and dark, narrow tie and sometimes wielding a tambourine takes on the role of emcee/ringmaster/plantation owner.  In certain sections, a handful of dancers don white Afro wigs, adding to the impression that this might be fashioned after a minstrel show.

To let us know that this 50-minute piece is meant to be “light,” Shechter’s voice makes the pre-curtain speech, assuring us that “everything will be all right in the end,” and to illustrate, the dancers do a bit of the finale.  He also assures us that “no animals were harmed” in the making of the piece.

When the lights restore on the perpetually misty stage, there stands at center stage a cutout photomural of a sheep.  Lights out.  Then, a tableau of the whole company, sixteen strong, posing in a clump and doing gestures.  All in unison, they raise their arms and flip their hands open, like antlers; they cover faces with hands and peek out at us.  Then, variously they squat and lunge.

The piece proceeds in short episodes, separated by blackouts – Sometimes they’re dancing vigorously, and at others just posing or manipulating photomural cutouts.  Shechter’s own sound and music collage of bagpipes, pulsing disco beats, African drumming, and snatches of old standards – Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” for example – accompanies the piece at deafening volume.  Periodically, a woman in the audience stands up, points, and lets out a blood-curdling scream.

The photomural cutouts proliferate; at one point, the dancers manipulate eight sheep across the stage, gliding, hopping, leaping, and turning somersaults.  There’s a big dog cutout (or is it a wolf?) that lurks behind the sheep, and a tall British explorer cutout, which menaces the half dozen cutouts of an aboriginal character standing on one leg.  In the context of minstrel show, we wonder if these two-dimensional stereotypes are intended to be racist, or are they just accidentally so.  

Our view is constantly veiled by fog, as if the spectacle were a dream.  Set designer Merle Hensel has curved the rear sky cloth, so the stage has the look of a large shadow box, where a puppet show might occur.  A grid of dim light bulbs forms a starry ceiling above.  The lighting design is by Lee Curran, and when he bathes the stage in a warm, yellow glow, sunshine is virtually palpable.  At times the little lights do their own dance, flitting around like blowing clouds. 

The hyperactive events seem to be geared to produce sheer, forceful impact without any particular coherence.  Shechter relies too much on his over-amplified sound and too little on dramaturgy.  Still, there is an exhilarating folksiness about the movement, almost as though everybody came up with their own exuberant choices, and then the choreographer orchestrated it into occasional unison or canon.

Typically, Shechter’s work is emotionally dark.  “Sun” demonstrates that darkness is his comfort zone and his gamut doesn’t yet include light and funny.

Photos by Gabriele Zucca

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013


12th of November 2013
 

BALLET PRELJOCAJ AT BAM

French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj is a remarkably versatile and fluent dance maker.  From his intimate 1995 duet, “Annonciation,” to remarkable, abstract composition of “Empty Moves” (2007) to the narratives of “Romeo and Juliet” (1990) and “Snow White” (2008) he attacks each new project with fresh methods and a new palate of invention.  

He prefers highly technical movement – absorbed from one of his chief influences, Merce Cunningham – done in uncannily precise unisons and expertly modulated, relentlessly practiced group passages.  He is a master of clever motif manipulation.  

Originally created in collaboration with the Bolshoi Ballet in 2010, “And then, one thousand years of peace,” part of the Next Wave Festival at BAM (November 7-9), the piece presents a panorama of images, simple and elaborate, that were inspired by Preljocaj’s reading of “The Apocalypse of St. John.”  The choreographer takes pains to clarify that the ballet is not narrative – no apocalypse in sight.  But lush set pieces by Subodh Gupta, simple but sexy costumes by Igor Chapurin, atmospheric music by Laurent Garnier, and dynamic lighting by Cécile Giovansili-Vissière give the productions broad panoply of scenes an epic feeling.

At opening, ten women in decorated unitards stride in right angle patterns through a groundscape of flashing rectangles.  They dance a phrase, typical of Preljocaj’s inventiveness, sticking one leg out, high to the side, and while balancing on the other, curving their torsos to the side, framed by their curved arms; then, the extended leg slashes in front of their bodies and winds up stretched behind them before returning to the ground.  All this is done with immaculate precision to a steady, raucous beat.  

When the music rises to a deafening crescendo, the women collapse to the ground and slither under plastic sheeting.  Their male counterparts, wearing brown business suits, enter and swaddle them in the plastic until they come to life in breathy arches that flip the plastic sheets onto the men.  Then the women, now in silky slips, do a brisk but delicate canonic passage, while the men slither like lizards among them.

One of several unison duets follows.  Two women, whose white leotards have loops of stiff fabric attached at shoulder and waist, like wings dance together, as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” accompanies their slow-moving, unfaltering synchronization, including sadistically difficult promenade balancing on one knee, the other leg lifted in attitude. 

Gradually, pure dancing begins to add props.  Another complex group section uses a checkerboard of chairs, during which fog builds behind the rear scrim.  The dancers stride laterally across the stage carrying books in their hands and mouths.  After the others leave, two men, one tall, one shorter, begin another side-by-side, unison duet, which evolves into a pas de deux of tender lifts that culminates in a romantic kiss.

The company enters with hoods covering their faces.  It’s the first time we see color in the monochromatic gray, brown, and beige attire.  Reds, blues, lavender raise the costumes to the next level.  To choral music with a superimposed beat, the faceless people arrange themselves into tableaus that suggest sexual activity and tense emotional intimacy.

We enter carnal territory, as four identical women in black lingerie and blonde wigs pose suggestively against four metallic walls.  The huge, rectangular “walls,” each about two feet deep and ten feet square, begin to roll around into formations, propelled by the men.  Three women in metallic headdresses and platform shoes emerge from paths the massive blocks describe.  Now we seem to be in futuristic territory. 

During a male duet, six-foot chains being to plummet from above the stage, crashing to the floor, eighteen in all, increasing the sense of real danger to the men’s dancing.  The others enter to where the chains have landed and dance with them wrapped around their necks.  

We’re swept along in the dance’s wake.  At one-hour-and-fifty intermission-less minutes, “And now…” strains the endurance of many of the audience’s bladders but apparently not its patience.  Preljocaj’s fecund imagination keeps us engaged, eagerly awaiting the next station stop on our magical mystery tour. 

In the finale, the dancers in flesh-toned briefs and bras soak large pieces of fabric in basins attached to the rear panels, and unfurl them, splashing water all over the floor.  The fabric turns out to be the flags of many nations – U.N. members?  When the flags are spread, two dancers carry live lambs onto the stage.  They peacefully wander around their international meadow, bleating softly.

Photos by Jack Vartoogian

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013


28th of October 2013
 

THE FIREBIRD, A BALLEZ

image

Photo by Alex Escalante: Katy Pyle as Lesbian Princess in The Firebird, a Ballez

Here’s a question: does calling it “ballez” absolve a troupe from having to do the French-named steps “correctly”?  Katy Pyle and the Ballez Company performed “The Firebird, a Ballez” at Danspace Project in what the program dubs a “reprisal.”  Does it mean  “reprise” or “revival,” since that’s ostensibly what it is?  Maybe not.  In a way, Pyle’s queering of the original – this all lesbian version – does, in a way, exact sweet revenge on the original.

With the 36-piece Queer Urban Orchestra, conducted by Nolan Dresden, giving full voice to Stravinsky’s score from the resonant balcony of St. Mark’s Church and bathed in Carol Mullins’s no holds barred light, Pyle, the Lesbian Princess, falls for the Firebird, Jules Skloot – in black tights and a red leather, fringed jacket, ala Tex Ritter in cowboy movie musicals of the fifties – and vies for the creature’s possession with wicked sorceress, Regina Rocke, dressed in a black bustier and bikini panties; with a sheer black cloak and a blond-tipped, modified Mohawk.. 

Hedia Maron’s video design, meidated by video technician Jimin Brelsford, animates the altar wall of the church with scenes of a fairyland castle, phantasmagoric landscapes, and a final conflagration, as the bird transforms into a lesbian “prince.” 

Ten “princes” – all women – display varying dance skills, but in their white T-shirts and black tights, they cut some dashing poses.  Though none look like trained ballet dancers, they’re well rehearsed in Pyle’s sometimes challenging patterns.  After stuffing clementines into their tights, giving themselves temporary “packages,” they line up in two ranks, repeatedly toss the fruit to each other across the space, then leap, splicing lines, to the opposite side.

Photo by Angela Jimenez: Princes and Narrator (2nd from L) in Pyle’s The Firebird, a Ballez

They recline in a close-knit lineup like nymphs – or the male equivalent – and wrap their arms around each other in cascades.  While Pyle and her avian conquest wrestle – or is it make out – on the floor, the corps of princes do-si-dos in a line in front of them.  In pairs, they imitate the tableaus of romantic ballet couples – one kneeling, the other draped over the partner’s lap.  

image

Photo by Alex Escalante: Katy Pyle takes the air

Pyle’s Princess has clearly disrupted the tranquility of the princes’ sanctuary, and when Sorceress Rocke enters, stepping across the pathway made by the backs of her kneeling harem of “he”s, she vows to banish the intruder.  There’s a tug of war between Sorceress and Princess with the princes standing in for the rope.

Stravinsky’s music drives the action, as Narrator Sacha Yanow announces the scenes – one through eight – during the action, and at the musical climax, pandemonium erupts; princes scamper every which way, while the protagonists pursue their objectives in the midst of the fray, the space explodes in Mullins’s dynamic lighting colors and patterned textures, which intensify the kinetic orgy.  

The transformation of Firebird into Prince occurs magically on the altar, masked by the princes and accompanied by Maron’s terrific video animation – and, oh yes, the music.  And when the prince emerges and parades the length of the sanctuary in a red hat that has rooster-ish overtones, a black jerkin, and gossamer panels flowing behind, we’re convinced that this 50-minute “reprisal” – which premiered last year – well deserves its reprise.

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013


6th of October 2013
 

PALISSIMO AT ABRONS ARTS CENTER, OCTOBER 2-12

image

In “Endangered Pieces,” Bessie nominated choreographer Pavel Zuštiak creates another of his uniquely dark worlds, one populated by himself, his muse Jaro Viňarský, and Matthew Rogers, in the bare stage space of the Henry Street Playhouse, which is full of crusty old character.  Live music by Christian Frederickson and Bobby McElver, unseen, and an uncannily articulate lighting plot by Joe Levasseur complete his tools for this imagistic collage.   

As we enter the theater, the front curtain is up, a ghost light stands center stage, and on the stage floor lie three tall light booms and a naked man.  As Zuštiak removes the ghost light, Rogers raises the vertical rolling door upstage to reveal behind it a wall of stacked up 2x4s, lit from the side to give it sculptural dimension.     

Zuštiak and Rogers stand up the booms and Viňarský.  Then, they proceed to manipulate their naked cohort like a side of beef, standing him up, laying him down, flipping him onto his back, his front, hoisting him to Rogers’s shoulder, lifting him aloft and pinning him to the rear wall over their heads.  

image

When they leave him alone, Viňarský comes to life and puts on an undershirt, briefs, jeans, and a gray sweater, as a recorded voice booms, “Imagine an empty space.”  He comes to the front of the stage and solicits out applause.  The voice asks, ”Will this be the last time?” and Viňarský repeatedly strips off his clothes and puts them on again in different orders.  The wall of wood strips gradually starts to collapse, as though it were eroding, then crashes down, and the front curtain slowly falls.

In front of the red curtain, Rogers strolls across the stage, then re-enters through its center.  As a female recorded voice asks existential questions, Rogers does a little stand-up comedy – “the past, present, and future walk into a bar…” – takes off his sweat shirt and jeans, takes money from his wallet and counts it – eighteen dollars – sings a little ditty.  The voice ponders, “Imagine the lack of misunderstanding.”

Imagine, indeed.  Zuštiak paints the most vivid stage pictures, like the scene in which all three men, naked, descend from atop the tall booms, as slowly as globs of melting lard and make their way, inch by inch, to the back wall, before the lights go out.  The bodies are at once abstract sculptures, emotional triggers, and political symbols.  It’s a gorgeous scene, which we expand in our imaginations in our own ways. 

image

The dense, electric bass, sound score adds tension to the physical imagery, and Levasseur’s lighting is a co-equal partner in the choreography.  His choices – low side beams, harsh overhead scoops, a floating fluorescent strip, even house lights, judiciously but dramatically used, transform the space into a multitude of environments and create magical transitions.

image

Zuštiak’s images, arresting as they are, don’t take us to the bleak conclusion we expect and even crave.  In the final scene of the hour-long piece, the men play with the wood strips like curious kids. They stack them, build skeletal frames like houses of cards, push them into a long train, pile them into a collapsing chair, catapult one to the ceiling.  Their improvisational ingenuity is fascinating; it’s a game of erector set, done with deadly seriousness but ultimately frivolous.  The danger here is real and physical, not abstracted like the previous scenes.  What begins as potential tragedy ends as grim gaiety. 

image

photos by Nandita Raman

(c) Gus Solomons jr, 2013

26th of August 2013
 

SOUL DOCTOR

Broadway’s new “Soul Doctor,” which opened on August 15 for an open run at Circle in the Square, is chock full of powerful singing/acting performances and more than twenty infectious melodies, most of them by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (the energetic Eric Anderson), the title character – a world-renowned troubadour rabbi (1925-94) who became a big rock star in the sixties, especially for Jewish audiences. 

At the start of Act I, after the setup scene – Shlomo singing with Nina Simone (stately, robust Amber Iman) in her famous Vienna concert – we flash back to the Carlebach family’s escaping from Vienna just before the Nazis took over.  The son and brother of devoutly orthodox rabbis, Shlomo, an observant Jew – including the prohibition against men and women fraternizing in public – has a fortuitous chance meeting with Nina Simone, who exposes him to jazz at a nightclub and gospel music at her mother’s storefront church. 

Shlomo and Nina discover the analogous oppressions of their respective backgrounds, black and Jewish, with respect to civil rights, and her racial activism emboldens him to renounce his bonds of orthodoxy and bring his music to the masses, wherever he finds them – Washington Square Park, the Village Vanguard, or The House of Love and Prayer, a hippie commune he founds in San Francisco.

The script details the significant events of Carlebach’s journey, but as with so many biographies translated to the stage, book writer Daniel S. Wise tries to pack in too much, which means that some of it gets superficial treatment.  The flashback to the Carlebach’s in Vienna and their escape to New York take up the first half hour of the show and could be its own play.  But other relationships get shorter shrift.

And as the play progresses, Shlomo’s love of music takes him where an observant Jew shouldn’t go, places where the sexes mingle freely.  He becomes increasingly secular, fraternizing with a young woman he meets in the park, Ruth (the surprisingly uncharismatic Zarah Mahler) who’s hot for him in her lukewarm way.  Their “affair” may be biographically correct, but dramatically, it’s schematic and superfluous.  

Also, it’s apparent that Shlomo’s father’s health (via posture and grayness of hair) deteriorates each time he enters, but it’s less evident that Shlomo’s journey into rock and roll is the reason.  At the father’s funeral, which Simone also attends, Shlomo’s mother gets her dramatic moment, when she accuses her black sheep son and his black lady-friend of “killing” her husband.

At times, you just want the show to get along; the pace stalls.  In the recording session that ends Act One, for example, the multiple takes of his first recording session, because he can’t get it right, try our patience.  Ultimately though, one technician (elfin tomboy Alexandra Frohlinger), hilariously solves the problem of his hyperactivity in the cleverest bit of staging in the show. 

Iman has vocal pipes Nina Simone only wished she had.  Simone was a concert-worthy pianist but a vocal stylist.  Iman is a full-on mezzo, soul singer.  Her Act I renditions of “I’ll Put a Spell on You” and “You Know How I Feel” are crackle with just the right taste of bluesy ornamentation.  Anderson jumps up and down infectiously, in most of his up-tempo numbers, managing to support his rich baritone, while bouncing like a pogo stick. 

Benoit-Swan Pouffer has been best known until now as artistic director of the reputable Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.  But, like so many concert choreographers, he wanted to branch out to do commercial theater as well, while maintaining their concert troupes.  

But unlike colleagues such as Doug Varone, Lar Lubovitch, Larry Keigwin, Bill T. Jones and others, it’s reported that his Cedar Lake contract didn’t allow him to do both.  Since it’s not really a dance show, “Soul Doctor” is choreographically an inconclusive Broadway debut for Pouffer, who never really gets a chance to strut his dance making stuff.  It’s odd he would choose this vehicle to make the break with Cedar Lake.  

At the gospel service in the Storefront Gospel Church, despite a solid rock beat behind Shlomo’s rousing “Ki Va Moed,” the congregation doesn’t really “get the spirit,” doing Pouffer’s stock steps with added modern dance-y arm motifs.  It feels inauthentic, except for the Sinner (Abdur-Rahim Jackson) who really gets possessed.  Likewise, the hippie flower children at Shlomo’s “House of Love and Prayer” do some complex physical intertwining, but so briefly and perfunctorily that it barely registers.  And the strutting through the aisles of the thrust-stage theater feels tacked on. 

Set designer Neil Patel’s lively set backs the stage with a rough, stone wall – which at one point becomes the Wailing Wall – a platform with spiral stairways to the main stage, which allow for lively action, up and down, and houses the orchestra off to one side.  In Act II, colorful Maypole streamers create the “House of Love and Peace” and hover above the orchestra seats to draw the audience further into the action.  

Costume designer Maggie Morgan nicely camouflages the actors who are playing a multitude of roles.  And Jeff Croiter’s lighting washes the stage with intense color and heightens textures.  Running two-and-a-half hours, “Doc” could use trimming.  But for a show with such a seemingly parochial premise for a Broadway musical, it does offer up expansive theatricality and some terrific tunes.

Photos by Carol Rosegg

Gus Solomons jr, © 2013


Original Theme: Robert Boylan     Customization: Design Brooklyn     Feed: RSS     History: Archive