D.C. DanceWatcher

On the Good Foot

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on May 8, 2022

Four works emphasize Havana Company’s drive, indomitable spirit, and unassailable technical abilities

Malpaso Dance Company
Choreographic Works by Aszure Barton, Daileidys Carrazana, Mats Ek and Ohad Naharin
Kay Theatre, The Clarice, University of Maryland
College Park, Md.

April 27, 2022

By Lisa Traiger

Malpaso’s Dunia Acosta in Mats Ek’s “woman with water.” Photo Tiffany Besire.

It’s been a little more than a decade since Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana walked away from Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, where they were company members, to create their own independent troupe. With Fernando Saez, who brought business management and fundraising to the mix, together in 2012, they formed Malpaso Dance Company. In the decade since, the Havana-based company has grown into one of the foremost modern repertory companies in the world. Under the auspices of New York’s Joyce Theater Productions, Malpaso has built more than a foothold in the international contemporary dance scene by acquiring works from the likes of modernist iconoclast the late Merce Cunningham; Swedish choreographer Mats Ek; former house choreographer and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharin; and commissions from Rennie Harris, Aszure Barton, Trey McIntyre, and Sonya Taya to name a few. And simultaneously, both Delgado and Carranzana have been crafting works with an undeniable Cuban flair for the company.

In Washington, the troupe has danced at both Dance Place and the Kennedy Center. Wednesday, April 27, 2022, after a two-year-plus delay, Malpaso made its debut at the University of Maryland’s Kay Theatre, presented by The Clarice. Four pieces showcased the ten dancers’ drive, indomitable spirit, and unassailable technical abilities. From my own quick visit to Havana in 2015, I learned that Cubans generally are a creative and musical people. And, wow, everyone in Cuba can dance! On Saturday afternoons, music wafts from dance halls and community centers where couples gather to salsa and socialize.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Barton’s hypnotic “Stillness in Bloom,” choreographed in 2021, is a pandemic piece in the subtlest of ways. It doesn’t feel constrained — like a good-many “living room”-sized and -shaped dances that were made last year for video and small stages. Avant-garde California-based jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire created a score that sets the dancers off into currents of movement then pauses for times of repose. Clad in a variety of workout wear in bright swatches of color, two men skitter backward meeting at center as successive dancers join and fill the space with effortless swift currents of backward movement images of whirlpools and eddies transform the blank canvas of the stage with an ever-changing color palette. As the group effortlessly maps invisible channels in the space, the dancers exit leaving a quartet who together bloom into balances, a pirouette here or there, upper body tilts and arcs, as a moody cello accompanies. A couple remains, the woman dragging her partner, he pushing her in effort-filled counterbalances. As the up-tempo Mingus-esque jazz riffs return, the dancers fill the stage once more. “Stillness in Bloom” coils and unwinds like a Fibonacci spiraling sequence, and the dancers navigate the easy scoots and complex pattern shifts with aplomb.

The program opened with a stunning solo, “Lullaby for Insomnia” by Carrazana, danced by the incomparable Heriberto Maneses. Channeling all the fidgets and fussing we go through on sleepless nights, Maneses, bare-chested wore black shorts, stretched and twisted his body, one leg lifting head high, as his torso tilted off-kilter. The piano composition by Jordi Sabates was mood-filled accompaniment with a touch of Latin flavor. Stabbing moments contrast with gentle rocking and cradling. Reveries gave way to frustrations, and throughout Maneses’s simultaneously bold and soft attack, his ability to shape and mold the empty space was riveting.

Mats Ek’s “woman with water” from 2021 resembles an abstract Bauhaus painting come to life. Vivid colors from a lime green table and dancer Dunia Acosta’s vibrant tangerine shift dress contrast with Osnel Delgado’s dark suit and the bare stage. And there’s a splash of refreshment: a clear pitcher and glass of water. Danced to a score by Fleshquartet, Acosta’s lanky flexibility as she lifts her leg sky high or curves her back against the table edge continues the linearity of the stark green table. She carries the pitcher and glass, pours some water, and drinks. And repeats. Delgado appears as the interloper; in the end, Acosta has collapsed and is literally swept off by Delgado, push broom in hand.

The evening closed with Naharin’s 1986 “Tabula Rasa.” The choreographer created the piece for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre more than 30 years ago and spent time in Havana in 2018 teaching Malpaso’s dancers the work. There have been changes; Naharin’s approach has changed as have the dancers. As well, the more formal costumes — slip dresses and slacks and puffy-sleeved tops for the men — have now become standard practice wear, t-shirts, leggings, or shorts for Malpaso’s dancers.

Malpaso. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The mesmerizing opening, an accumulation of dancers performing a simple side-to-side sway and step sideways, feels both calming and captivating. Naharin favors simple floor patterns — dancers in straight lines, diagonals, or circles — on which he overlays a movement language he named gaga. Gaga demands deep focus and awareness from the dancers and absolute attentiveness to how their bodies move from the inside out, asking them to reach internally for motivation. The result is an often visceral, earthy sense of attack.

In “Tabula Rasa,” which was created relatively early in Naharin’s choreographic career, we can see him thoughtfully breaking down the standard and expected movement motifs of dance’s system to discover a more authentic driver for his own dances. Atop that initial sideways sway step, one dancer stops, interrupting the pattern, the sway. There are unison large group moments along with pairings and solos. Sometimes the repetitive music by Arvo Part crescendos and then it softens. Later, one couple is left alone on stage for a sensual physical duet. They contort and contract, one drags the other like a sack of potatoes, before the group returns in a flinging sequence of arms and runs circling the stage. The piece ends as simply as it began — a dancer alone curled into a fetal position. This “Tabula Rasa” suggests that we are all blank slates at birth.

This review originally appeared May 1, 2022, on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.
© 2022 Lisa Traiger

Battle Works

Posted in Uncategorized, Modern dance by lisatraiger on March 1, 2022

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Celebrates Choreography of Robert Battle

A tribute at Kennedy Center to his tenth anniversary as artistic director of the company and a collection of his dances on a single program.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Choreographic Works by Artistic Director Robert Battle
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.

February 4, 2022

By Lisa Traiger

Robert Battle’s “Takademe,” featuring Yannick Lebrun, photo by Andrew Eccles.

In the decade that Robert Battle has served as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — only its third since the company was founded in 1958 — he has choreographed just one work for the renowned and much-beloved company. Instead, with his eye for choreographic excellence, he has been programming and commissioning excellent works by Rennie Harris, Ronald K. Brown, Jessica Lang, Christopher Wheeldon, Aszure Barton, Kyle Abraham, and dozens of others. Thus, on the company’s annual wintertime visit to the Kennedy Center, an evening of Battle’s works was celebratory on two counts: marking his tenth anniversary with the company and collecting a body of his dances on a single program.

Friday, February 4, 2022, the all–Robert Battle program at the Opera House drew from the artistic director’s pieces dating back to 1999 up to his newest, which premiered in 2021. What we see in this body of work is an artist with a love for movement invention who displays facility in modern, jazz, and a bit of street or vernacular idioms with ease. He is also catholic — small c — in his musical choices, which range from opera arias to contemporary jazz, pop and blues, to Indian ragas. Music, in truth, plays an outsize role in shaping Battle’s choreographic explorations. Unlike some contemporary choreographers’ works that could be re-imagined or re-set to different accompaniment, Battle’s works wed completely movement and music.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s “Mass.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

“Mass,” which Battle originally created for Juilliard students in 2004, draws on spiritual and church images, particularly the union of choir members — as alluded to by Fritz Masten’s robed costumes. Sixteen dancers “play” John Mackey’s percussion score for xylophones and timpanis, as if visualizing the notes — highs and lows, runs and ritards set the dancers in motion, their robes flowing. They gather in groups, clumps, and join together en masse — think of choir practice and the sopranos, altos, and basses singing separate parts but coming together in a harmonized whole. That’s what Battle does with “Mass,” while also playing with the physical notion of mass — bodies in space joining together and breaking away. Sometimes their upright, then treading footsteps rearrange the dancers in space. Sometimes they lie prone, feet flexed as if toppled over. And while “Mass” de- and re-constructs movement across time and space, it also feels meditative and spiritual in its ongoingness, bodies reaching, seeking a higher purpose.

The newest work, “For Four,” from 2021, could be Battle’s “pandemic piece.” For four dancers — Chalvar Monteiro, Solomon Dumas, Belén Indhira Pereyra, Miranda Quinn — and with music by Wynton Marsalis, the jazzy piece is deceptively light, until it isn’t. Men and women in suspenders and dark suits execute Fosse-isms — off-kilter balances, hip switches, and body rolls — with panache. And to cross the stage, no one simply walks — they strut backside swinging, or tip forward chest and derriere thrust out, or sloooooow drag, or subtly sashay. The piece initially feels playful, like Marsalis’s jazzy riffs. Then an American flag — projected on the scrim — slides to the floor; as the lights darken, dancers play on as does the mood. The final image brings reality home: a single dancer with back to the audience lifts one arm, fist clenched in the dap or Black power gesture. Then his clenched fists cross at the wrists. Arms up. The years 2020 and 2021 were not just pandemic years but years that Black Lives Matter social justice protests dominated. In “For Four,” while far less confrontational than many recent works focusing on racial equity, Battle made his point.

Jeroboam Bozeman in Robert Battle’s “In/Side.” Photo by Dario Calmese.

Jeroboam Bozeman lays bare private struggles in “In/Side,” danced to the haunting voice of Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind.” We see Bozeman barechested, clad just in black briefs, the physical evocation of an emotional struggle, stretching and collapsing, dragging himself into a crawl, undulating his shoulders — wild, like the wind. “Unfold” features Bozeman supporting Jacqueline Green in a dramatically lustrous pas de deux to an aria sung by Leontyne Price. Green unfurls in a deep arch; later Bozeman catches her and sweeps her in arcs, in sensuous and soulful abandon. Dancer Kanji Sawa tackles one of Battle’s signature solos, “Takademe,” with playful aplomb. The brief solo matches quirky angular and staccato movements to British-Indian singer Sheila Chandra’s konnakol — or syllabic scat-style of singing. It’s a mini–tour de force of movement and music visualization. 

“Ella” takes a page from “Takademe,” this time a four-minute mile to the great Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting “Air Mail Special.” Rubbery walks and juicy jumps, quirky twists, a high-five or two, and plenty of kicks and hip switches leave both dancers and audiences breathless with the quick-footed audacity. An excerpt from “Love Stories,” featuring dancers costumed in yellow and orange jumpsuits, is another bright, jazzy crowd-pleaser that ends in a “get down” moment, the ten dancers each doing their own thing to Stevie Wonder accompaniment.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s “Mass.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

And, of course, no Ailey program is complete without “Revelations.” The classic work traces African American history through gospel songs and equally expressive movement drawing from earth-centered Africanist roots embodied in shuffling footwork, grounded walks, bent knees, undulating and articulated torsos, and, above all, an indomitable spirit. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but people attend an Ailey program like they attend church, to be moved. And “Revelations” has been moving and inspiring folks since its premiere in 1958. In fact, Battle himself once shared with me how, when he was a boy growing up in Florida, one of his early introductions to dance was seeing the Ailey company during a school program. Today he leads that very same company. That is inspirational.

This review originally appeared February 7, 2022, on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.
© 2022 Lisa Traiger

Another Swan

Posted in Ballet by lisatraiger on February 17, 2022

Swan Lake
The Washington Ballet
Staged by Julie Kent and Victor Barbee
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2022

By Lisa Traiger

As the apotheosis of classical ballet, Swan Lake has captivated audiences for more than a century. With its achingly poignant Tchaikovsky score and its resonant themes of the transformative power of love and the power of memory, accompanied by images of white tutu’ed ballerinas in swan-like formations, for many Swan Lake is the definitive ballet.

Gian Carlo Perez and Eun Won Lee in ‘Swan Lake.’ Photo by xmb Photography.

As frequently as this ballet is performed, nothing about producing Swan Lake is easy or ordinary. The Washington Ballet, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2019, just tackled its second production of this epitome of ballets. Under the company’s founder, the late Mary Day, it developed as a small chamber-sized troupe specializing in 20th-century contemporary ballet. Without the breadth or depth of a large troupe of classically trained dancers, Swan Lake wasn’t an option for the company until artistic director Septime Webre, who took the helm from Day, staged a Swan Lake coup in 2015. Webre’s production attracted worldwide notice for featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack as the first African American Odette and Siegfried in a major company.

Under the direction of retired American Ballet Theatre ballerina Julie Kent, The Washington Ballet’s second production of Swan Lake — lovingly and carefully staged with the assistance of Victor Barbee, the company’s associate artistic director (and Kent’s husband) — had been planned for 2020, but the pandemic halted performances.

Ballet lovers would likely call The Washington Ballet’s latest Swan Lake, which runs through Sunday, February 13, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, respectable, if uneven. The demands on the ballerina, who plays the dual role of Odette, the Swan Queen, and Odile, her evil imposter, are akin to playing Hamlet — outsized. On Thursday, the opening night cast featured Eun Won Lee, a ballerina with imperious technical abilities, among them clean and precise footwork and a purity of line, making her an obvious choice and Kent favorite. Yet the challenges of playing Odette demand more than technical excellence. Odette must reveal her soulful side, but also her longing and her hesitancy. She stands at the helm of a band of women like her cursed to be swans by day and humans at night. Their abode? A lake filled with her own mother’s tears. The only way to release the curse is a pure declaration of true and forever love.

The ballet opens at Prince Siegfried’s castle — in this production not the grandest, but a stately edifice with imposing steps that cramp the Eisenhower Theater stage. The opening celebratory atmosphere of the ballet — Siegfried has come of age and friends and courtiers arrive at the castle grounds to celebrate. Yet here he’s not the most popular of princes, his entourage, hangers-on, and friends are few and the stage feels far less busy and filled than in many productions. The Act One pas de trois featuring Ayano Kimura and Ashley Murphy-Wilson along with Ariel Martinez displayed precision, technical facility and allowed each dancer a moment to shine.

As Siegfried, Gian Carlo Perez captures that wavering moment between boy and man, uncertain of how he can take the next step and choose a bride and his desire for a boys’ night out – in this case hunting by the lakeside. Sona Kharatian, one of the company’s senior dancers, portrays his mother with dignity and high expectations — yet she seems too young for the role, even clad in heavy brocades. Some of the most natural moments of the evening are those between mother and son, when he turns to her with an “oh, Mom” look or when he seeks her comfort. Perez displays his finesse and ballon — ability to jump with ease — and as a partner, he’s unfailing.

The Washington Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ corps with Gian Carlo Perez and Eun Won Lee. Photo by xmb Photography.

Lee and Perez frequently dance together, yet their partnership felt surprisingly bereft of electricity and passion. Lee projects a cool and calm presence on stage — I’d say more of an ice princess than a hot-blooded dancer — so that first meeting between Siegfried and Odette in Act Two takes a while to warm up. Lee is far more reserved than many of my own past favorites in the role, among them Gillian Murphy, Nina Ananiashvili, and the gorgeous Russian-trained Natalia Markova.

As woman-turned-swan, Lee, alas, is more human than swan-like. Among the edifying choreographic moments in the ballet, here Kent and Barbee draw from the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 version the wing and bird-like arm gestures, undulating from the shoulders effortlessly and magnificently through to the fingertips. Lee, alas, doesn’t initiate from deep in the scapula, thus the arm-torso connection is not as evident, and her Odette finds less expression in the torso and shoulder girdle — ballet folks would call it epaulement.

In the climactic third act, as Odile, the sinister Black Swan meant to lead Siegfried astray, Lee uses her icy demeanor to advantage. Her brilliant and brittle technique is meant to mesmerize, and here Perez as Siegfried is completely taken in, vowing his love for the wrong woman — and dooming his true love to an eternity as a swan. It’s an exacting and technically difficult set of sequences of high-powered precise leaps, balances, and turns — featuring applause-garnering fouettes, whipping turns on one leg — that Lee pulls off without a blink. And behind her, whispering in her ear, lanky Stephen Nakagawa uses his stature to embody an imposing Von Rothbart, the sorcerer who cursed Odette.

Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez finish the Black Swan pas de deux in ‘Swan Lake.’ Photo by xmb Photography.

Act Three is also filled with a series of European cultural dances representing Spain, Hungary, Poland, and Italy — think of them as postcards from abroad, recalling that when the ballet was created in St. Petersburg 125 years ago, these locales seemed exotic. Each of these lively variations was well-performed, but again, the smaller stage space lent a less celebratory air to the act yet also felt more intimate.

In recreating this Swan Lake, Kent called on Russian ballet scholar Natalie Rouland, who dug into the history of the iconic work and drew from archival notations from the Harvard Theatre Collection and Russian librettos at the St. Petersburg Theatre Library. With these historic gleanings and the body-to-body legacy of the Petipa and Ivanov choreographies, The Washington Ballet’s production feels notably authentic and even includes a few surprises. Among them, in Act Four, in addition to the corps de ballet of 18 white swans, an additional six cygnets, clad in gray feathery tutus accompany their grown sister swans. As well, the beginning of this final act felt far brisker and bouncier than many versions, though I’m not certain if that was a musical change or just tempos. And, while the corps de ballet danced valiantly striving for uniformity, it was not always attainable. Blame it on the pandemic pause, when dancers couldn’t work together in the studio, or the small company roster with roles filled out by second-company members, but the ideal of a group of 18 dancers balancing, swaying, and even breathing in absolute unison hasn’t quite been attained.

Throughout the storytelling through ballet, mime was keenly articulate — not always the case for American companies — but Washington’s dancers have put much care and attention to conveying the dramatic meanings thus furthering the plot with ease. The ballet, which clocks in at a solid two hours and 45 minutes, was accompanied by a live orchestra led by conductor Charles Barker. The sets, from Ballet West in Utah, were serviceable and avoided outlandish updates or changes to the libretto, although they did feel tight on the Eisenhower stage.

With a mostly satisfying, if not exceptional, production under her belt, Julie Kent continues to mold The Washington Ballet into something that more closely resembles large mainstream repertory companies, particularly Kent’s former home base, American Ballet Theatre. The question arises, though, with the resources and national stature of The Kennedy Center, where at least one Swan Lake lands every year, does Washington need its own swan-filled production?

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on February 11, 2022, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2022 Lisa Traiger


Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on January 30, 2022

And Now, Hold Me
Directed and choreographed by Britta Joy Peterson,
with performance and movement collaboration by Sergio Guerra Abril and Dylan Lambert
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.

January 22-23, 2022

By Lisa Traiger

And Now, Hold Me, DCMTA screenshot.

Choreographer and ardent collaborator Britta Joy Peterson has been creating dance, video, and performance pieces in the Washington, DC, region since 2016, when she took a position as a professorial lecturer at American University in the District.

Her newest piece, And Now, Hold Me, is part of a trilogy Peterson began work on in 2014 or ’15, she said after Saturday evening’s program at Dance Place. Each work — including “Vinegar Spirit,” which came to Dance Place in January 2019 — wrestles with time and space in intentional ways to tease out philosophical and phenomenological concepts in a kinetic palette. What’s most interesting about this triptych of pieces is Peterson’s keen focus on space and how the introduction of bodies moving through it changes, literally, everything — the architecture, the meaning, the temperature, the feeling, even the air in the room reshapes itself. For And Now, Hold Me, a duet, the space designed by Elsa Rinde creates a stage within a stage demarcated by white PVC pipes slanted like a giant soccer goal framing the performers, with a white floor floating in the larger surrounding black void.

Two men, sharply dressed in wool coats, neat sweaters, slacks, and shoes, sit cross-legged on the floor looking like schoolboys awaiting roll call. “In the beginning … and now,” one intones. Then a monologue spoken in succession by both men, but not to one another, pours forth, in poetically Biblical cadences about flesh and how it’s in and of the world, the stuff of life, it provides a way of perceiving and making meaning. “Through flesh,” one says, “I know you.” Still seated, they twist, bend, windshield-wiper their knees, gesture in perfectly intricate unison and a low thrum of sound crescendos. Like twin brothers they rise and begin to disrobe. A shift in Evan Anderson’s lights transforms the backdrop, which appeared as colorful and white vertical blinds, into a loosely woven web of multicolored ribbon, which streams from a giant spool at the side of the stage. Dancer Dylan Lambert behind stage pulls ribbon from the endless spool and adds to the spidery tapestry.

Meanwhile, with slippery grace, Sergio Guerra Abril meanders between gestural brushes of his hair and loosely articulate twists, tumbles, balances that unwind and rewind, a manifestation of the unspooling ribbon. What becomes a series of episodes, silent playlets in a sense, is broken up by canned applause, when each performer pauses for an unironic bow. Guerra Abril dons a shimmery blouse, red go-go books, and a flouncy white skirt for a playful lipsync of “Desatame” by Monica Naranjo. His playful drag and voguing offer up a fantastic death drop — a split-second fall to the back, one leg sexily raised in the air.

Lambert then has his own bit of fun impersonation. Introduced by a few bars from Van Halen’s “Jump,” he enters with towel and yoga mat, converses with imagined gym rats about exercise, bitcoin, and dogecoin, all in perfect yoga-bro fashion.

Sergio Guerra Abril and Dylan Lambert in And Now, Hold Me

An improvisational duet on expected feminine and masculine tropes allows the dancers to tweak social and cultural expectations of the alpha male and bitchy female. Guerra Abril reads from a series of shlocky blog posts that advise that men should “take up more space to look more powerful” while women should “avoid pain at all costs.” All the while they tumble, lift, balance one another on a hip or shoulder in an easygoing improvisation. On either side, sign language interpreters make this and all the spoken word accessible.

As the work winds down, strains of Liszt’s dreamy “Liebestraum No. 3” build, shifting the demeanor of the space that has contained so many moments of bodies moving and filling the void, light painting over the darkness, architecture delineating the blank stage canvas. The two men begin packing up the clothing and props; the woven spidery tapestry, their own words and phrases, parsed out over the course of nearly an hour have reached a quiet moment of intimacy. “And, now … the end” arrives, but, still, they’re not finished. There’s one more thing to do.

They stand and, finally, hug, body to body, flesh to flesh. Two become one. Space and time have contracted and exploded. While And Now, Hold Me is absolutely not a “pandemic piece,” this moment of coming together resonated in a world where many people have not hugged or been hugged for nearly two years now as the ongoing challenges of isolation and quarantine continue to hold some hostage to COVID-19 and its variants. Peterson’s work meditates on time and space, with moments of moving beauty, irony, fun, and, finally, a thoughtful confluence of bodies and flesh. I’ve avoided writing on her work until now because I hadn’t found enough in it that appealed to me. In And Now, Hold Me, I discovered much that spoke to me, particularly through the exquisite performances of Abril and Lambert, as well as the finely conceived structure and expert production of Peterson’s artistic and advisory team. I’m glad I returned to her work to discover a deeply conceptual study of what it means to move and take up space. A solo dancer on stage evokes an individual’s world, but Peterson shows us that two people sharing space create a universe of possibilities.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on January 24, 2022, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2022 Lisa Traiger

From Mercy to Grace

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on October 28, 2021

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE
featuring “Mercy,” “The Equality of Night and Day: First Glimpse,” and “Grace”
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 21, 2021

By Lisa Traiger

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE in ‘Mercy.’ Photo by Ernesto Mancebo.

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown is the dance world’s preeminent preacher. His works — exquisitely performed Thursday (through Saturday) evening at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater — open the heart and lift the soul. EVIDENCE, the company he founded in 1985 in Brooklyn, gives voice to the cultural legacies and experiences of the African American community. The rich triptych of works, which spanned two decades, took the audience on a spiritual journey, accompanied by the historical underpinnings of the African American experience. 

Like a semiotician, Brown imbues his choreography with gestures, structures, postures, signs, and signifiers that embody the Black experience. There’s the grounded way his dancers walk and stand, knees juicy as they give in and rebound to gravity’s pull, while their upper bodies pronounce themselves as unselfconsciously powerful and graceful. And then the torso, spine, and shoulders that undulate in a subtle acknowledgment, again, of the natural energies land, sea, and air written into our bodies. 

Brown fashions his movement language with a complement of subtly semaphoric gestures that convey meaning — clenched fists, the dap or single raised fist, raised praising arms, arms up as if under arrest, and hand held at heart center. These and others become a revelatory vocabulary across the evening’s three works, without becoming mimetically obvious.

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE in ‘Mercy.’ Photo by Julietta Cervantes.

“Mercy” featured the accompaniment of Meshell Ndegeocello’s genre-slashing funk/soul/jazz/hip hop in a spare and contemplative score that shifts from meditative to a heavier rock beat allow the company of dancers to unfurl from simple walking to full-bodied tilts, bird-like arms in precarious balances, and whipping spins. The lighting by Tsubasa Kamei here is moody but a series of glowing fabric columns dispersed across the stage that hide and reveal the dancers lend a temple-like feel to the work. 

Yet the dancers enter walking backward, as if the world has turned upside down. In fact, it has. As the piece progresses the six women and five men navigate the space in quick-footed shuffles and effortless ease. At one moment, the men tumble to the floor as the women continue dancing; at another, there’s a freeze-frame hands-up/don’t-shoot gesture. The reality of our nation’s divisions and sins is embedded in the dance. A priestess-like figure, clad in a regal woven headdress and the elegant deep brown gorgeously draped fabrics of costumer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, leaves the community for a solo that suggests compassion and healing drawing on Africanist movement vocabulary, rolling shoulders, undulating spines, winging arms and bent-knee steps. Deep-voiced Ndegeocello (who, by the way, studied at Oxon Hill High School and Duke Ellington School for the Arts as a teen) chants aphoristic phrases — “Have mercy on you,” “As you think, so shall you become,” “I’m at the mercy of the shifting sea” — as a prayer of healing.

Created this year, “The Equality of Night and Day: First Glimpse” features a score by Jason Moran and recorded clips of speeches from racial justice activist Angela Davis. While still a work-in-progress, the piece is well on its way to a full artistic statement. Dancers clad in rich blue choir-like robes suggest a movement choir in the way they circle, gather, and realign themselves to Moran’s jazzy, bluesy accompaniment. And this group-think construction becomes fitting, as we hear Davis questioning America’s democratic values and actions that she says “spawn terror.” “How,” she asks, “do we imagine democracy that doesn’t thrive on racism, homophobia, capitalism … [how do we] use our imagination to come up with new models of democracy.” The dancers appear in a Sisyphean struggle, then at moments they tremble, as if terrorized or exhausted. But the most powerful and lasting vision here is of simplicity: In a quiet moment as the dancers walk, circling up in a steady understated but regal gait. They shed their robes, neatly place them at the circle’s center, and become an offering.

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE in ‘Grace.’ Photo by Julietta Cervantes.

Brown’s signature work, “Grace,” now two decades old, remains as fresh as it did in its earliest rendition by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Under golden sunny lights against a hot-red background, the white-clad dancers driving speed, shuffling quick-footed patters, space gulping leaps, and rolling spines from bent waists unfold over a pulsing beat, first churchy then jazzy and groovy. The incessant drive that binds these dancers as they expend every ounce of muscle, sinew, and bone to the utmost becomes the perfect way to elevate this program of faith-infused works. The trajectory Brown carves tracks from the brooding over our nation’s state of societal dysfunction and prejudice and how to heal in “Mercy” to a call for action in “The Equality of Night and Day,” and reaches its apotheosis and, ultimately, a state of praise and blessing in “Grace.” 

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on October 26, 2021, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2021 Lisa Traiger

Paul Taylor Dance Company Re-Opens Kennedy Center Dance Season with Verve

Posted in Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2021

Familiar works ease us back into the theater on a high note.

Paul Taylor Dance Company
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 7, 2021

By Lisa Traiger

Kristin Draucker, Jake Vincent, and Company in ‘Esplanade.’ Photo by Steven Pisano.

At this moment, as the nation toggles between light and dark, hope and despair, there was no better choreographer to turn to for the Kennedy Center to inaugurate its 2021–22 (fingers crossed!) dance season. The Paul Taylor Dance Company, founded by the maverick choreographer in 1954, remains an iconic American legacy company. Taylor, who had some DC roots, would sometimes reminisce to me about growing up on Connecticut Avenue, near the National Zoo, and once he regaled me with a tale of peacocks escaping.

The creator of almost 150 choreographic works, Taylor died in 2018, passing on leadership in the company to a former Taylor dancer Michael Novak. In recent years the company, under Novak’s artistic direction, has invited in other American choreographers to share their aesthetic. But this first live program back, after 18 months of Zoom and virtual performances, homed in on two seminal Taylor works:

“Esplanade,” the mostly playful romp, set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, that the choreographer made as an experiment in 1975. He challenged himself to not use a single “dance” step, relying solely on pedestrian movement, although elevated by the impeccably trained dancers performing the runs, walks, skips, jumps, grapevines, dashes, and crawls as the dancers converge, separate, and regroup at breakneck speed during the allegro.

A master of modulating moods, “Esplanade” serves as a Taylor primer in interweaving light, free-for-all fun with a darker, more contemplative middle section, the largo section of Bach’s Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Here, the sunny outdoorsy-feeling spaciousness of the first movement contracts. A trio of dancers — two women, one dressed androgynously, reach and try to connect with a man, but a sense of disconnection and despair hangs over the darkened bare stage, while a fourth dancer, as if responding to an alarm, frantically circles this tightly knit trio that can’t reach out and touch one another. Perhaps it’s a family portrait of loss and broken promises.

But again, the music brightens and the playfulness resumes. Taylor’s dancers are beloved for their verve and ability to fall, tumble, and rebound with nary a misplaced bobble. The section where the nine dancers continually run, skip, dive, and tumble to the floor is always breath-catching — someone’s surely going to get hurt — audible gasps could be heard in the audience. But amid the chaos of flying leaps that slide like a runner into home plate, with these continuous falls to the floor, the enduring takeaway is that even as we stumble and fall, we don’t or shouldn’t stay down for long. The world is off-kilter, and has been for a long while, but we’re all still here, making the best in precarious situations. Interestingly, this company of young dancers carries themselves with more lightness and lift. The Taylor style during his lifetime displayed a weightier, more grounded feeling; this current company has just three dancers who have more than five years in the troupe. Most joined in 2017 or after, with the newest hires coming aboard in 2020 and 2021, when even amid the pandemic, virtual classes and rehearsals went on.

John Harnage in ‘Company B.’ Photo by Steven Pisano.

“Company B,” the opener, was commissioned by and premiered at the Kennedy Center 30 years ago, in a joint venture with Houston Ballet. I remember that program and the ballet’s dancers, too, had a lighter, lither approach to the Taylor style, but the piece, even with its energetic swing tempos, contains that Tayloresque moodiness, that toggling between light and dark, joy and sadness.

Set to the effervescent songs of the Andrews Sisters, who served as a soundtrack for a generation of American soldiers and civilians during World War II with bright bouncy rhythms and fun, cheesy rhymes. But, as well, there are darker moments and Taylor doesn’t wait for the wrenching war-separating-lovers lyrics. The opening Yiddish inflections of “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” captivate the dancers into a sprightly jitterbug, yet in the background, a silhouette of men slowly marches, kneels, aims rifles, and tumbles. This fore- and backgrounding serves as a perfect metaphor for the American experience of World War II — a war that was fought an ocean away, not on U.S. soil. Throughout “Company B,” that dichotomous sense of joy and sorrow intermingles on stage in foreground and background. There are impish solos and plenty of mugging in “Tico-Tico,” “Pennsylvania Polka,” and “Rum and Coca Cola.” And wrenching moments, too, in “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” featuring Christina Lynch Markham longing for her overseas beau, or in “There Will Never Be Another You” as Maria Ambrose mourns for her fallen lover Devon Louis.

Lisa Borres with (from left) Michael Apuzzo, Lee Duveneck, and Alex Clayton in ‘Company B.’ Photo by Steven Pisano.

“Company B” ends with a reprise of “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” that is darker, because Taylor reflects back America’s World War II history: that what was bright and flirty on the home front was not what was happening overseas, in Europe. Is the Yiddish song a tell, perhaps, for the Holocaust and Hitler’s extermination of 6 million Jews? Or is it a coincidence that Taylor opened and closed “Company B” with it? He was typically elliptical when discussing his dances, famously answering the question, “What’s the dance about?” with the rejoinder “Oh, 20 minutes.”

In the coming months and years, undoubtedly many artists will craft works that respond to our immediate crises — the global pandemic and racial reckoning. There will be time to ruminate and explore, but at this moment, the familiarity of a 20th-century master choreographer feels just right to ease us back into the theater on a high note.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on October 9, 2021, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2021 Lisa Traiger

Stepping Boldly Back to Normalcy

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on July 20, 2021

Tear the Edge
Chamber Dance Project
featuring four world premieres
Perry Belmont House
Washington, D.C.
July 14, 2021

By Lisa Traiger

In the past 16 months, as a society we have been collectively torn asunder — cut off from face-to-face contact with family, friends, coworkers and from live, in-person art experiences. As performers — musicians, singers, actors, dancers — take careful first steps to return to studios and stages, it remains hard to determine if those torn edges can be fully repaired and how long that might take.

Christian Denice and Alex Sargent rehearse ‘Four Men’; Julia Erickson and Alex Sargent rehearse ‘Arriving.’ Photos by Mariah Miranda.

An evening of new choreography titled Tear the Edge demonstrates a bold step back to normalcy. The premiere performance was held indoors in the chandeliered ballroom of the Beaux Arts mansion near Dupont Circle, the Perry Belmont House, before an audience of about 60 unmasked ticket buyers.

Diane Coburn Bruning created Chamber Dance Project in 2013 to fill a void in the dance community. While the region receives frequent visits from some of the best world-class companies, and its home team, The Washington Ballet, wields a hefty season of classics and contemporary works, Chamber Dance focuses on smaller chamber-size pieces — as its name suggests — to an eclectic selection of classical and 20th- and 21st-century musical choices, performed live. Bruning’s model for the small part-time troupe takes advantage of the typical big ballet company off-season. Thus, her dancers spend the year at professional companies like The Washington Ballet and BalletMet, Milwaukee Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet, among others. Bruning brings them together for an intensive rehearsal period and the brief summer season, often performed in unexpected locations rather than traditional theater spaces. Thus the glorious Perry Belmont House.

The July 14, 2021, program featured a remarkable four world premieres, including the opener, Alight, by white-hot choreographer Claudia Schreier, who received promising notices for her work for Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Kennedy Center, pre-pandemic, of course. The work for five, using a contemporary classical string quartet composed by Chris Rogerson, sets the dancers in whirling thrums and slicing scissorslike jumps. The two women, in point shoes and sleek earthy-toned leotards, get carried and manipulated singly and together by the three men. Schreier is a George Balanchine acoclyte and it shows in the complexity of the partnering work she devises, the splicing legs, and the little daisy chains as three, four, or all five connect and carve spatial paths.

While Balanchine’s works are frequently described as plotless, perhaps it’s better to say storyless but not meaningless, for movement and gesture carry meaning and viewers make their own interpretations. Alight doesn’t tell a story, but at this moment it feels like a flight, away from stasis, darkness, and isolation. What Schreier hasn’t yet finessed is Balanchine’s sage notion of paring down his choreographic masterpieces, in the way Coco Chanel advised her clients to remove one piece of jewelry or scarf before leaving. Sometimes Schreier could as well.

Bruning’s Four Men shares a different energy, a bit more grounded, playful, and physically competitive, as the quartet — Christian Denice, Davit Hovhannisyan, Alexander Sargent, and Graham Feeny — slides and slips, dives and tumbles to selected Boccherini trios. While the demeanor is playful, with heavy-footed stomps, falls, and what I would call a “butt pirouette,” other moments allowed these guys to display more graceful notes, careful balances, petite footwork more commonly danced by women, and care in partnering their fellow men.

Julia Erickson and Alex Sargent rehearse ‘Arriving.’ Photo by Mariah Miranda.

Dancer Christian Denice contributed two works, Arriving, a pas de deux to a cello solo by Phillip Glass, and Dwellings, a complex group work using a score for the Kronos Quartet with sections contributed by Stephan Thelen, Aftab Darvishi, and Glass. Dwellings draws subtly on modern dance’s loose-limbed release technique as the three women and three men favor looser torsos, as the sock-clad dancers slip and swoop across the space in canon and unison as the music swells their arms meandering like ribbons before they settle. With dancers clad in tones of gray — women in chiffon dresses, the men in slacks and tunics —  Dwellings suggests a shifting community, but there’s an added effect with the hair-ography: dancers finally let their hair down, and especially the women’s long locks added a sensual, free feeling to the piece.

Aside from his choreographic contributions, Denice also performed Bruning’s Sarabande, a lush and enticing solo. The choreographer brought out Denice’s innate qualities as a powerfully grounded, compact performer. With his feet massaging the floor, he locomoted without taking a step. His gestures occasionally subtly semaphoric, sometimes shape and define the emptiness. Here the focus eschews the physical virtuosity of ballet technique, allowing Denice to home in on his innate qualities as a grounded, powerful mover.

The program allowed the string quartet to shine without dance: on violin was Sally McLain and Karin Kelleher, Jerome Gordon played viola, and Todd Thiel, cello. McLain shared Jesse Montgomery’s “Rhapsody No. 1” solo; the quartet plucked and strummed through Benjamin Britten’s “Playful Pizzicato.”

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on July 16, 2021, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2021 Lisa Traiger

Bowen McCauley Dance Preps for Final Bow, Gives Penultimate Performance

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance by lisatraiger on June 24, 2021

25th Anniversary Program
Bowen McCauley Dance
Artistic direction and choreography by Lucy Bowen McCauley
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 26, 2021

By Lisa Traiger

Lucy Bowen McCauley (bowing) and ensemble. At left, pianist Nikola Paskalov. Photo by David Moss

As the dance world eases back to stages amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bowen McCauley Dance was among the first to dip a toe in to test the waters, dancing together on the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage before a very limited audience of the company’s friends and supporters. The rest of the audience, including this reviewer, attended virtually.

Lucy Bowen McCauley founded her Arlington-based company a quarter century ago, and with her musical acuity and penchant for balletically flavored contemporary dance technique, it became a mainstay on the local dance circuit and beyond. But just as a dancer’s onstage career is most often measured in years not decades or a lifetime, a dance company, too, can have its limits. At the program May 26, 2021, McCauley publicly announced that this performance would be her company’s penultimate. She’s not closing up shop due to the pandemic pause; in fact, Bowen McCauley shared with me years ago that she didn’t foresee leading her company indefinitely and was considering the best time to choreograph her troupe’s final performance. Twenty-five years felt like the right time. Then a global pandemic happened. So instead of finishing with a virtual production, Bowen McCauley Dance Company will take its last bows in September at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

“Trois Rêves,” Bowen McCauley Dance Company, photo: DC Metro Theater Arts screenshot

In anticipation of that finale, McCauley created a new work for the Terrace Theater virtual program, “Trois Rêves,” to Maurice Ravel’s complex three-movement piano score “Gaspard de la Nuit,” based on a bleak poem by Aloysius Bertrand. The dream ballet opens to a trio of women in flowing waves and undulations of movement; arms swirl like anemones and other sea creatures. When they cock a raised bent leg behind (attitude, for ballet aficionados), balancing on the other, an image of seahorses comes to mind. Later the men join, yet dancers never meet; all their interactions are safely distanced. The second movement, “Le Gibet,” or gallows, proceeds slowly, steadily, relentlessly as Dustin Kimball, in black down to a pair of leather gloves, plods in. As the specter of death, he lashes his arms toward the grounded dancers. They succumb. Then a white-clad angelic figure (Justin Metcalf-Burton) enters; a battle of life forces ensues like a galactic faceoff as the two never make contact. The nightmarish sequence ends with Death in a moment of morose contemplation, yet a noose drops from above. Death prevails.

The final section lightens the mood with quick-footed, playful dances of nymph-like creatures coursing around a pajama-clad sleeping figure. Bright and spirited, the women leap with catlike grace, their silky dresses floating up around them, while the men cartwheel and squat like frogs. They gambol and scamper stalking the restless sleeper with frolicking abandon. “Trois Rêves,” expertly played by pianist Nikola Paskalov, the company’s music director, demonstrates Bowen McCauley’s sensitivity for and love of challenging 20th-century classical scores that suit her balletically inspired movement language.

‘Dances of the Yogurt Maker.’ Photo by Jeff Malet.

The program opened with 2019’s “Dances of the Yogurt Maker,” a lovely abstraction drawing on elements of swirling and churning momentum that I imagine are involved in making yogurt. The score by Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz also provides Middle Eastern flavor. The dancers move through shapes hinting at Turkish architectural elements — arms raised above their heads palms together allude to Ottoman arches or the onion domes of minarets. Flexed wrists and bent elbows create curlicues and broken lines as a nod to calligraphy and curvilinear arabesques — the arcing swirls of Middle Eastern design not the ballet pose.

Bowen McCauley honored two longtime BMDC dancers: Alicia Curtis — 14 seasons — and Kimball — 15 seasons. The previously filmed duet from the choreographer’s 2015 work “Victory Road,” with a country-rock accompaniment by Jason and The Scorchers, showcased the dancers’ artistry and their valuable contributions to the company.

The resilience of the company and its dancers was evident in the strength of the well-rehearsed performances as well as the mindfulness to ongoing pandemic concerns. For both live works, the dancers wore masks, and Bowen McCauley adjusted any choreography that required physical contact in “Yogurt Maker”; thus no lifts or partnering occurred. Choreographed while following COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions, “Trois Rêves” featured seven dancers moving expertly and connecting and interacting without ever making any physical contact to comply with COVID safety regulations.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on June 2, 2021, and is reprinted here with kind permission.
© 2021 Lisa Traiger

‘Romeo and Juliet’: Lovers Are Teens in Juvey

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 7, 2021

Romeo and Juliet
New Adventures
Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Kennedy Center in partnership with Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage

On Demand February 19-21, 2021

For never was there a tale of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo.

By Lisa Traiger

Who doesn’t know the tragic ending of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet? Yet we continue to be besotted by the Shakespearean tragedy. Choreographer/Director Matthew Bourne’s 2019 restaging in movement follows the bones of the original story, but updates and re-envisions aspects reflecting contemporary societal problems and generational rifts. This production, filmed in exquisite detail by Ross Macgibbon, also borrows from West Side Story’s trope of delinquent youths, and homes in on issues of abuse, neglect, violence, and overmedication of teenagers.

Paris Fitzpatrick (Romeo) and Cordelia Braithwaite (Juliet) in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Johan Persson.

Bourne has become a master of reinventing classics that speak to today’s audiences. He reconfigured the pinnacle of classical ballet, Swan Lake, with a muscular all-male corps de ballet and an embellished plot that makes Siegfried’s quest one of discovering his sexuality, not finding a princess. He set Cinderella during the London Blitz, with bombs and fires and a prince with PTSD. In an all-dance-theater version of Edward Scissorhands, he took a tale of horror and love and made it into a haunting elegy to the outsider. In every Bourne work, he utilizes his cadre of exquisitely trained actor-dancers who move with supreme ease through the warp and weft of his choreographic permutations to weave a compelling and pulse-raising tale.

This filmed version, which was available for viewing on the Kennedy Center website via a Vimeo link, fares quite well in the new virtual performance world dance and theater companies are still acclimating to. Bourne, an OBE with the official title of Sir in his native England, has spoken many times (including to me) of his love for classic Hollywood musicals as a progenitor to his evolution as a choreographer. That shows in the often cinematic methods he uses in productions, including flashbacks and flashforwards, dream scenes or dreamlike sequences, and harsh realism, as well as a touch of Chaplinesque comedy on occasion. In any case, this Romeo and Juliet, filmed before an audience and with multiple cameras at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, is itself like a complete artistic endeavor, not merely a pandemic afterthought recording with a camera plopped in place in an empty theater.

The piece opens, as other Bourne works have done, with the final snapshot: the young couple wrapped in a heart-shaped embrace. As the camera focuses in, it becomes apparent that their closed eyes aren’t sleep and those dark patches on their white costumes are blood. Then the incongruity of a school bell shatters the silence as the curtain reveals a stark white-tiled space surrounded by wire fencing and catwalks above. A sign reads: “Verona Institute.” A corps of young men and women enter in lockstep as Prokofiev’s score punctuates the silence. Clad in white uniforms and Keds, they form regiments as they parade like a doomed battalion of surly teen recruits. We see formidable Nurse Ratchett types dispensing pills and an ineffectual doctor in a frantic group therapy session. Verona Institute is a somber and frightening juvenile correctional facility and an imposing uniformed guard — imposing Dan Wright as Tybalt — keeps everyone in line.

The Capulet Company in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Johan Persson.

In this Spartan Verona penitentiary, the conflict is not familial but generational: the teens rebel against the discipline and punishment meted out by the adults. A pair of wealthy, uninvolved parents drags a reluctant Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) — hyperactive, fresh, and sullen — in for admittance. But not until the parents increase their check is the lad let in. Enter Mercutio (jocular Ben Brown) and Balthasar (Jackson Fisch), who strip him out of his schoolboy jacket and tie and into the uniform.

Bright auburn-haired Juliet stands out from the phalanx of teen girls marching through their paces in her combination of deep longing, delicacy, and a sense of inner toughness. Tybalt, who towers over the petite Cordelia Braithwaite as Juliet, uses and torments her — an off-stage rape is suggested. The star-crossed pair meet at a boy-girl dance arranged by Reverend Bernadette (Daisy May Kemp), who is kindly but as ineffectual as her forbear Friar Lawrence.

The Capulet Company in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Johan Persson.

The passionate duet captures the young lovers embracing with the desperation that only teenagers feel. They tumble into each other’s arms and share what Bourne calls possibly the longest kiss in theater history and it feels intoxicating. Oh, to be young and in love… It proves a breath of fresh air in this colorless world designed with foreboding clarity by Lez Brotherston. As in other productions, like Swan Lake, Bourne goes to the source score, in this case Prokofiev’s with its marches, waltzes, and swooning flourishes. This version features a new orchestration by Terry Davies that sometimes uses different instrumentations and sometimes snips and tucks to the score. It lends a new nervous energy at times to this Verona’s stolid environs.

The fight scene eschews swashbuckling swordplay for hand-to-hand combat, guns and knives. It plays out more like West Side Story’s Dance at the Gym, as a drunken Tybalt stumbles in to see his chosen Juliet enamored of Romeo. With the group enraged, together they take Tybalt down — an outcry against their tormentor. Romeo, though, is the one with blood on his hands. As they struggle with the severity of their deed, we see Romeo and Juliet writhe, emotionally distraught over what they have witnessed and wrought. The ending is as blood-drenched as expected as the pair — Romeo, then Juliet — die their dramatic and dreadful deaths.

As the curtain falls, they lie alone in that same heart-shaped opening embrace, bloodied and battered.

The Capulet Company in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Johan Persson.

In updating Shakespeare’s tragedy for our time (or really 2019’s pre-pandemic period), Bourne allows the tale to embody new forms and pose new questions: about how our supposedly highly developed society raises and cares for troubled teenagers with overmedicalization and diagnosis of behavioral problems, and also about sexual and physical harassment and abuse. This isn’t the first time Bourne has touched on either and we’ve seen mental institutions in his works before. This time though he’s set forth some thought-provoking issues that are mostly kept behind closed doors — institutional care for the mentally ill. Not a topic one would expect from a dance company.

Bourne has again reinvigorated a classic to feel consequential right for now.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts on February 23, 2021, and is reprinted with kind permission.
© 2021 Lisa Traiger

Formidable Feminist

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on March 9, 2020

The Eve Project
Martha Graham Dance Company
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
March 5-7, 2020

By Lisa Traiger

Martha Graham Dance Company_Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham's 'Diverson of Angels'_Photo by Brigid Pierce

On the eve of the day we learned that we still can’t elect a woman as qualified as Elizabeth Warren president, the Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with The EVE Project, an uncompromisingly feminist program of works showcasing women as creators, intellects, thinkers, and warriors. In an era where girls and women still have to lay claim to the #MeToo mantra, Graham’s works were equal parts inspirational and instructive, aside from being exquisitely danced by a formidable company of 19.

Modern dance was founded by freethinking, independent women — Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis preceded Graham, but with her independent spirit, boundless creativity, instinctual eye for art, design, high fashion, and her era’s pop culture zeitgeist, Martha is our Ur mother of modern dance. Her lengthy career was marked by multiple masterworks that literally set the course for mid-century modernism with her preference for both mining emotional landscapes and letting the body speak her own inner psychological narratives.

At 94, the Graham company is the country’s oldest continuously performing dance company. When Graham died in 1991 at 96, the company faced some difficult years when the works looked shopworn and the dancing was only passably Grahamesque. Presently, under the astute direction of former Graham dancer Janet Eilber, this legacy American troupe is now in top form.

Eilber has brought together a cadre of exquisite dancers who have not only mastered the lifeforce of Graham — the power of the pelvis and the expulsion of breath that create that richly physical expression of emotion, the contraction and release. But other Graham staples include the torque of the body, mainly in the oppositional pull of the shoulder against the push of the hip. These dancers, too, are streamlined, though still able to access the weighty, solid groundedness Graham technique demands, they can soar and stretch endlessly. Both earth and air inhabit their realm.

These days, we talk about the body’s core as the center of strength and power. Graham accessed that vital lifeforce a century ago by experimenting with her own body in the 1920s and ’30s. She based an entire movement language on harnessing the pelvis and the breath, contraction and release to both propel the body and collapse it.

A wonderful video montage titled “Eve Forging” by Justin Scholar set the stage for a program meant to celebrate women and the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. At center, Graham dances in “Frontier,” one of her iconic Americana works. Before a wooden fence she gazes outward on a vast landscape, her leg cocked up on the railing, swings in an arc. Around her photographic portraits of twentieth-century female changemakers come into focus — Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, Sally Ride, to note a few. These are women who, like Graham, made a difference and left an indelible imprint.

Martha Graham Dance Company_Photo of Xin Ying and Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s Chronicle by Melissa Sherwood

“Diversion of Angels,” from 1948, is both an abstraction colored with painterly brush strokes of yellow- and red-costumed dancers and a meditation on love in its three stages:  adolescent flirtatious love, romantic love, and mature love. As the flirts, Charlotte Landreau, clad in a yellow torso-defining full-legged jumpsuit (design by Graham), and Lloyd Mayor, chase each other with skipping leaps. He whips her in a lift around his waist and up on his shoulder where she balances on a knee, her leg behind in arabesque. In red, So Young An zooms across the stage in slashing runs. Lloyd Knight scoops her up, cartwheels her and they melt into splits circling one another on the floor.

As the mature couple, Natasha Diamond-Walker uses her powerful centered stillness to command attention and the company of dancers often seems to orbit around her. When she and her partner Alessio Crognale embrace,they reach for the other’s face, cradle in arching lifts. The men also become a Greek chorus, heel stepping and balancing in wheeling arcs. I love, too, how the women reach their arms above head and one shoulder juts out before they run off; this stylistic Graham initiation is so wonderfully highlight by this company of dancers. “Diversion of Angels” beautifully evokes many of these essential Grahamisms, reminding us how vividly she allowed the body to speak and sing.

The evening’s oldest work, “Ekstasis,” is a solo from 1933 that clarifies Graham’s use of the torso as central to everything she created. Gorgeously performed by Anne Souder, the work is a study in angles and curves as she cocks out one hip and cantilevers her torso in the opposite direction with sensuous power. Shoulder and hip tension build up oppositional forces in the body. The result? Stunning, as is the torso-hugging shift dress Graham designed, simple, elegant and suitably elastic. Most surprising about this study, with choreography “reimagined” by Virginie Mecene, is how downright sexy Martha must have been performing this.

“Lamentation Variations” is an ongoing choreographic experiment that Eilber has honed from a 2007 one-off into a purposeful way of forging the company’s future-looking path. Graham’s seminal 1930 solo — it’s the one where she’s seated on a bench swathed in a tube of purple fabric, oozing psychic pain with every gut punch and elbow jab. Eilber invites choreographers to react to a 1943 film capturing Graham in the role, with a few rules: just 10 hours of rehearsal, public domain music or silence, no sets or props basic costumes and no longer than four minutes.

Martha Graham Dance Company_Photo of PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s Ekstasis by Brigid Pierce

For the Kennedy Center, choreographers Aszure Barton, Liz Gerring, and Michelle Dorrance were enlisted and music included George Crumb, Michael J. Schumacher, and Dorrance and Jaco Pastorius, respectively. Each brief study had serendipitous moments that spoke to either physical, emotional, or dynamic manifestations of the work. Barton’s duet was so stunningly silky and slightly morbid if felt like a suspenseful trailer danced with utmost liquidity by Laurel Dalley Smith and Anne O’Donnell. Gerring’s lunges and falls, and walking patterns drew from a post-modernist playbook, while Dorrance’s — no surprise for the tap genius — parsed out rhythms with walks pauses, kneels and rises for a group of 10 dancers. Later for “Untitled (Souvenir),” of-the-moment modernist Pam Tanowitz set in motion a number of quirky skitters, scoots, jumps and asymmetrical groupings of eight dancers clad in fashions by TOME (Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin) set in motion to longtime collaborator Caroline Shaw’s strings and sound composition.

With anti-war and feminist tropes, “Chronicle” packed a powerful punch, showcasing the company’s 10 women in a rousing call to solidarity and, need it be said, still? — revolution. The work, which premiered in 1936, was created between the two world wars, just 16 years after women gained the right to vote. Built in three parts, it was Graham’s response to fascism. The previous year, she had been invited to perform as part of the 1936 Olympics in Germany. She refused and made “Chronicle,” which, she noted, is not an “attempt to show the actualities of war” but evokes “war’s images.”

Stunning and fearless Leslie Andrea Williams, clad in another Graham-designed costume, a black fitted dress with a voluminous scarlet-lined skirt, rests on a platform, Sphinx-like in profile, but ready to pounce. As she rises, her hands cupped like a Graham contraction, her body tilts off-kilter, the sweep of her leg whipping the skirts. The dress becomes a shawl, a shroud, and with the crimson showing, Williams drips with blood. This is “Spectre – 1914.”

As “Steps in the Street” opens, a company of black clad women enter, slowly, individually, one by one. Each has one arm bent, elbow at the shoulder, the other tensed at the hip, with their bodies torqued, their slow backwards steps, it’s as if they’re bearing a burden — a basket, a child, the weight of the world itself resting on their shoulders.

All angles — elbows, knees, flexed feet and wrists — the women form a regiment, traverse the stage in linear paths, carving space in unison. Wallingford Riegger’s music has urgent drumming and pressing horns and the women clench their fists, raising their arms up. Lunging and gouging gestures, a foot-tapping walk performed with march-like precision and sturdy sure moments of repose build into larger locomotion, jagged stag leaps, cartwheels and another singular dash across the diagonal. These women don’t just stand their ground; the swallow space asserting their power with tense determination. The closing section, “Prelude to Action,” ends on a high note as the company of 10 walk with a slight stagger forward, stare down the audience, a flexed palm pressing to us.

In a current political climate when women’s rights, women’s bodies and women’s spirits are being challenged, this was both a cri de coeur and a call to action. Graham never gave up. Her choreographic voice has made a lasting mark and changed the course of 20th-century art. We should continue to heed her example. As she said, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that the others are behind the time.”

Photos: top, Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau, Martha Graham Dance Company, in Graham’s “Diversion of Angels,” photo by Brigid Pierce
Xin-Ying and Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s “Chronicle,” photo by Melissa Sherwood
Peilju Chien-Pott in Graham’s “Ekstasis,” photo by Brigid Pierce
Photos courtesy John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

This review was first published on
DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission. 

© 2020 Lisa Traiger