D.C. DanceWatcher

From Mercy to Grace

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

A triptych of works depicting the African American experience

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.

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE in ‘The Equality of Night and Day, First Glimpse.’ Photo by Christopher George.

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.
(c) 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

Jada Pearman 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:

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

“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.
(c) 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 and is reprinted with kind permission.
(c) 2021, Lisa Traiger, originally published July 16, 2021

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.
(c) 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 and is reprinted with kind permission.
(c) 2021, Lisa Traiger, originally published February 23, 2021

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 with kind permission. 
(c) 2020 Lisa Traiger

Ballet Americano

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on January 18, 2020

Ballet Across America
   featuring Dance Theatre of Harlem and Miami City Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
May 28-June 2, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

Ballet Across America Gustave - Tanowitz_15The Kennedy Center closed its 2018-19 ballet series with its fifth iteration over more than a decade of its signature program, Ballet Across America. The curated performances include multiple American companies with the aim of showcasing the depth, breadth and reach of the art form. The question — what does American ballet look like now? — has been answered variably over the years.

This year elevated women’s artistic leadership, focusing on women’s contributions to an art form, which in recent decades has been dominated by male leaders. With just two companies — Dance Theatre of Harlem and Miami City Ballet — splitting a week of performances May 28 – June 2, 2019, and one shared evening featuring a world-premiere commission, women were featured not just as dancers, but as choreographers, composers, designers and even in the orchestra pit, where DTH conductor Tania Leon led the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. That this is unexpected illustrates why female artistic direction remains necessary in the tutus-and-tights world of ballet.

That women — Virginia Johnson and Lordes Lopez — lead DTH and MCB, respectively, is no small matter, particularly on the heels of the #metoo movement, which rattled the ballet world last year. This was a week to smash ballet’s patriarchy — just a bit, it is still ballet after all.

The commission merged both companies in a single new work with a female creative team led by New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz. “Gustave Le Gray No. 1” is her tightly constructed quartet danced with a promising post-modernist flair. Both enigmatic and Cunninghamesque, the title references the 19th-century French photographer responsible for the development of art photography. Tanowitz toggles seamlessly between the subtle embellishments inherent in ballet language and the stringent not always humorless ascetics of post modernism. Caroline Shaw’s inventive score, played succinctly by Sylvia Jiang, meted out silences, staccato rhythms and even a snippet of a Chopin waltz with ease. The dancers, swathed in fire-engine red body stockings with billowy flaps that catch air when they spin, shift in tight geometric floor patterns, mostly cubes, embellished by syncopated permutations. Sharp foot taps in ¾ time break up classical poses. The quartet — Renan Cerdeiro and Lauren Fadeley from MCB and Anthony Santos and Stephanie Rae Williams from DTH — becomes a moving jigsaw puzzle of shifting individuals and pairs, always returning to a tight-knit square formation. When the four gather to push the piano — as Jiang walks along still playing — across the stage, smirks become guffaws. The cheeky joke’s punchline: a dancer carries out a new bench for Jiang, who simply sits and keeps playing. Though not monumental, “Gustave” is neither a piece d’occasion nor an inconsequential one-off. Perhaps its wit and whimsy will live again on another company.

Ballet Across America Fadeley v6Q
Dianne McIntyre’s “Change” radiated power and determination. Honoring the strength of women — “Black, Brown, and Beige” as the program noted — it featured the recorded voices of the all-female Spellman College Glee Club singing “I’m Going to Lay Down This Heavy Load” among other selections. Each dancer in the female trio bears a burden, struggles to break through the shadowy light. Lindsey Croop, Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Rae Williams subvert the pointe shoe overthrowing delicacy for sturdy space-swallowing bourres and pricking parallel walks, no partners required. Their upraised palms, churchy fanning motions, prayerful regard and fierce thigh slaps acknowledge the struggles of African American women. This is not tribute; it is triumph denoting how the women broke free from oppression. A barrage of drums interrupts the choir for mood and costumes changes. The trio changes from black chiffon to short patchwork unitards that speak their own fraught history — sewn from the multihued tights of DTH dancers in shades of coffee, beige, café au lait, and mahogany — the dancers literally wear the legacy of oppression and triumph on their backs.

Claudia Schreier’s “Passage,” with a new score by Jessie Montgomery, was commissioned in 2019 for DTH’s 50th anniversary and the 400th anniversary of the first documented arrival of slaves on American shores. An abstraction, the work meanders, although Schreier’s pretty undulating lifts — ballerinas carried like waves across the space — draw applause. The duet featuring Anthony Santos and Derek Brockington pits the two men in a push and pull partnership their physicality distinctive from typical ballet pas de deux, particularly its studied groundedness and strength rather than weightless uplift.

Suitably Miami-esque, Justin Peck’s playful “Heatscape” uses Shepard Fairey’s sunny mandala-like mural, recalling the Wynwood Walls of the city’s mural district. Clad in short tennis dresses for the ladies and summery shorts and tank tops for the men, the dancers jog on and off, stand in rows and columns as if waiting on line, then escape the clump to mete out quick little jogs. Soloist Renan Cerdeiro opens the first movement, danced to Martinu’s “Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra,” reclining in sunny light. He chases Emily Bromberg and the playful, beachy feel, the shimmery piano, the hot lighting by Brandonn Stirling Baker and the frolicsome choreography are exuberant. Peck playfully nods to Balanchine and Robbins — with wickedly fast footwork, a quote from “Apollo” and another from “Other Dances,” along with noticeably obvious repetition, demonstrating his deference to his ballet forbears.

Ballet Across America DTH
Both companies opened with a Balanchine work, acknowledging the company founders Arthur Mitchell for DTH and Edward Villella for MCB. DTH chose the sweetly stirring “Valse Fantaisie,” the dancers swirling to Glinka’s Fantaisie in B minor, while Miami City Ballet danced “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” exquisitely. With a glamorous corps of pony-tailed women in Karinksa’s shades of lavender chiffon, the dancers looked healthy and strong and when the women let their lush locks loose, the allure was captivating.

“Ballet is Woman,” George Balanchine famously said. Across the centuries women in ballet were typically subject and object, muse and material, for a male creator. This Ballet Across America gave voice to women — on stage, back stage, in the studio as creators, and, of course, in beautiful dancing. During a pre-performance panel discussion, both Johnson and Lopez acknowledged the dearth of women leaders roles in today’s ballet world. “Why,” Lopez wondered, “did it take so long?” of her ascent, as well as Johnson’s. They see their work as artistic directors to shift ballet’s male-centric culture. The time has come.

Photos: Miami City Ballet’s Stephanie Rae Williams, Renan Cerdeiro, Anthony Santos, Lauren Fadeley in Pam Tanowitz’s Gustave Le Gray No. 1. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Lauren Fadeley in Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo by Daniel Azoulay.
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Ingrid Silva and Alison Stroming in Dianne McIntyre’s
Change. Photo by Kent Becker.

This review originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of Ballet Review, which is the penultimate issue. After more than 50 years, Ballet Review will cease publication with the Spring-Summer 2020 issue.

© 2020 Lisa Traiger

2019 Danced: A Year of Watching

meredith monk cellular sounds

In a year of shutdowns and quid pro quo, #metoo and they, fake news and brutal losses in journalism, migration and detention, drain-the-swamp and impeachment, dance was a salvo and an appeasement in light of the incessant and depressing 24/7 news cycle of 2019.

The good news prevailed: curtains still rose, lights continued to shine, choreographers created, dancers danced, and audiences came and applauded. For all that, I am thankful.

My own 2019 dance year contained a few personal bests, including an invitation to take part in the Kennedy Center REACH opening programming on National Dance Day in September. For the free outdoor stage, I curated and narrated what was called a “D.C. Local Dance History Program.” In hindsight, a better title, perhaps “D.C. Dance Luminaries” or stars, would have made it sound sexier. I was fortunate to bring together under a single umbrella The Washington Ballet — performing an excerpt from choreographer Choo San Goh’s signature piece, the sleek neo-modern “Fives” — and Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. I even got a quick photo op with TWB AD Julie Kent and Jones-Haywood AD Sandra Fortune Green — probably a first. I was moved to bring Melvin Deal and his African Heritage Drummers and Dancers to a Kennedy Center stage for the first time.

Beyond that, I published a 2,500-word piece on the history and increasing popularity of Israeli contemporary dance artists around the world for Moment magazine.

And I continued to watch and write on dance. Here are my highlights from a year of highs and lows.

Orange Grove dance photo @evangelinaa_g

2019 began and ended with two of the most intriguing — and artistically different — programs featuring locally based choreographers. January 26-27 at Dance Place, Orange Grove Dance left me intrigued and wanting more from its evening-length Waking Darkness. Waiting Light. Filled with momentous moments of mystery, of dreams, of haunted memories and profound reflection, the four performers, including choreographers Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves, fill the work in ways that make this tightly knit piece feel expansive. With washes of light and hand-held coffee-tin spotlights, designed by Peter Leibold, and an atmospheric yet musical sound score by Dylan Glatthorn, along with Mark Costello’s projections that give the evening a noir-ish feel,  Waking Darkness. Waiting Light is both physically and emotionally athletic in parsing the netherworld of half-remembered dreams and unforgettable nightmares. The visceral approach to movement by Krogol, Reeves, Jonathan Hsu, and Juliana Ponguta let this work resonate deeply.

Another local best, also on view at Dance Place came late in 2019: tap dancer extraordinaire Baakari Wilder and director/choreographer Kerri Edge brought the searing REFORM: Racial Disparities in American Criminal Justice to Washington, D.C., November 23-24. Though still under development, the evening-length piece is a polemic — in the best sense — on the legacy that slavery and racism has wrought on our beloved United States. Featuring tappers Omar Edwards, Abron Glover and Joseph Webb joining Maryland-native Wilder, along with live jazz from the Dom Ellis Trio, REFORM is the type of piece on would expect in a year of so much political and social upheaval. This is a piece that aims to change audiences’ perspectives on race, racism, incarceration and institutional prejudice. Intermingled with live solo and accompanied tap numbers are torn-form-the-headlines or -history video clips: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Yusef Salaam, one of the young men accused of being a “Central Park Five” member.

Baakari Wilder photo-Michel Leroy (1)I heard chatter in the lobby after the show that tap was not an expressive medium to carry forth the heavy message this show imparts. But tap is exactly the appropriate genre to pull back the curtain on America’s long-standing racist and hate-filled roots. With its heavy-hitting footwork by Webb and Edwards, its lighter more nervous tremors from Wilder’s solo performed in prison stripes, to the chorus line of leggy beauties from the Divine Dance Institute, tap is exactly the right means to express the anxiety, fear despair and hope these men represent as they parse through the history of slavery, racism and discrimination in America. REFORM, in ways, reflects and moves past some of the methods and materials in the groundbreaking 1995 musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, of which Wilder is an alum, but REFORM feels more like a sequel, taking audiences further by immersing them in the ramifications of black-men’s actions that are still statistically more likely to land them in jail or dead, than their white counterparts. REFORM is difficult to watch and doesn’t leave audiences with much uplifting. Rather it’s a call to both acknowledgement — particularly for privileged audiences, white or otherwise — and action.

Two other works in 2019, too, left me feeling a sense of urgency to step forward and do something. At Dance Place February 16 and 17, Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women’s Hair & Other Stories, crafted from personal narratives from a wide-ranging tour of kitchens and living rooms, beauty shops and church basements, that demands audience members to ask who they are, where they stand and, ultimately, will they take a stand. With text, spoken word, narrative vignettes, video sequences and participatory sections, over nearly two-and-a-half hours, Hair & Other Stories becomes both a celebration of resilient black women and a challenge to outsiders. Co-choreographers (and UBW associate artistic directors) Chanon Judson and Samantha Spies lay out plenty of provocative concepts through song and dance, narrative and lecture, stylists’ props like pomades and combs. The performers’ rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and raised fists draw from the lexicon of Africanist movement. And along with the equal purity of stillness and work gestures like sweeping, brushing, and stirring motions a variety of embodied cultures are braided into the choreographic language. As in any UBW concert, the audience is asked to stand, come down to the stage and move with and alongside the dancers. that draws from deeply planted roots. We’re told, and reminded, that this isn’t merely a performance: “This is the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.”

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated its 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a glitzy opening night featuring hip-hop master Rennie Harris’s “Lazarus.” It was the company’s first two-part piece and the work is a companion, really a sequel, to Ailey’s masterwork, “Revelations,” which mined his own “blood memories” growing up in the African American church. While “Revelations” is a journey from slavery to renewal to a celebration of freedom in church, that tracks African American history, “Lazarus” picks up where Ailey left off, dealing forthrightly with the U.S. history of racism, the nation’s original — and ongoing — sin. Harris draws movement motifs from Africanist body language and the searing recognition of the continuing struggle — and triumph — of being black in America. For more see my review here.

AAADTs Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik2

February also brought New York-based Zvi Dance to Dance Place February 9-10, performing his 2012 Dabke, previously seen in the area at the late American Dance Institute. In fusing the Arab folk dance typically performed in lines with hands clasped or arms around shoulders with contemporary dance, Zvi Gotheiner sets his dancers into patterns of complex rhythmic stomps, fierce and barefooted. Lines and groups play off and against each other, and groups and solos merge and fade, as snakelike lines intersect and disperse. There’s a harshness of attack that’s both thrilling and disconcerting and subtle, barely-there gestures a raised fist, steely gaze, the throwing of stones, or chest-bumping confrontation, suggest sparring, even uprising. That the Arab-born dabkah, merged into the bouncier less earth-bound debke in the Israeli folk dance community, also tells a story in this dance about cultural convergence and appropriation.

Beyond hometown presenters, a new work, premiered on the Kennedy Center’s signature Ballet Across America program, intrigued me. The pair of programs May 28 – June 2 in the Opera House brought together Dance Theatre of Harlem and Miami City Ballet on separate evenings, and then, together, the two companies shared the world premier of Pam Tanowitz’s quirky, enigmatic, yet engrossing “Gustave Le Gray No. 1.” DTH offered up one of its classics, Geoffrey Holder’s sunny-hued Caribbean-inspired “Dougla” along with a presentable “Valse Fantaisie” by Balanchine. Miami City Ballet brought the little-seen Robbins/Tharp “Brahms/Handel,” smartly and lovingly performed, along with a sunny but slight work by Justin Peck, “Heatscape,” which probably plays well in sunny Miami.

Tanowitz’s “Gustave,” though, took ballet into the realm of post-modernist conceptualism. The spare piano score by Caroline Shaw, played by fearless Sylvia Jiang, set the four dancers, clad in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s silky red tunics and pants. Shaw’s score was named for 19th-century French photographer Gray and it pings with staunch chords and equally staunch silences, then tinkles with a touch of, is that Chopin? The dancers are set on a cerebral course, there must be a written set of instructions somewhere detailing their squiggles, shakes, walking patterns, and formations as the four — Renan Cerdeiro, Lauren Fadeley, Anthony Santos and Stephanie Rae Williams — make their way across the stage. And, soon, the piano, and pianist, too, get in on the crossing. Yes, the dancers themselves push the piano across the stage — and, yes, Jiang continues to pluck out notes and chords, and once in her new spot, on the other side, one of the men carries out a piano bench for her to perch upon before the four gather ‘round like they might share a song to her accompaniment. When the curtain closes, it’s with a sigh of wonderment and regret, for, “Gustave Le Gray” was a piece d’occasion, likely never to be seen and wondered on again.

The Washington Ballet continued, under artistic director Julie Kent, to seek out new works for the ballet repertory. Its April 3-7 program at the Harman Center brought three, respectable, but not likely important new works to the stage. (Alas, I missed the fall program of new repertory.) Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” with its glimmery sheer costumes and music for orchestra and recorded tracks by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates, already elevated the work. The balletic-based movement is clearly executed but it’s the far more subtle interactions that make this a piece to be seen again. Along with the eight dancers, two principal roles — the Observer, Javier Morera, and the Outlier, Katherine Barkman (the evening I attended) — suggest a story or at least a relationship, with meaningful looks and glances. Let’s hope this one gets another viewing to parse the piece.

Dana Genshaft Wash Ballet Gian-Carlo-Perez-and-Kateryna-Derechyna-900x516.png

And a mid-summer treat brought Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble to the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian, presented by the Hirshhorn Museum. Performing Cellular Songs: Concert Version, Monk, in her signature brown braids, was joined by three other voice artists and Allison Sniffin on voice, violin and keyboard. With Monk on keyboard and voice, the ensemble created rich sound sculptures along with a moving kaleidoscope of video scenarios designed by Monk and Katherine Freer. The all-female configuration of voices felt as if Monk has built an alternative society, damn the patriarchy. And as the singers, all clad in pure, crisp white, maneuvered around and across the stage in various geometric configurations, seated, standing, walking and pausing, they became a metaphor for being, a human kaleidoscope. There’s great mystery — even subversively so — in the way Monk builds on the beauty and significance of the voice — here solely female — in rising, alliterative, contrapuntal and choral rushes and diversions. Together with bodies and background videos moving together and in tandem Cellular Songs builds and subsides. And in the lingering hum of the final sung notes, before the audience applauds, there is enough air space for a collective breath. A sigh. Is it responding to the disappointing year we’ve had, or, maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign that everything might be all right. At the very least, that’s one way to move forward in the coming year.

Finally, I spent three weeks at the Dagara Music Center near Accra, Ghana, in July and August, studying African dance, drumming and gyl, African xylophone. This unforgettable and challenging experience emphasized for me that technique is highly valued in African dance, particularly from the Dagara people — the region the DMC emphasizes. The technique has little to do with body placement, turnout, leg and arm positions and head placement, athleticism or virtuosity — even when those values are often expected in African dance. Instead, musicality and rhythm are the key to technical proficiency and that was much, much harder than I anticipated. Staying on top of the beat and clapping on four-one, rather than one-two or one-three, took me a while to assimilate. Additionally, living in the DMC compound and going on excursions throughout the country enabled me to see the physicality Ghanaians embody in their daily lives: cooking, chopping, pounding, harvesting, carrying — anything and everything on their heads from baskets to once a sewing machine — sweeping, brick making, starting fires to cook on coals outdoors, pounding and grounding nuts and gourds. These work motions and gestures become the choreography. It was a beautiful ad unforgettable lesson on how beautifully bodies speak through and of culture.

Photos: Meredith Monk’s Cellular Sounds, photo Richard Termine
Orange Grove Dance in Waking Darkness. Waiting Light., photo @evangelina_g
Baakari Wilder in REFORM, photo Michael Leroy
Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris’s Lazarus, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, photo Paul Kolnik
Tendayi Kuumba in Hair & Other Stories, Urban Bush Women, photo (c) Hayim Heron
The Washington Ballet’s Gian Carlo Perez and Kateryna Derechnya in Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” photo Victoria Pickering

(c) 2019 Lisa Traiger, published December 30, 2019

Sergeant Pepper-mania

Posted in Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 7, 2019

Mark Morris Dance Group
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 14-16, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night. Images by Gareth Jones

The choreographer takes his inspiration from music. In his 40-year career as a dancer and dancemaker, he has created more than 150 works. Music has been his constant impetus and companion in his creative process. In performance, he insists on bringing his own music ensemble to accompany the dancers.Mark Morris dances are emphatically watchable, easily digestible, eccentric, and smartly witty. He so proficiently pairs music and dance, costume and set — with a cadre of collaborators — that it’s hard to have a bad night at a Mark Morris Dance Group performance. This is most often due to the deep musical and creative bond he has with long-time musical collaborator Ethan Iverson.

From his gorgeously lyrical masterpiece (L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato ) to the archly sardonic (The Hard Nut, his version of The Nutcracker) to wildly dramatic (Dido and Aeneas), the musically glorious (Falling Down Stairs), the intellectually bracing (“Grand Duo”) and the wicked fun (his very early “Lovey” danced to the Violent Femmes), Morris’s best pieces compel the body to sing, and the movement, steps, formations, phrasing appear as if they were born just for a particular piece of music.

Thus, when he was approached to make a piece to the Beatles, he didn’t play it straight and just set dancers in motion to the sterling and singable recordings of the Fab Four. The commission offered by the City of Liverpool asked for a dance to commemorate the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2017. The hour-long work, now on a North American tour with the choreographer’s eponymous Mark Morris Dance Group, is currently on stage at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, where it’s awash in accolades from a boomer audience that can’t get enough of the idea of high-brow dancing to the Beatles.

And the vividly colored, smartly cut early 1960s costumes, thanks to designer Elizabeth Kurtzman, and Johan Henckens’ bronze crinkled mylar set — a nod perhaps to Warhol’s “Silver Clouds,” which populated Merce Cunningham’s “Rainforest” — allow Morris’s clean, simple choreographic choices to shine.

In fact, not once is a recorded vocal from John, Paul, George, or Ringo heard. Iverson has rearranged several of the album’s iconic songs — the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” — for an ensemble of six playing sax, trombone, piano, keyboard, percussion, and the electronic space-agey theremin. If you know the album — and anyone born before 1967 must know at least some of it — you’ll hear baritone Clinton Curtis sing a few standards in a mostly non-Beatlesque way. The others? You just have to sing along in your head as the music plays.

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland_Photo by Mat Hayward (3) 

On additional sections of the score, Iverson riffs on musical ideas of the period that may or may not have influenced the Beatles. Iverson’s musical addendums peppered into the 13 sections include an adagio; an allegro drawing from an offhand trombone phrase in “Sgt. Pepper”; a scherzo inspired by Glenn Gould, Petula Clark, and a chord progression from the album; and a cadenza that reflects the Beatles’ references to European classical music. They are a nifty way to avoid treacly nostalgia while still honoring the innovative band’s contributions.

The opening notes of the piece strike the final chord on the album, a familiar sound for those who have listened to it. The opening choreography features an unwinding clump of dancers that spirals outward filling the stage with a jumble of bold jelly-bean colors — vibrant yellow, tangerine, aquamarine, grape, and hot pink tailored sharply into mod slacks, skirts, turtle necks, and jackets. A little skip-hop step with the arms carefully placed reflects a walker’s gait — the walk across Abbey Road maybe? The company of 15, plus five apprentices, imbues these introductory phrases with a heightened naturalness as their legs pierce the air, arms slicing, palms outward, opened to the audience.

After that initial unwinding moment, the “Magna Carta” section introduces historic figures who make an appearance on the colorfully iconic album cover — from Albert Einstein to Marilyn Monroe to bluesman Wilbur Scoville to boxer Sonny Liston — at each name, a dancer jogs in and takes a pose suggestive of the personality of the figure.

Morris cares little for traditional virtuosic tricks. In fact, his technique is closer to that of founding mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan’s runs, skips, jumps, and hops than the codified virtuosity of either ballet or mid-century moderns like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. His early training in Balkan folk dances also shows in circle formations, hand-holding pairs, and short lines of dancers, linked and maneuvering in unison.

In Morris’s works a sense of humanity prevails. Yet, the company has changed over time, from a mixed-bag bunch of highly proficient dancers of various heights, body types and backgrounds, to today’s company, which is not necessarily less diverse, but its members are far more similar physically. Everyone is trim, with long legs and an aesthetically pleasing dancerly quality, you can see their ballet backgrounds in the less weighty earthy attack. It makes for a more uniform, although far less interesting looking company. Morris still prizes dancers who are fully themselves on stage and who strive to emulate the human condition in performance.

The evening — like much of Morris’s choreography — plays astutely with theme and variation. Morris enjoys having dancers hold hands, link arms and march or walk in mini regimental rows, four abreast, a nod to the Fab Four. In a series of lovely adagios, one partner in a male-female or same-sex couple lifts the other, whose legs stick straight down in a modest straddle, toes pointed. It’s a simple but distinctive motif. Other repeated phrases include some small traveling skips, skitters and leaps, a big bursting jump with arched backs — cheerleader-y — and some simple turn sequences. Morris shuffles and reshuffles these motifs in ways that make the viewer feel smart — “Oh, yes, I saw that before. I see what you’re doing here” — using a different structure, formation, number of dancers or even sequential or canonic counts.

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland_Photo by Robbie Jack

Morris also winks at the psychedelic era by putting his dancers in mirrored sunglasses on occasion — those “kaleidoscope eyes” from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and with some moments late in the work, he lets them loose for free form movement. But the work is conscientiously structured, not improvised. Late in the piece, as “Penny Lane” — not on the album, although originally written for “Sgt. Pepper’s” — plays, the dancers enact an old-fashioned pantomime to the lyrics — getting into a barber’s chair, driving a car, offering a queenly smile and wave, etc. Audiences enjoy the humor and again see the Morris style at work. Other references he throws in might be less obvious such as the mudra, or Indian hand gesture of thumbs up used in the Indian dance form bharata natyam. But for Morris it reflects his love for and study of Indian classical dance. There are plenty of other “Easter eggs” in any Morris work; Pepperland is no exception.

Interestingly, as tuneful and musically interesting as Pepperland is, especially if you read the composer’s program notes, the piece doesn’t come close to a Morris masterwork. The choreographer must love the music completely to attain such a sublime aesthetic level. He’s created dances to Mozart, Britten, Purcell, Bach, Prokofiev, as well as country music, punk rock, Indian ragas and Azerbaijani mugham songs, to name a very few, so a bit of Beatles is no stretch for his rangy musical tastes. But Pepperland simply doesn’t sing in the way his best works can. It doesn’t feel like Morris is all-in. Choreographically, the work is as adept as any of his most recent, showcasing the strengths and talents of his well-honed company, his unparalleled skill in structuring dances that move easily. While it’s unfair to expect a masterpiece every season, Pepperland feels more like an assignment completed: Liverpool wanted a Beatles ballet? Well, Morris went ahead and delivered one.

Finally, for all the bright colors and the tuneful Beatles songs, the oft peppy, upbeat dancing, the whirl of shifting musical and costume colors, Pepperland emanates a surprisingly sober, even somber, tone behind those mirrored sunglasses the dancers wear. The initial opening clump, turns back in on itself at the end, the dancers collapsed, exhausted, overcome as the music rumbles. When asked why he had sad sections in the piece during the post-show discussion on opening night, Morris was, as usual, sharply glib: “Well, it’s a fucking sad world, that’s why.” Then he waved goodnight, tossed his scarf over his shoulder and swanned off.


Photos courtesy The Kennedy Center, top by Gareth Jones, middle by Mat Hayward,
bottom by Robbie Jack.
(c) 2019, Lisa Traiger

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.




Posted in Modern dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2019

Merce Cunningham at 100
“Beach Birds” and “BIPED”
The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 3-5, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

Merce Cunningham at 100_Beach Birds_Robert Swinston -Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers_Photo by Charlotte Audureau

What a pleasure to celebrate the centenary of modern dance master Merce Cunningham with a pair of works that demonstrates his formidable vision for dance, imbued with clarity of form and generosity of spirit, allowing each viewer to draw individual interpretation and meaning.

Cunningham, a one-time student and dancer with redoubtable mid-century modernist Martha Graham, died a decade ago and left a legacy plan that sent his eponymous company on a world tour then closed it down. A selection from his more than 200 choreographed works is now available for companies around the world to acquire, and most often the dances fall into the hands of ballet troupes, like The Washington Ballet, which last season did a valiant job of Cunningham’s duets, but, alas, they’re not modern dancers with the training to fully do the pieces justice.

And it isn’t easy for dancers to get the Cunningham technique just right. As elegant and balletic as it may appear, with fleet footed footwork, elongated arabesques and variable port de bras or arm positions, there’s also the use of the back and spine in ways that many dancers haven’t finessed — curving and tilted torsos with cantilevered legs and arms and quick changes of direction and weight make Cunningham dances particularly challenging.

This past Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, former Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancer and rehearsal director Robert Swinston introduced his young troupe of dancers from Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine—Angers, who are training in the technique.

The pair of works on the program — “Beach Birds” and “BIPED” — are from late in Cunningham’s career, 1991 and 1999, respectively, and they show an artist fully immersed in his aesthetic.

As the curtain rose on “Beach Birds,” the white backdrop glowed in pinkish orangey hues of a sunrise. Eleven dancers in silhouette, perched on two legs, hovered in their white body stockings splashed with black from fingers to arms and shoulders. Swinston remarked in the pre-performance chat that he thought they resembled penguins. For me, they looked like seagulls in flight, the black suggesting the darkened shadows underneath their wings. They twitch or tremor, barely perceptible movements — a head cocked, a wrist flutter — then they all plié — bend their knees — as if preparing to take flight. “Beach Birds” unfurls like an airborne flock of birds, constantly in motion, yet seemingly still as they soar, catching an air current. A pair or trio of dancers come together for a moment, break off, regroup, like birds alighting.

There’s an elegance in the dancers’ outstretched arms spreading wing-like, then bending an elbow. Complicated catch steps, small jumps and glides allow the dancers to rearrange themselves in the space accompanied by “Four3,” John Cage’s fluidly environmental sounding score. Played live by Gavin Bryars, Morgan Gott, Audrey Riley, and James Woodrow, the score suggests water and rain, surf and sand, in its shimmery rattles, gushing strings, percussion, and most significant, its pregnant pauses.

IMG_6881Both Cage and Cunningham valued silence and stillness and in “Beach Birds” those moments of quietude for the ear and the body are deeply reflective of the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic — any sound or no sound can be music and its corollary, any movement or no movement can be dance. And in these moments of pause, of quiet stillness — after the ongoing continuity of rippling and slicing arms, zigzagging and rushing feet and legs — “Beach Birds” comes to life. For a Cunningham dancer, stillness is the exact opposite of deadness; in fact, the bodies are enlivened and hyper-alert in these moments that serve as respite just as the beach does for those fortunate enough to spend a day amid sand, surf, and birds.

Ever the experimentalist, Cunningham collaborated with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar using motion capture technology to create “BIPED.” As the name suggests it’s in its most basic sense an exploration of the biped, the ambulatory two-legged body.

But, particularly in Cunningham’s latter works, there’s a tremendous amount of depth and richness in the confluence of the technological representation of the body in space set against the living breathing bodies of the dancers.

Eshkar and Kaiser place a scrim in front of the dancers on which they project a moving décor of lines and patterns. At first, the vertical and horizontal lines suggest the old fashioned staticky lines on a TV screen with bad reception. Here Cunningham’s sometimes quirky, sometimes rigorous technical demands on dancers — bending and curving torsos and complex arm and leg patterns — attain a lovely elegance. The 15 company members, ensconced in body-hugging iridescent gold costumes, stretch and bend themselves into beautiful configurations. The arabesques here are elongated, the torso not forced upright against the lifted back leg, so there’s a stretchy, reaching quality there as well as in leaps that are clear and precise but don’t allow for pyrotechnic trickery.

Gavin Bryars’ score combines pre-recorded elements with live playing by the ensemble on acoustic instruments and provides a rich, warm setting with some nearly aching symphonic suggestions in the instrumentals. A sense of mystery and spirituality imbues the work, especially with the black-draped stage that allows dancers to slip on and off as if by magic. One moment when a line of five dancers suddenly comes into view feels supernatural: how did they appear? And the entrances and disappearances along with the musical scoring lends an elegiac mood to the work. Dancers slip away as others continue the choreography, unnoticed, but remarkable nonetheless.

Central to the continued intrigue of “BIPED” is the tension between the real and the unreal or surreal or otherworldly evident in the start linear movements of the projected “bipeds,” motion captured dancers reduced just to the lines and points that appear and disappear on the scrim.

While “BIPED” was created in 1999, it feels prescient today, as we’re all wedded 24/7 to technology, living our lives virtually rather than IRL — in real life. It feels as if Cunningham anticipated the technological takeover and, in “BIPED” he was wrestling with what dance would mean and become when technology usurps inherent physicality, living, breathing, sweating bodies. “BIPED,” it seems, could have been his response. Here the live bodies, as beautiful and interesting and even imperfect as they are, are overshadowed and overrun — literally, the scrim is in front of the dancers — by the computerized simulations of dancers.

Merce Cunningham at 100_BIPED_Robert Swinston -Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers_Photo by Jef RabillonThe dancers of CCNDC—Angers were mostly up to the challenge of finessing the demands of Cunningham technique, the elegant, swift legs, the often-non-sequitur arm and leg and torso combinations, the speed and stillness, the rigor and quirks of his movement modalities. Missing, though, from CCNDC—Angers was a preternatural alertness and attack, of which Cunningham was a master. He had an ever-so-slight cock of his head in advance of a big movement moment, or an ability to stay hyper-alert when still, ready, like a tiger, to pounce.

As a master dancer, choreographer, and creative spirit, Cunningham, with his process-breaking ideas about including chance and being open to the moment during his creative activities, continues to influence generations of contemporary dancers. What a lovely gift the Kennedy Center has given dance and arts lovers in celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth with a company that is imbued with the Cunningham spirit.

Merce Cunningham at 100, “Beach Birds,” with dancers of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Jef Rabillon
Merce Cunningham at 100, “BIPED,” Dancer Matthieu Chayrigues of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Charlotte Audureau 
Merce Cunningham at 100, “BIPED,” with dancers of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Jef Rabillon


This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission