20th of May 2013
 

‘RHAW’ MATERIAL

Philadelphia-based hip-hop innovator, Dr. Rennie Harris, most notably turned hip-hop movement in all its many styles into a new language for dramatic expression.  RHAW, an hour-long hip-hop show at the New Victory Theater (May 14-26), mixes moves from B-boying, popping, locking, waacking, and voguing styles into a new language that is as definable as ballet but speaks to a whole new generation of viewers.  

The title is an acronym for Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works, and Harris bills himself as “Dr. Rennie Harris,” as if to elevate hip-hop culture to academic respectability.  And he calls himself the founder, director, and CEO of his company Puremovement, of which this show is kind of a subsidiary.  Raphael Williams and Crystal Frazier are listed as RHAW’s artistic director and assistant.   

The agile crew keeps revealing more facets of their dancing chops; they crouch low, whipping legs around like mix-masters, twirl on their back and shoulders, swing their legs high like gymnasts on the pommel horse.  From a standing start, they jump into the air, spin 360-degrees, and land, catlike, on their feet; they twitch their muscles and move like mechanical robots slow as molasses and lightning fast.  They flap their arms overhead in that new-fangled semaphore called voguing in startling unison.  

Some of the short pieces are excerpted from larger works and some choreographed by others and staged by Harris.  The New Vic presents family-friendly attractions.  But Harris’s work does not talk down to youngsters and can be appreciated equally by audiences of all ages.  The dozen performers – half men, half women – dance with the natural joy of kids who’ve found a passion, and their unforced joy makes it easy to see why they’re so inspirational for other youngsters seeing them.  

In the opening “Continuum” (conceived in 1997), the cast members introduce themselves by showing us their personal specialties in the center of a circle of the others – the cipher, as it’s called – then they exit the stage and return for another round.  Harris gave women equal stature with men in hip-hop.  What had been a guy’s game with a few token women became egalitarian with Harris’s introduction of narrative and specific story telling to the form.

In the large group unison passages, six or eight dancers will be steaming along, and out of nowhere someone will do a series of aerial flips, forward or backward, or dive into a one-handed handstand with feet pumping in the air as easily as if they were arms, or do a scary slide on the top of his head.  The virtuosity feels more like simply an eruption of exuberance than an applause-grabbing stunt. 

The recorded music pumps so loudly you can’t even hear when the audience applauds for a spectacular moment or the end of a section.  Lighting by David Todaro keeps the mood changing simply but effectively, including some mysterious specials that pick Harris and Brown out of the darkness on their journey across the stage at the start of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” excerpt, set to the famous Queen music.   

A big projection tells us the title of the show, as we enter the theater, and a colorful “peace” sign announces the excerpt from “Peace and Love” in the second half of the show.  In other places, the cyclorama blazes with color, silhouetting the dancers against it.  And the finale is titled “R.H.A.W. Bows.”  But it takes a while to realize it is the curtain calls, since the volume of the music and the steps, which now pull out all the stops, are indistinct from the rest of the proceedings. 

The performers, who don’t flaunt even their most gasp-inducing stunts, each have their own particular hip-hop gifts, and they deserve all the cheering they receive.  Namely, they are Amaryah Bone, Katia Cruz, Joshua Culbreath, Phillip Cuttino Jr., Neka French, Brandyn S. Harris (Rennie’s grown son), Mai Le Ho Johnson, Kevin S. Rand, Neha Sharma, Mariah Tlili, and Schafeek Westbrook.  

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013

1st of April 2013
 

NEW YORK THEATRE BALLET

The New York Theatre Ballet, founded and directed by Diana Byer, is one of New York’s treasures.  Most of the company’s young members have been trained assiduously by Byer, and they produce some of the most grammatically precise, crisp ballet dancing around; clear, musical execution supplants technical virtuosity.

In the troupe’s recent concert at Florence Gould Hall (March 22-23), the repertory is mostly sterling – Antony Tudor, revivals of two James Waring solos from the seventies, a Richard Alston piece, and a new dance by Gemma Bond.  It’s a shame Victoria Miller’s lighting wasn’t better focused throughout.

Byer wisely reins her dancers in technically to do what they can do with professional confidence; they don’t outreach their grasp.  And the small stage at Gould Hall means they don’t have to strain to cover space.  Another inspiring aspect of the company is that it maintains works by Antony Tudor (1908-1987), whose ballets always put human relationships before virtuosic spectacle.

On this program, his “Dark Elegies” (1977) received a typically well-rehearsed, elegantly restrained performance.  Set to Gustav Mahler’s mournful “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), it begins with six women in Raymond Sovey’s puritanical dresses and babushkas – done in muted tones of gray, maroon, teal – in a somber arc onstage.  Another woman (Rie Ogura) enters from upstage and crosses to the center into the group.   Ogura is on toe, while the others dance flat.

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NYTB in Dark Elegies

Gradually, inconspicuously, other dancers enter until a community of a dozen populates the stage, eight women and four men in all.  The Second Song introduces Amanda Lynch and Steven Melendez – the troupe’s most mature and physically powerful performer – as a bereaved couple.  The soloists in the other songs make less impression than the first two.  Marius Arhire, Elena Zahlmann, and Philip King dance assuredly but reticently. 

Gema Bond is a corps member at American Ballet Theatre, who’s being eyed as the next, all-too-rare, female ballet choreographer of promise.  Her “Silent Tales” is an odd affair, set to piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.  A rolling blackboard announces its sections – “La Savane,” “Ballade Creole”; “Tournament Galop”; “O! Ma Charmante, Espargnez Moi!”; and “Finale.”  But the transitions between sections seem tentative, because each section has an inconclusive ending.  The audience doesn’t know whether to clap or not, each time the music ends, because we’re not sure what just happened.

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NYTB in Silent Titles

The women dance variously on toe, in heels, and in soft shoes and wear gray tutus by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan.  The tuxedoed guys keep their black shoes on throughout.  The movement is cleanest, when it’s balletic, but it’s always generic – a timid exercise.  Live pianist Michael Scales seems unable to hit the right notes, whether due to lack of practice or the music’s difficulty.  But the clunkers make the dancing hard to love.  

Richard Alston’s “A Rugged Flourish,” commissioned by NYTB in 2011 and set to Aaron Copeland’s 1930 “Piano Variations” is a formal essay for Melendez and six women, one of whom (Ogura) becomes his pas de deux partner.  The six women on toe wear bright, spring-like colors (Taalsohn Nolan’s costumes again), and flurry about in tidy patterns.  “Flourish” is youthful and pleasant, and with his technically crispness, serene presence, and unmannered performance, Melendez proves himself again to be the cream of the crop.

The program’s special treat is the revival of two solos by James Waring, a notable figure in downtown dance in the 60s and 70s, concurrent with the reign of the Judson Dance Theater.  Waring was known as much for the colorful, mosaic-like costumes he sewed for his dancers as for the dances themselves.  Although he taught ballet, his movement palette was much broader.

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Steven Melendez in Feathers

“Feathers” was made in 1973 for Raymond Johnson, a fiery, black man, taken too soon by AIDS.  It is dedicated to Barbette, a French, transvestite trapeze artist.  Menendes, wearing a tunic dress and a feathered mask (by Taalson Nolan after Waring’s original), moves laterally in two-dimensional, archaic poses like Grecian friezes, and deep backward hinges.  Danced to selections by Mozart, the solo was staged by Ronald Dabney. 

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Mayu Oguri in An Eccentric Beauty Revisited

“An Eccentric Beauty Revisited” (1972) is set to Erik Satie’s “La Belle Excentrique” for piano, four hands, and staged by Byer.  The costume – recreated by Taalsohn Nolan after Leon Bakst’s original costume for Nijinsky – has a crown and a short, stiff tunic in gold with red and blue highlights.  Mayu Oguri danced with clarity and verve.  Like most of Byer’s dancers, Oguri has the potential to be vivid with more stage experience and the daring to take greater ownership of her dancing.


photos by Darial Sneed

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013 


20th of March 2013
 

CARTE BLANCHE

The final attraction of the Ice Hot Festival of Nordic Dance companies was Norway’s National Company of Contemporary Dance, Carte Blanche.  The company biography notes percentages of ownership by the country, county, and city, which makes it seem more like a business proposition than an undertaking of artistic passion.  That may help to explain the impression it gave that its dancers are not important as individuals but are simply cogs in a machine.  

“Corps de Walk” is an ensemble piece for the company’s dozen dancers, which is directed by Bruno Heynderickx.  It was created in 2011 by Batsheva alumna Sharon Eyal and her event producer husband Gai Behar.  Twelve anonymous ciphers of varied shapes and sizes move like rhythmic automatons throughout the hour-long dance, accompanied by various selections of pulsating disco, house, and rock music by the likes of Lichuk, David Byrne, Aphex Twin, Noize Creator, Coil, and others with a little Debussy for a change of pace.

The dancers wear nude-colored unitards (designed by Eyal and Behar), have their hair plastered back and colored blond – including the black male dancer – and wear blue contact lenses.  Lighting designer Torkel Skjærven articulates beams of white light with copious stage fog.  The light casts the dance in a kind of miasma; we feel like we’re inside some arcane video game.

Not only does the costume concept purposely make the dancers anonymous, the program fails to include any brief biographies or photos of them.  The dancers aren’t uniformly skilled or sufficiently drilled in some movement details, even though the visual exposure of their costumes makes accuracy and uniformity essential to the work’s impact.  

As the title implies, the dance is a study of group walking with recurring motifs and patterns that build a kind of persistence; it can become either hypnotic or soporific.  The tempo remains pretty even throughout, so the different selections of music simply put different shades of lipstick on the same old mouth.  Some of the patterning is effective, if not innovative.  The splicing lines, moving from opposite sides of the stage, forming and dissolving rows of threes and fours maintain the pace of action but give us little new information. 

The dance has a perversity about it, whether it’s meant to or not.  All that close-order unison, canons, crisp isolations, and endless walking must take a toll on the poor, anonymous dancers.  And some of them, while obviously fine technicians, get perfunctory wtih their dynamic snaps and pops.  Other dancers seemed unable to manage the demands for precision of the choreography.  Nowadays, it’s rare that the dancers are not uniformly expert, but it would not be surprising if the combination of anonymity and monotony had sapped their morale of this corps.

Photos by Erik Berg


© Gus Solomons jr, 2013

19th of March 2013
 

DANISH DANCE THEATER

photo by Bjarke Ørsted

One remarkable thing about the Dansk Danse Teater (Danish Dance Theatre), directed since 2001 by British-born Tim Rushton, is that only one of the troupe’s dozen dancers is actually Danish – and she’s of African descent.  Denmark’s most widely acclaimed contemporary dance company brought Rushton’s “Love Songs” to the Joyce Theater, March 11-13, as part of the Ice Hot: Nordic Dance Festival.  

Rushton describes the hour-long dance as a “celebration of life” that uses jazz classics, originally sung by the likes of Ella (Fitzgerald), Louis (Armstrong), Billie (Holliday), and Sarah (Vaughan), all reinterpreted by Danish jazz artist Caroline Henderson.

`But nothing about “Love Stories,” including its title, veers far from the expectable. The movement involves sliding in socks (the new dance shoes), passionately swirling arms, crotch-baring hyper-extensions, and more than a tolerable amount of running onstage into place, doing a brief phrase, and running off again – all straight from the catalog of overused contemporary devices.  An oft-repeated motif involves dancers spinning with a leg lifted to the side and crooked over an arm. 

The first part of the piece involves people rising from a row of chairs, lined up across the rear of the stage under a starlit sky (lighting by Thomas Bek and Jacob Bjerregaard); they do fleeting duets that alternate with group passages.  Sometimes the pairings are in unison, sometimes in counterpoint.  The fleeting physical encounters aren’t long enough to establish any emotional connections.  Luca Marazia is a kind of host/ringmaster, prancing his miniature frame across the stage, always trying to belong. 

It’s a presentational celebration of the dancers’ considerable chops.  They do fast – or slow, depending on the song – difficult steps, which would be more compelling were there a greater variety of them.  Björn Nilsson gets dating advice from “the girls” in a recorded voice- over; all of the couples smooch – some fake it – to “My First Kiss.”

Then, after a curious, onstage costume change, upstage in semi darkness, there’s a change of emotional mood.  The new costumes (Charlotte Østergaard) are pretty similar to the ones before it – casual wear in neutral colors – except that now some of the women have shinier, semi-formal dresses and a few of the men sport suit jackets.  A series of extended duets in this part constitute the substance of the work.

In “All of Me,” lanky Milou Nuyens (Netherlands) and handsome Erik Nyberg (Sweden) toss each other around like rowdy teammates as much as lovers; she’s tall, strong, and about his height.  The old chestnut “My Funny Valentine” backs an interracial encounter between Maxim-Jo Beck McGosh (African-Danish) and partner Fabio Liberti (Italy by way of Rotterdam.)  He’s tall; she’s short.  She repeatedly sprints across the stage and hurls herself at him into flying catches that were gasp inducing last century, but are now routine.

The only couple that ignites emotional sparks is Ana Sendas and Stefanos Bizas (Portugal and Greece, respectively.)  The heartbreaking song “Lilac Wine” by James Shelton inspires the most eloquent choreography of the evening.  The two might be wrestling with a disintegrating love affair or reconciling after a split.  She scales his body in a series of simple but meaningful, aspiring lifts.   

Despite the talented cast, the piece lacks the emotional impact we’d like from such a nicely concise dance evening, a jazzy, jukebox suite that’s as pleasantly bland as the term “international” implies.  A strenuous running-in-place section to “Thanks for the Memories” creates rousing, if predictable, finale.  But it must be said, the Joyce audience ate it up.

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013

9th of February 2013
 

SPLICE: NEAL BEASLEY AND BRADLEY TEAL ELLIS

SPLICE (February 6-10), one of an impressive array of presentations offered by Dance New Amsterdam, presented works by Bradley Teal Ellis and Neal Beasley.  Their show alternates scenes by each choreographer.  The audience is free to wander throughout the space, and stand or sit on the floor and a few chairs clustered around the posts in the space.  Certain audience members have received tokens upon entering, and – in a throwback to the sixties – “audience participation” is once again more the rule than the exception in downtown productions.

Ellis, a cordial, young, Brooklyn-based improviser greets us and chooses three of the pre-chosen audience members to represent his family for a photo portrait.  First, there are the conventional shots – smiling family in different poses.  Then, Ellis puts black velvet cones over the heads of his ”parents” and a red S&M hood on his “brother,” who happens to be portrayed by a woman this evening.  The black cones are disturbingly reminiscent of KKK hoods.  

Family portrait from (american guilt)

With a bouquet of flowers in Mother’s arm, Old Glory in the hand of Father, and a picture frame held by Brother, the picture takes on sinister overtones.  In harsh silhouette, Ellis improvises on the floor in front of his ersatz family.  The fact that we can barely see the movement in Mandy Ringger’s bright back lighting only adds to the bizarreness of the scene.

Ellis calls his piece “(american) guilt.”  In its three other vignettes, he, David Rafael Botana, and John Hoobyar, dress in variations of white underwear, and all wear shiny, fabric hoods (by costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley III) that split the difference between S&M and Kabuki.  

Inspired by the practice of DJs to demarcate life from performance by wearing masks, a program note explains, “…the performers are masked, [their] identities concealed from the viewer,” giving them permission, “to act out their own guilty conscience, pleasures and habits without judgment.”  

Ellis in (american) guilt

In the first vignette, assisted by an audience volunteer, whom they dress in a shimmery, black cloak and royal neck ruff that’s held up by helium balloons.  While he watches, the masked men, they bind and unbind themselves with a fat, golden rope that pussyfoots around the notion of bondage.  At one point, the pair winds the rope into a coil, in and out of which they suggestively pulse the free end of the rope.  Then, they fashion the rope into a crude noose.  That’s about as “guilty” as consciences get.  But the vices of this  anonymous trio are pretty tame.  

Beasley in his “every adam belonging to me” drags on a child’s red wagon, strews clothing on the floor from a big tote, strips naked, and puts on a fake beard and overalls that give teasing glimpses of his nudity underneath.  He wraps a ball of twine around two of the theater’s posts and an A-ladder to form a triangular cage, lit by a naked lightbulb.  

He’s accompanied by his own recorded voice, mixed with Beethoven’s Larghetto from the Violin Concerto in D major and ambient natural sounds.  Beasley speaks in a resonant announcer’s baritone text by him and Elizabeth Gilbert about the “history of America,” in which frontier heroes like Pecos Bill lose their pioneer spirit and become as civilized as Europeans.  

Beasley in every adam belonging to me

In the next part, Beasley dons a parka, white briefs, and a wig.  He clings desperately to the ladder, sliding at Butoh-like pace to the ground.  This time the recorded voice is garbled and angry; all that’s intelligible are frequent curse words.  And in the final section, Beasley again changes in full view into jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers and does the closest thing he’s yet done to a dance, while the recorded voice, over rain and thunder, describes a violent sexual attack.  The contrast between the text, which sounds autobiographical, and his gentle, angular movement is truly poignant.

Beasley in every adam belonging to me

Both these young artists are dealing with issues of taboo sexuality and danger, but Beasley moves us because he lets us relate to him as a human, and his intention seems more specific and clearly articulated.  In Ellis’s final section – a series of contact duets, rotating partners – the hoods come off; we finally can see them as people, not just sexualized avatars. 

photos by Ian Douglas

© Gus Solomons jr, 2013


6th of January 2013
 

THE PETER PRINCIPLE

According to Wikipedia – the ultimate authority on everything and everybody – the Peter Principle is a belief that where promotion is based on success and merit, the worthy will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability.

Through no conscious plan, I happened to see “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The Old Man and the Old Moon” within a week of each other.  It’s hard to miss the similarities between the two shows.  Both have casts of youngish males (except for Wendy in “Peter”) and both intersperse music with text and lively action.  Both shows left me a little unsatisfied, due, it would seem, to a variant of this Peter Principle (pun too fortuitous not to be intended.)  

The former show began its NYC life at the New York Theater Workshop, an Off-Broadway venue in the East Village, and thence with glowing success, moved to the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway.  The latter production, created by a collaborative of recent Carnegie Mellon undergraduate drama graduates, calling themselves Pigpen Theater, is currently running at the gym at Judson Church – a recently established Indie theater in the West Village.  Both shows are slated to close in January.  

In “Old Man,” watching the earnest guys singing and playing their guitars, keyboard, drums, and an accordion; manipulating shadow puppets lit from behind sheets to act out an original myth of theirs, based on various world folklore, you think, “Promising” – vaguely Irish accents notwithstanding.  But in act two of the two-hours-plus production the pace begins to flag.  

Despite captivating bits, scattered throughout – shipwrecked sailors floating in a hot air balloon, bedeviled by an impish puppet dog, made out of a bleach bottle and a rag mop; or a shadow-puppet version of the Old Man, climbing his endless ladder to refill the leaky moon with light – the piece is desperately in need of trimming.

We know that finally the Old Man is going to find his itinerant wife, refill the leaky moon, restore the universe to balance, and live happily ever after, so get on with it. Whether because no one is listed as director to cut the fat and tighten the pace, or because these young actors have an exaggerated view of their own importance, the second act soon begins to drag.   

Photo by Joan Marcus. “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” l-r: Curtis Gillen, Alex Falberg, Dan Weschler, Anya Shahi, Matt Nuernberger, Ben Ferguson, Ryan Melia

Lydia Fine’s shadow puppets and miniature props are wonderfully detailed, and the multi-level stage design (by Fine and Bart Cortright) is physically challenging, though most of the action takes place on the floor level, which is visible to only the first row of the audience.  Fine and Cortright make use of flashlights, scoop lights, and a few conventional overhead instruments to create an atmospheric world of light and dark.

Pigpen Theater made a splash at the 2010 and 2011 NYC Fringe Festivals, which emboldened them to take on an extended run off-Broadway, which in my opinion may be premature: Peter Principle!  The lack of an objective outside directorial eye to make and keep the show’s tempo effervescent detracts from a potentially enchanting show.   

Photo by Joan Marcus.  Lydia Fine’s vessel on its sea voyage.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is a pithier piece – a kind of prequel to “Peter Pan,” written by Rick Elice and based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  Its characters are more fully fleshed out and authoritatively rendered than in “Old Man,” and the script is rich with hilarious punning and word play.  It is smartly staged and tightly paced by directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.  Its cast of 12 men and one woman (the effervescent Celia Keenan-Bloger as Wendy) do a splendid job with special mention for Matthew Saldivar’s Black Stache – a Groucho Marx-inspired villain who becomes Captain Hook, when in a show-stopping display of physical humor, he slams a trunk lid on his hand and severs it.  This is, hands down, the comic highpoint of the show. 

Photo by Joan Marcus. “Peter and the Starcatcher,” (center) Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat and the cast

While I enjoyed “Peter” and laughed a lot, I kept feeling it was somehow not quite “big” or “brash” enough to fill a 1000-seat, Broadway house.  The intimacy of NYTW were apparently just right – right enough, in fact, to propel them into a Broadway run.  

On second thought, perhaps it’s only my expectation about what $120 a seat should be buying that leaves me less than sated.  It’s like relishing a delicious, thirty-dollar entrée, and then discovering it’s actually twice the price.

Maybe our expectations have escalated so that we need flying actors, complete with scandal, or ravishing people-as-puppets – i.e., Julie Taymore – or scenery whizzing in and out, up and down, or the cache of movie stars in limited Broadway runs of classic plays to give you that can’t-eat-another-bite, no-room-for-dessert satisfaction on Broadway.  I don’t know exactly how the economic model works on and off Broadway, but it’s not hard to guess that escalating production costs make the only financially sensible way to survive is a run on Broadway.

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

17th of December 2012
 

LES BALLETS JAZZ DE MONTRÉAL

Tropical storm Sandy wiped out the run of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal in November, but the Joyce was able to reschedule the company for a 4-performance run, December 13-16.  Opening night was graced by the attendance of Pauline Marois, the premier of Quebec, surrounded by an entourage of security, and there was a full house to greet the Canadians.

The company’s dozen strong, well-trained, and appealing dancers give the first two pieces on the program more choreographic credibility than they deserve.  The opener “Zero In On” (2010) by Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto, danced with obligatory acrobatics by petite red-headed Céline Cassone and all-American looking Kevin Delaney (he’s from Minnesota), and “Night Box,” a world premiere by Chinese dance maker Wen Wei Wang – a disco-flavored throwback to the sixties, which rehashes club moves in a miasma of projected film and flashing lights – are both less than profound, let’s say. 

The lighting is memorable, mostly for its activeness.  Soto designed the lighting concept for his muscle-bound duet, “Zero In On.”  Half the stage has light gray flooring and a lighting beam, hung on a diagonal that starts on the ground, upstage center, and soars to the top of the proscenium, downstage left.  It is hung with a few light instruments that “zero” our attention “in” on the dancers.  

Light designer Daniel Ranger makes the most of this odd configuration to keep the dancers interestingly lit.  They wear off-white leotards and shin warmers, covering all but bare thighs – also conceived by Soto – that turn tem into sexy pawns.  The dance’s predictably distorted neo-classic shapes and break-neck pace are driven – predictably – by Philip Glass music.  

“Night Box” involves the full company in an ode to urbanity.  Choreographer Wang seems awe-struck by the big city.   To a collection of techno music, heads bobble in unison in tight clumps; arms pump the air in arrant quotations from the disco lexicon that only music videos can still get away with.  During a duet, the others tiptoe across the stage in front, then in back of them.  There’s an obligatory aggressive men’s section, jazz runs, and strutting with attitude.  It’s an endless collection of clichés that fill time without payoff.

Lighting designer James Proudfoot flashes the lights and lowers and raises lighting pipes, which along with the film helps distract us from the banality of the movement.  The progression of scenes leads to a final, relatively quiet duet for the company’s star dancer, Cassone, who seems to be unwell, signaled by her frequent collapses into the arms of her partner.  Finally though, she walks towards us, as lights fade.

But the final ballet, “Harry,” also a world premiere by Israeli-American choreographer Barak Marshall sends you out of the theater thinking, at least momentarily, Wow that was a great show.  But on reflection you realize that for half the evening it was the performing that you recall, not the material.  

“Harry” is theatrical, darkly funny, and so accomplished in its craft that it reminds you what separates real choreography from just skillful dance making.  Marshall employs a mélange of musical selections – from Tommy Dorsey and the Andrews Sisters to Balkan Beat Box, Warsaw Village Band, and Wayne Newton – to further the journey of his hero, who is alternately a regular Joe and a mythic hero.

Harry undergoes the travails of a wayward god; he dies and is revived numerous times.  He limns TV’s The Bachelor, seeking the woman with the lid that fits his saucepan.  He faces a firing squad of powder-filled balloons.  The wronged women shoot their men dead, using similar balloon artillery.  We hear strains of ‘Stardust” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” as well as bits of Klezmer music.

Marshall inserts enough dancing to knit the dramatic scenes together.  And those dance passages reveal a unique vocabulary of gesturing and quick direction changes with rhythmic play that is constantly unexpected, surprising, and fresh.  A battle scene is a delicious etude of movement canons, and the women in close formation do hand signing – whether or not it’s actual sign language is immaterial.  It’s all purposely stylized to indicate deep emotionality without the actual wrenching of guts.

Marshall manages to combine text, narrative, and original movement into an irresistible mix.  At the end, the cast faces us, acknowledging that everything is going to be happily-ever-after.  There’s even a choreographed encore, which gets performed whatever the audience response.  On opening night, most of the audience was eager to see it.

Note: The dancer identities included here had to be inferred from program cast lists.  No dancer photos were included in press materials.  And the only photos available were of “Zero In On,” in which is a dancer who did not perform with the company.  That’s a shame, as the dancers deserve individual credit.  

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012


11th of December 2012
 

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Yannick Lebrun and Jacqueline Green in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik

It’s a bit ironic that the centerpiece of the Alvin Ailey Company’s Family Matinee on December 8 is “Petite Mort,” which is French slang for orgasm.  But since most of the parents didn’t know that, what they and their kids enjoyed was a beautifully composed ballet, entertaining in its virtuosity and invention, and of course, performed with Ailey’s signature urgency and technical prowess.

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The 1991 ballet by brilliant Czech choreographer Jiri Kilián begins with six muscular men in gold brocade Speedos, backing towards us with swords balanced on one finger.  After their precision swordplay, they sweep a swath of black silk to obscure the stage, and in the wake of its billow appear six women, sitting split-legged in front of the men.

The ensuing series of man-woman duets represent the most sensual of couplings and intertwining of human bodies imaginable.  Kilián – who has now largely abandoned choreographing for filmmaking – was a master of finding unexpected, surprising ways for men to lift women.  Here, the lifting often involves bodies passing between each other’s legs or men clutching the women’s inner thighs as handles for swooping them through space.

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Jamar Roberts and Alicia Graf Mack in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik

In contrast to Nederlands Dance Theater renditions of the ballet – whose dancers are mainly ballet trained – all the dancer pairings in this Ailey version, handsomely staged by Patrick Delcroix, put more emphasis on sensuality than linear purity, which adds welcome vitality and emotional immediacy to the dance.

All the couples – Belen Pereyra and Jermaine Terry, Rachel McLauren and Kirven James Boyd, Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, Linda Celeste and Glen Allen Sims, and Akua Noni Parker and Antonio Douthit – move seamlessly through their complicated mechanics.  But most breathtaking pair is Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts, both of whom are god-like in their height, elegance, and dynamic power.  It’s a gift to have Mack – this season’s poster woman – back in the company after a hiatus.

The program opens with the world premiere of “Another Evening” by in-demand, young dance maker Kyle Abraham, which is a setting of Dizzy Gilllespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” in the epic recording by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.    

Abraham himself is a silky, quixotic mover, and the opening solo he’s given Jaqueline Green reflects the aspects of his style.  It combines street attitude with modern/ postmodernism, African, and club dance, and Green pulls it off in style.  She’s spot lit (Dan Scully’s lighting) and blue floor lights around the periphery obscure what’s beyond the rectangle of light.

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra and Antonio Douthit in Kyle Abraham’s Another Night. Photo by Paul Kolnik

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Hope Boykin and Aisha Mitchell in Kyle Abraham’s Another Night. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Other dancers enter from behind those lights at the back and sides – first two, then four, then more.  The structure of the piece and its use of space is typical of Ailey works we’re used to.  The dance is a fast-paced series of duets, solos, and group passages that maintain the music’s energy.  One African-esque unison phrase is either an homage to (or an unconscious appropriation of) Ronald K. Brown, who also contributes often to Ailey’s repertory.  Smartly, Abraham occasionally puts a brake on the hyperactivity by having a bunch of dancers stopping dead on one leg with the other foot hooked behind the standing knee, and the focus, arms, and trunks twisting and bending in unison.   

Abraham’s dances for his own troupe A/I/M (Abraham in Motion) are less predictably composed, but for his debut outing with the Ailey Company, he has proven that he knows what its audience expects.  New Ailey director Robert Battle is wisely trying to stretch the repertory into places stalwart Ailey fans have not yet been – as with “Petite Mort” and last season’s “Minus 16,” a choreographic tour de force by Israel’s most established choreographer Ohad Naharin.  Next time – and there should be one – Abraham should be more esthetically daring.

As a tidbit, opening the second act of the program, Kanji Segawa dances Battle’s “Takademe” (1999), a step-for-note matching of Sheila Chandra’s vocal percussion aria, “Speaking in Tongues II.”  Segawa’s rhythms and timing match Chndra’s vocal machinations with eerie precision: a showstopper.

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Kanji Segawa in Robert Battle’s Takademe. Photo by James R. Brantley

And the perennial “Revelations,” ever-green after fifty-two years has become an interactive experience with the audience, who greets the next music with a cheer, applauds especially difficult-looking moves, and claps in rhythm to the final, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations with cast of 50. Photo by Christopher Duggan

In this matinee performance, children from the Ailey School and members of the Ailey II Company join the company in several sections.  The students have been well drilled, and the AIley II dancers are but a few seasons away, perhaps, from a place in the main company.  Since the 50th anniversary of the dance, the cast has bloated to fifty.  At times, the stage is as crowded as a rush hour subway car.  In the finale, in fact, the dancing spills off the stage with couples dancing in the aisles. 

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

10th of December 2012
 

MUSEUM AS THEATER AND VICE VERSA? – SOME SWEET DAY

With the welcome return of power and water to my apartment after Storm Sandy’s havoc, I took myself to MoMA for the last weekend of this latest dance in the museum phenomenon that has recently infused museums with living art.  This one, called “Some Sweet Day,” curated by Ralph Lemon featured choreographers Sarah Michelson and Deborah Hay.  

In this large-scale project – inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Judson Dance Theater, which bred experimental dance in the 60s – Judsonites Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Hay, paired with younger experimental counterparts, Jerome Bel, Dean Moss, and Michelson, respectively, displayed their artistic viewpoints for an avid public.

The works I saw on the final weekend posed interesting questions about the nature of artistic inspiration not just dance making.  First up was British dancer-turned-choreographer Michelson, who’s built a rabid following for her slick, persistent movement essays and, perhaps not incidentally, for her leading dancer Nicole Mannarino, a dancer of impressive stamina and presence.  

With the audience sitting and standing on two sides of the atrium and others watching from balconies above, Michelson builds her dance, “Devotion #3,” around a simple motif – hands clasped behind the back, Mannarino moves side to side, toes, heels, toes, then crosses one foot over the other – to which she adds small variations: a high kick, a deep lunge, arms flying overhead, hooking up her leg as if to gaze at the sole of her sneaker.  Between stints of ferocious action, she strides across the massive space and continues in another location.    

At the same time, James Tyson is doing similar movement material on the floor below – invisible to us in the atrium.  For a few brief seconds he joins Mannarino in the atrium, then exits, perhaps to continue on other levels.  His role is puzzlingly insignificant for the main audience, which by the end may not even remember his appearance, since Mannarino totally rivets our attention.

Hay’s “Blues” is based on her impression that the regular museum audience is overwhelmingly white.  She deploys a group of white women in black leotards – like the pioneers of modern dance, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, Valerie Bettis, etc. – who silently form and reform a circle in various locations throughout the atrium.  The audience migrates to surround each of their circles, while a dozen dancers of color, each wired with an earpiece and microphone taped to their faces, dance amidst them.  The dancers are responding improvisationally to the music in their ears, which is later revealed to be a song, made up by Hay in Paris that reminded her of the blues.  

The contrast between Michelson’s obsessive control and Hay’s laissez-faire approach, which allows maximum freedom for the performers, creates a relation between the two works, which are stylistically a galaxy apart.  

Seeing dance performed in a museum setting raises different questions about it than seeing it in a theater.  Without theatrical trappings – lighting, costumes, etc. – we’re less concerned with execution than artistic intention.  Michelson’s piece raises the issue of how complicit a dancer is in her own exploitation.  Hay’s work could be interpreted as a comment on racism, considering the hierarchy of roles of the white and black dancers in her cast.  The white women in black draw attention by mere dint of their silent presence, while the multi-racial performers in colorful clothing, excluded from the inner sanctum, must work harder to draw our attention.  At one point they surround the sacred circle but are not allowed inside it.  This might also refer back to the exclusivity of the Judson Group, which included no one of color, although some in the downtown community did share their esthetic point of view. 

Coincidentally, another movement artist performed in a museum – Arturo Vidich at the Museum of Art and Design.  His showing culminated a three-month residency there.  Far from a finished piece, Vidich presented studies for “The Daedalus Effect and other dilemmas,” improvisational ideas he’s been exploring in collaboration with a series of artists who made objects for him to interact with.  The finished piece will be presented later this season.

The showing (November 9-10) took place not in a spacious gallery but in the museum’s small basement theater.  The space is suitable for lectures and perhaps string quartets – the stage is too shallow to accommodate a grand piano – but hardly adequate for theatrical performance of any kind except maybe puppet shows.

Vidich distributes his sculptures around the space – an aisle, the front row on the left, there’s a loaf-like lump with curved wires supporting it like a daddy long-leg spider; In the right aisle stand two rectangular prisms, one with a silver helix hanging inside, the other with an LED lamp.  Spread across the stage is a two-foot high, blue cylinder with white cords radiating from holes near its top, a light on a stand, and a Vornado floor fan. 

As the audience enters, Vidich in salmon jeans and a gray T-shirt chats with friends or sits under the spider.  When the presentation starts, Vidich emerges from offstage right, pushing the podium and wearing a contraption on his back.  He proceeds to manipulate all the props, moving up one aisle and down the other, getting entangled treacherously in the hardware, toppling over, and extracting himself.

Onstage, bare-chested and wearing a monochrome facemask, Vidich dances his unique style that combines elements of modern dance, club dance, and world dance.  His body is a miraculous instrument, as beautifully proportioned as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and even more muscularly articulated. 

He sinks to the ground and rebounds on steel-spring legs, stands on one high-arched foot while fluidly distorting his torso.  On the cramped stage, he twists himself into precarious balances and springs out of them with feline agility.  

Although this showing does not represent a finished piece, it has much more in common with artistic process than either of the pieces at MoMA.  Vidich’s showing, which showed more about process deserved a gallery setting, while Michelson’s and Hay’s pieces would feel completely comfortable on a theater stage.

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

 

TERE O’CONNOR

Tere O’Connor has highly refined notions about how to make dances, and he is devoted to old-fashioned compositional craftsmanship.  Although his inspirations range widely, his motion-based dances defy the artistic fashion of the moment.  His new dances at New York Live Arts (November 27-December 1) show him continuing to refine his choreographic vision, free of political undertones, literal connotations, and sometimes transitions.  

“Secret Mary” and “poem” unfold mysteriously and inevitably on NYLA’s big, bare, black stage, shifting from one series of motifs to another, as each is developed – or not – to the extent O’Connor needs to.  The dancers wear clothing assembled by James Kidd, and Michael O’Connor’s lighting combines subtle shifts and radical changes that effectively underscore the dancing.

O’Connor’s movement defies stylistic cubby-holes, although fast footwork passages and his decorative use of arms dancers’ make it obvious there’s ballet in his background.  He elicits kinetic contributions from his diverse dancers, and encourages them to move with precision but without affect.  His work thereby remains abstract, although it’s cast fills it with humanity moments of literal-ness.  

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l-r: Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Mary Read, Ryan Kelly

In “Secret Mary,” danced without musical sound by Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Ryan Kelly, and Mary Read, some are more comfortable than others with O’Connor’s non-presentational-ism.  When reedy Read attempts to get floppy, her strong technical roots peek through; rather than embodying the quirkiness, she demonstrates it from outside in.  

On the other hand Dworman has a natural, pedestrian ease without blurring her shapes or dynamics.  Former ballet dancer Kelly immerses himself convincingly in O’Connor’s eccentric vision.  And androgynous emory, who deliberately erases – even in her program bio – all reference to gender, moves with confident determination and soft-edged clarity.

The dance moves along with minimal recapitulation; the mysterious journey progresses, sweeping us along in its wake.  O’Connor’s movement is its own message, but occasionally an image it evokes is ineffably literal.  Fussy hand gestures in places seem to indicate food preparation (O’Connor is a gourmet cook.)  And he final moment looks like a murder; it takes you aback, emotionally.  

The five dancers in the longer “poem” – Natalie Green, Heather Olson, Michael Ingle, Oisin Monahghan, and Silas Riener – inhabit the space for its entire 42-minute duration. No one exits, even when we are focused on a solo or duet; everyone is engaged throughout in an ongoing, evanescent life.  

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l-r: Silas Riener, Michael Ingle, Natalie Green, Oisin Monaghan, Heather Olson 

Animated physical conversations give way to leisurely chats.  Olson and Green lounge on the ground, calling “switch” and shifting position.  In their duet, Olson and Ingle stand close together, arms in a high vee-shape, poking the air above and beside their heads.  The three men lie on their backs, shaping their legs into kaleidoscopic patterns.  

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l-r: Silas Riener, Michael Ingle, Oisin Monaghan

O’Connor’s choices of dancers ranges broadly in degree of physical articulation from Ingle, who is more of a dramatic than lyrical dancer, to former Cunningham Company star Riener, who is hyper-refined technically and balls-to-the-wall athletic in his attack.  The onstage compatibility of such disparities serves to increase the power of O’Connor’s vision, and his disparate choices coexist compatibly.  

Photo by Ian Douglas

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

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