D.C. DanceWatcher

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

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 v6QDianne 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 DTHBoth 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.

But the good news prevailed: curtains still rose, lights continued to shine, choreographers created, dancers still 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 presented as part of 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 ideas. 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
Pepperland

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.

 

 

Centennial

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

 

 

Lukewarm Welcome

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on June 28, 2019

TWB Welcomes
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Choreography: Fokine, Balanchine, Ratmansky, Lopez Ochoa
Washington, D.C.

September 28-29, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Katherine Barkman (4)Three seasons ago, The Washington Ballet welcomed former ABT principal ballerina Julie Kent as artistic director, only its third since Mary Day founded the company in 1976. Expectations were high on how Kent would remake the chamber-sized company Septime Webre directed for 17 years. Aptly titled “TWB Welcomes,” the fall 2018-19 season opener at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater provided some insight into the company’s direction. Alas, that direction is nowhere new or innovative. The welcome in the title alluded to invited guest artists: ABT’s Stella Abrera, Ballet Manila’s Katherine Barkman, Houston Ballet’s Connor Walsh and Marcelo Gomes. Together they provided star quality amid the 24 company members and six apprentices, particularly after the loss of renowned and much-loved dancer Brooklyn Mack, whose contract was not renewed after protracted negotiations.

The two programs featured a classic Balanchine and a Fokine, a smattering of pas de deux, and each closed with a newer 21st-century work, presenting the company in agreeable light. The pair of mixed bills provided another glimpse at Kent’s vision for the company, which can be summed up as “ABT South,” for she appears to be re-shaping TWB into what’s most familiar to her ABT-friendly repertory and story ballets, like last year’s Romeo and Juliet and this season’s The Sleeping Beauty, both ballets frequently danced in Washington by touring companies.

Program A, titled “Exquisite and Exotic” do ballet programs always have to be named these days? was like summer television re-runs, opening with “Serenade” (which the company danced in the season prior 2017-18 season) and closing with Alexei Ratmansky’s “Bolero,” another repeat from the previous season. Likewise, Program B “Ethereal and Evocative” opened with Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” another recent re-tread. Its closer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo,” an all-male play on jazzy incongruities, was on the season opener just three seasons earlier in 2015. These programming re-runs rather than fresh repertory, put a damper on what should have been an auspicious welcome for a new season and invited guests.

“Serenade” was well danced and offered the debut of Gomes in the ballet. The company demonstrated growth in tackling the Balanchine staple, particularly the corps de ballet, which is looking stronger, crisper and more unified under Kent’s direction. “Les Sylphides,” alas, emitted a musty scent, save for the spritely Maki Onuki in the Mazurka, joined by Rolando Sarabia. The dancers looked bored, their performances mostly underwhelming.

Both evenings featured gala fare like the grand pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” and Houston Ballet’s Walsh proved a stalwart partner to EunWon Lee, while Katherine Barkman (invited into the company shortly after her guest appearance) displayed her solid technical attributes and lively demeanor, accompanied by apprentice Alexandros Pappajohn. Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” alas, lacked brio from Stephanie Sorota and Alex Kramer, and on the following evening Tamako Miyazaki and Masanori Takiguchi made this spicy morsel into milquetoast. The standout proved to be the richly layered and profoundly expressive pairing of Gomes with long-time Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian in the first duet from Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Kharatian’s maturity and heartfelt emotions pierced the sensitive work. With Gomes, the pair was spellbinding in communicating the work’s lush and resonant shadings, beautifully accompanied by pianist Glenn Sales.

Both programs concluded with 21st-century works. “Bolero,” with its sporty costumes tank tops numbered from one to six  skillfully set the six dancers into singular solos against the group. Their bored worldliness fleshed out Ravel’s oft-heard score. “Sombrerisimo,” with its jazzy riffs and competitively boyish roughhousing, ended Program B with a flourish as a flood of bowlers tumbled from the rafters.

Kent’s re-runs suggest either that she hasn’t solidified her vision for the company, or, perhaps, budget constraints are forcing the troupe to rely on recent repertory rather than investing in new works. Whatever the reason, the impression left was that The Washington Ballet’s “Welcome” is barely lukewarm.

Above: Katherine Barkman, photo: Ari Collier, courtesy The Washington Ballet

 

This review originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Ballet Review. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review here

© 2019 Lisa Traiger

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Hair

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 28, 2019

Hair & Other Stories
Urban Bush Women
Dance Place
Choreography: Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis
and the UBW company
Washington, D.C.

February 16-17, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Don’t think you’re going to sit back and observe if you show up at Urban Bush Women’s latest, Hair & Other Stories, which made its Washington, D.C., premiere this past weekend at Dance Place. Oh no. Read the program notes and then hear the urgency in the company dancers’ voices, when they say: “Don’t get too comfortable …. We’re goin’ on a journey.”

Hair — African-American women’s hair in particular, with all its baggage as “good” or “bad” — serves as the core narrative construct, but Hair & Other Stories is about much, much more. And I’ll preface this review with my own hesitation as a possessor of so-called “good” hair, typically long (though I recently got a cut) and straight, should I be writing this review? Does my hair texture and skin color — my white privilege — preclude me from sharing my point of view, my understanding? (Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts.)

The two-and-a-half-hour evening plays as part church revival, part dance party, part therapeutic reckoning, part history lesson (including a letter to Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire who plied her trade in hair relaxers). And it is wholly and fully engaging of mind, body and spirit for those willing to hop on the train to a future that co-choreographers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis and the company envision, one where the racist roots of the United States are reckoned with so healing can begin.

Crafted from personal narratives culled from the performers and from participants in Hair Party workshops the company held around the country asking black and other women to talk about their hair and more at community centers, churches, kitchen tables, the work throws out a challenge to all those willing to take it:

Re-think what you thought you knew about race, beauty, class, and privilege. But it comes with a caveat: “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in.” Think of Hair & Other Stories as a permanent haircut or dye job for your intellect and soul.

The Brooklyn-based company, which now includes men — two in this performance — was founded in 1984 by visionary storyteller and social activist Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. UBW draws on the bedrocks of contemporary and African dance, song and spoken word weaving together personal and universal narratives that wrestle with the history and challenges of being black and living in America. Throughout the two-part evening, performers address the audience, drawing from the powerful Undoing Racism workshops that the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond conducts around the country. UBW and the institute have long been collaborative partners in educational settings, but never has the fundamental and life-changing material of the workshops been so specifically incorporated into a UBW performance.

The evening begins as an all-out revival meeting. The sing-song preacherly DuBois A’Keen is joined by Tendayi Kuumba and Courtney J. Cook who take an instructive approach, easing audience members into what it means to go through life in with nappy or “bad” hair. All black women are called on to stand in solidarity for the indignities they have faced on playgrounds and on the job for having unmanageable or “different” hair. White women, too, with so-called “silky” locks, are asked to stand with the exhortation: “Let the winds of change blow in your hair.” Indeed.

Early on, a table filled with pomades, oils, gels, and combs indicates some styling might take place. A careful eye will tease out the intricate wrist and finger actions it takes to braid hair. Recollections of suffering under the hot comb for silky straight styles elicit plenty of nods from parts of the audience. The women especially, in their eclectic 21st-century boho costumes by DeeDee Gomes, appliqued with sequins, patches, fringes, and other piecemeal findings, lend a timeless quality to the proceedings. Stories and histories are drawn through embodied movement culling from the lexicon of Africanist dance — rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and more recent raised fists. Moments of stillness and everyday work — sweeping, brushing, stirring motions — also braid their way into the choreographic language that draws from deeply planted roots.

At one point when the performers address colorism — the valuing of lighter skin over darker skin in the African-American community and the white community — the dancers vigorously use their hands to brush their limbs and torsos as if trying to wash away their own skin. And then, as they line up and pause, breathless after those frantic seconds, the realization comes: they have arranged themselves by skin tone, from darkest to lightest.

Throughout the swift-moving program, all are called on to move — audience as well as performers. Raise an arm, wiggle in your seat, stand in solidarity or come down to the stage, the dance floor and feel in your body the weight of racism, colorism, white privilege and prejudice as it seeps into in your bones, muscles, roots, and scalp.

Lanky powerhouse Chanon Judson tackles a vignette with a trio of “Elevator Hell Stories.” In one she walks into an elevator filled with African Americans who all want her to take a comb to her unruly hair. When the scene is repeated with white riders, they all “love” her look and reach out to touch her hair. Later, she stands on a pedestal, wraps herself in black paper and dons an oversized white top hat — recalling images of Jim Crow or Master Juba. Rooted to the pedestal Judson writhes, ripping away the paper, shedding skin perhaps, filled with taunts and pain, to reveal a renewed body … and spirit.

Joining the cast, Judson’s very young daughter, maybe three years old, moves with child-like assurance, following along, taking an adult’s hand, stepping out of a baby swaddling like a pro. Early on someone brushes down her edges, the soft baby hair at her hairline, with a toothbrush, later during a wickedly sharp scene featuring black and white Barbies in a conversation about white privilege played for adult sensibilities, she settles into her grandmother’s lap in the audience clutching a Barbie. Her moments on stage are a reminder that more’s at stake than the here and now. Judson’s daughter reinforces the Hair & Other Stories hopeful message: That she will grow up free from prejudices about hair and skin and beauty. (Parenthetically this child’s presence also shows us it’s possible to make creative work and raise a family.) The other excellent performers include Stephanie Mas, Ross Daniel (who represents an enlightened white person on this journey), Love Muwwakkil and Cyrah Ward.

It’s a wish-filled message in an evening that requires work — the hard work of reflection. Co-creators Judson and Speis call it “the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.” At Dance Place, the listening, responses, and contributions to the discussion, the call-and-response, felt active and engaged. The work itself is a conversation, one that occurs on a continuum. And one that for many will continue beyond the final bows.

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

Photos: Courtesy Dance Place, top Tendayi Kuumba; bottom, UBW company, (c) Hayim Heron
(c) Lisa Traiger 2019

Past and Future Share Stage: Ailey Company’s ‘Revelations’ and ‘Lazarus’

Posted in Hip hop, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 8, 2019

A cough, a gasp, the sound of a heartbeat. A sudden flash in the darkness. These sounds and images begin “Lazarus,” the brand-new work from hip hop master Rennie Harris, which opened a glitzy celebration of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The roiling evening presented the company’s first two-part ballet – throughout his career, Ailey called his decidedly modern works ballets. The combination of “Lazarus” and the “blood memories” of “Revelations” took the well-heeled audience on a journey through the hard and heartless history of being black in the United States, where slavery and segregation remain our nation’s original sin. At the close, though the audience roared its approval, those first gasps and the searing images of suffering remain. And both are as integral to the Ailey essence as to our American tale.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Bathed in dim light by James Clotfelter, the Ailey dancers toggle between an exaggerated slow walk, a quick-footed buck-and-wing, and stark stillness. The dancers stand, their shoulders hunched over, heads drooping.

And suddenly, a vision of the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies hanging from poplar trees elicits a gasp, this time from knowing observers. This is how “Lazarus” works its magic: Harris maneuvers his shifting movement tableaux calling on embodied images of the wretchedness of being black in America. From the agonizing image of Eric Garner, cuffed and gasping for air, crying “I can’t breathe,” to snapshots of hunched bodies, doubled over from exhaustion, physical and spiritual, to the Hollywood-ized visions of a “happy Negro” singing and dancing for his supper, Harris has collected the visual atlas of the immoral subjugation of a people.

A Philadelphia native who grew up on the rough streets of North Philly, he has spent decades bringing vernacular street dance forms to concert stages around the world with his own renowned company, making hip hop theatrical and imbuing it with messages of despair and hope. Harris knows his history, of course, but he knows, too, how to capture in movement images the harsh and inscrutable essence of being black in America.

This is the heart and soul of “Lazarus,” which the Ailey company commissioned as a tribute to its founder, Mr. Ailey, who lives on through the choreography he gave his dancers and through a now powerhouse dance organization. The piece, too, serves as a rejoinder to Ailey’s own seminal choreography, “Revelations,” which takes viewers on a similar spiritual and historical journey from slavery to renewal to revival in its three well-known sections.

“Revelations” has been the company’s bread-and-butter for decades, enticing audiences in for the reverence of this finale, and giving them a swath of newer works that toggle between contemporary modern dance, curated by current artistic director Robert Battle, and Ailey classics, some still resonant, others a bit faded. The much-admired company’s 60-year history can, in part, be attributed to the popularity and influence of “Revelations,” which sparks whoops, nods and clap-alongs for the familiar gospel songs and spirit-infused dancing entrances audiences year after year. Akin to ballet classics like Swan Lake, “Revelations,” it seems, never gets old. Alas, it is not always expertly performed. Opening night, it felt a little subdued coming right after the far heavier dramatic arc that “Lazarus” rides. Perhaps the dancers were spent after throwing down their hypersensitive and kinetic performance of the two-parter.

When seen next to “Lazarus,” with its far more trenchant — and realistic — look at the African-American experience, “Revelations” feels more than a little old-fashioned. The near-ancient Graham technique — contractions of the pelvis as the back curves, either smoothly or percussively — lateral side tilts, and running triplet steps, looks quaint next to Harris’s more sophisticated fusion of street dance coupled with modern techniques and gestural references.

That’s not to say Ailey’s masterwork should be retired. To the contrary, the two works serve as instructive companion pieces when seen together. In fact, Harris is filtering Aileyisms into the work right alongside his sly references to the Dougie, the Nae Nae, and the Dab. In “Lazarus,” Harris seems to be wrestling to uncover not just Ailey, the choreographer, but  Ailey the man, who put his heart and soul into his choreographic ventures and navigating the world as a black man amid the peak of the Civil Rights movement and into the 1970s and ‘80s.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

In “Lazarus,” Harris, like Ailey before him, alludes to Biblical elements. The story goes that though dead for four days, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, the miracle foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. In “Lazarus,” though, the struggle, the agony of oppression, is told in grim, gritty segments of movement montages. A group of women harvest an invisible crop, drawing sustenance from the earth, tucking it into their bundled aprons. Another clump of dancers falls to their knees, hands clasped in prayer, trembling — for salvation from God or man? Bare-chested men, their pants held up with a cord of rope, collapse, others drag these lifeless bodies off stage.

Harris shows us the burden of history, the weight of living — and dying — black in America. The piercing cries — ululations — punctuate Darrin Ross’s wide-ranging score, along with other equally harsh sound effects including gunshots, screams, and weeping. This first part of “Lazarus” pushes viewers beyond the dichotomous earth-and-heaven pull of Ailey’s first sections of “Revelations,” “Pilgrim of Sorrow.” Alas, in Ross’s sound score, the earlier voiceovers are almost indecipherable over pulsating underscoring. Some of the words are Ailey’s own, others are from Harris.

Harris takes the simplified slavery-to-freedom narrative of his progenitor and reflects on it with a more jaded 21st-century mindset. Harris doesn’t take us to the water, he takes us into the mud. As dancers lay prone, their arms undulating as so many rows of corn or wheat waving in a field, one dancer navigates through this thicket of bodies. That image ends part one and begins part two.

On their return, the dancers are no longer in early to mid-20th-century streetwear — A-lined skirts, slacks, overalls, or sweaters of muted earth tones. Their bare feet are now ensconced in black sneakers, while they’ve donned costume designer Mark Eric’s purple and burgundy club wear. The heaviness of Act 1 lifts with a song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as prone bodies rise from that reedy bog. Their hands beseech in prayer, and tremor with hope or trepidation. As drums pound out a samba-style beat, groups of dancers, first men, then women, catch the heat of the beat, heads bob, hips twitch, feet shuffle in swift kick ball changes. And as in all Harris works, the dance becomes a spirit-filled experience.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

This is where Harris finds soul and purpose, letting the dancers loose to deliver a free-flowing, dynamic sequence drawing allusions to prayer, church and praise dancing in a raised arm, a hand waving, hunched shoulders giving way to uplifted faces. Top-rocking shuffles crisply done pound the sleepy ground awake beneath the dancers’ feet. It’s a churchy revival of 21st-century proportions and sentiments – baptisms beside the point. Purification, cleansing comes from the dance itself, bodies pushing, reaching, flinging, falling, roiling with Harris’s trademark hip hop. Men cartwheel one-armed up from the floor and women tangle up in pretzel shapes, then skitter.

The tension releases. We’ve been waiting for these few powerful, spirit-filled moments the entire evening. We just didn’t know it. While the 16 dancers power through eye-catching mini-solos that feel improvised (but likely aren’t), the audience is encouraged to clap along. In our red velvet seats, we’re momentarily part of the circle — in hip hop terms, the cypher — ready to take a turn with a cool spin or fancy kick. They’re not dancing for us, they’re dancing us.

Harris leads his dancers and onlookers almost to the metaphorical mountaintop, but not quite. A sudden break — it felt like a false ending — gives pause. The stage darkens. The dancers gather close, then one lone man, in silhouette, walks away. Is it Ailey resurrecting? Is it Lazarus? Ailey’s distinctive recorded voice reminisces about what compelled him to create — those “blood memories,” recalling what it was like to grow up black, poor but God-fearing, in small-town Texas.

“Lazarus” does not sugarcoat. Harris’s celebratory sequences feel more real than the easy climax of Ailey’s church-infused “Revelations.” In contrast to the historical images wedded into the collective unconscious of even the most modest student of American history, this homage to Ailey, the man and the creative force, focuses an unforgiving lens on the realities of being black in America today. That was Ailey’s story and his wellspring. Side by side, “Revelations” and “Lazarus” converse about despair and hope, past and future, tradition and innovation. And, of course, the indomitable spirit Alvin Ailey carried, which is now lighting the way to a new generation.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.

Photos: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus,” photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Kennedy Center.

Cuban Ballet Strives To Leave Behind the 20th Century

Posted in Ballet by lisatraiger on January 28, 2019

Don Quixote and Giselle
Ballet Nacional de Cuba
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
May 30 – June 3, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

valdes cuban_donq_09-1

The star of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s most recent U.S. tour did no pirouettes, arabesques or grand jetes. She simply stood and executed a little port de bras ballet with her arms. Before the curtain was lifted at the Kennedy Center Opera House, an announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, pleased turn your attention to the box.” The audience turned around and peered upward. Ninety-seven-year-old Alicia Alonso, channeling fictional faded movie star Norma Desmond, rose in the center box at the Kennedy Center Opera House, her skin ghostly pale, interrupted by oversized black glasses, her hair wrapped in a glamorous, sequined-studded turban, waved and fluttered her arms – suggesting the last gasp of a dying swan.

The prima ballerina assoluta has, of course, earned those accolades. A brief film recounted the Cuban dancer’s life and her early career in the U.S., dancing with Ballet Caravan, New York City Ballet’s precursor, and then-brand-new American Ballet Theatre, before returning home to found the Cuba’s national ballet school in 1948. Her determination is legendary: after losing much of her sight at 21 and subsequent surgeries and bedrest for a year, she learned and rehearsed the role of Giselle lying in bed, then returned to the studio and stage. It became her signature, defining Giselle for generations to follow.

Nearly to the day of the fortieth anniversary of the National Ballet of Cuba’s United States debut at the Kennedy Center, the company and Dame Alonso returned, May 30-June 3, 2018, closing out Artes de Cuba, the largest Cuban arts festival in the world, featuring music, theater, dance and visual arts. Bringing two classics for which the company is renowned, Giselle and Don Quixote, was a safe choice for story-ballet-hungry Kennedy Center audiences. They enabled the company to show off its well-trained corps and principals in easy-to-digest works.

While Alonso and her late ex-husband and company co-founder, Ferdinand Alonso, honed their ballet technique in New York in the 1940s, once the island nation came under Fidel Castro’s hold, there was virtually no American contact for decades, lending the company a decidedly Soviet technical prowess – sturdy balances, muscular jumps and turns. In fact, in some ways these dancers are more Russian in their attack and technique than present-day Russian dancers.

The Cuban’s Don Quixote resembles the nation itself – striving to be up-to-date yet stuck in the mid-20th century. Sets and costumes appear a bit shabby, but lend the ballet a quaint, simple aura. The ladies’ pink, yellow, and lavender flounced dresses have seen better days, as have the matadors’ and gypsies’ flimsy red capes. But no matter, it’s the dancing that should shine.

Alonso and her assistants have added some sunny flair to the proceedings beyond the principals – Kitri and Basilio, the young lovers, who seek to marry, against Lorenzo, Kitri’s father’s, wishes. The title role, the doddering Don, danced on opening night by Yansiel Pujada, is played as a gentle, feeble dreamer; his clouded vision sees dragons where shaky windmills stand, and a queen when Kitri treats him kindly. His Sancho Panza, loyal aide de camp Dairon Darius, has a soft side for the old man that’s sweet-natured in the way he takes his hand and leads him or calms his agitations.

Viengsay Valdes was no stranger to Washington audiences as Kitri, having performed the role with verve and astonishing balances – it felt like she could have made a sandwich balanced on one leg en pointe, the other lifted high — as a guest with The Washington Ballet in 2009. On opening night in 2018 with her home company, nearly a decade later, she battled wobbles in her arabesques en pointe and unsteadiness even in completing her pirouettes. She smiled appealingly, though her fiery temperament was set on low. She managed to finish her requisite fish dives and supported pirouettes with flourish.

Alas, few sparks flew between Valdes and tall Dani Hernandez, her rather milquetoast Basilio. He used his lanky frame and long legs for lengthy jumps that stretched across the stage. Ariel Martinez, the lead matador, proved spicier, his power-packed barrel leaps and knee-ending turns punctuated with a slinky-like arch of his back. The Opera House orchestra played bright tempos under the baton of Giovanni Duarte, who milked the Minkus score with syncopated pauses, especially for Valdez to savor an extra 3 or 5 seconds in poses.

Alonso’s Giselle doesn’t veer from its classic Romantic roots. Premiere danseuse Sadaise Arencibia proves herself up to the task. In act one she is pony-tailed and playful, though reserved, even shy as Albrecht – Raul Abreu – woos her and wins her heart. Ernesto Diaz as Hilarion, bearded and earthy, is no match for Abreu’s refined, poetic mannerisms.

Act I offers no surprises, the dancing and mine by the principles and the corps de ballet are sufficient, without being spectacular. The white act II is when the ballet should sing. The Wilis, floating and bourre-ing the stage in a wave of white tulle, are a power-packed army, not delicate ballerinas. And Ginett Moncho as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, emits an icy chill; her staunch gaze could crack glass. Here Arencibia’s gentility and lush technique softens her cold, ghostly nighttime forest compatriots. And her gracious generosity doesn’t only save Albrecht from his dance to death, it elevates the steps closer toward sublime.   

Photo: Viengsay Valdes and Dani Hernandez in Alicia Alonso’s Don Quixote, courtesy Kennedy Center.

 

This review originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. Click here to subscribe.

Farewell

Posted in Ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on July 7, 2018

 

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Forever Balanchine Farewell Performances
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
December 7-9, 2017

By Lisa Traiger
farrell-gounode

Forever Balanchine, the program at the Kennedy Center December 7 through 9, 2017, heralded the final performances of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. It occurred during an ignominious moment for the ballet world: New York City Ballet, the company founded by Farrell’s artistic mentor, was awash in accusations related to the behavior of its artistic director, Peter Martins, Balanchine’s chosen successor — and a frequent Farrell partner during their illustrious performing careers.

Farrell built her ballet company from scratch, under the auspices of modest support, financial and otherwise, from the Kennedy Center, with the intention of preserving and resuscitating Balanchine dances not often performed. Over the company’s 17 years, there have been ups and downs in what has essentially been a pick-up troupe with an annual Kennedy Center run (typically at the smaller Eisenhower Theater) and little else — no significant touring, no new commissions, no permanent home for rehearsals. Some dancers kept their “day jobs” with other companies, while others put all their stock in Farrell, even though they only rehearsed and performed a couple of weeks annually in some years.

This set up often resulted in a rag-tag feel to the company. Time and again it wasn’t rehearsed quite enough to tackle the intricate physical and musical demands of some of Balanchine’s more obscure works. Audiences regularly suffered second-rate performances for a chance to revel in the aura of a brilliant muse and how she molded and shaped her selective repertory.

But the company pulled out all the stops for its final performances in the center’s Opera House, at long last living up to the Farrell-Balanchine legacy. The company of 43 dancers appeared well rehearsed, but more auspicious, they truly danced together, bringing breath and soul to the music — accompaniment provided by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the baton of Nathan Fifield. Both long-time Farrell dancers — Natalia Magnicaballi, who has danced with Farrell from the start, Heather Ogden, and Michael Cook, among others — and soloists and a corps de ballet of well-trained and finely tuned dancers would have, alas, during a different time, made this a company to watch, rather than one to eulogize.

As hard as it is to build a ballet company from scratch, no one had better materials than Farrell. She spent more than two decades as Balanchine’s muse, starting her career as a coltish teenager and maturing to a beloved embodiment of the Balanchinian aesthetic. Her notable musicality, her lithe line, her dramatic expressiveness, and her daring on stage captured the hearts of many. As artistic director, she made it her practice to revive overlooked Balanchine repertory. Among the ballets she reinstated, “Gounod Symphony” (1958) provided a glimpse at some less-seen but lovely patterns and steps-nestled-within-steps. Thirty dancers surround and weave around a central couple — Magnicaballi and Cook. The original pink and yellow costumes have been redesigned. Holly Hynes’s chic black or white strapless bell-shaped dresses give those kaleidoscopic floor patterns new vivacity: they’re clear, crisp and smartly modern and the black-and-white palette is an artful nod to the black-and-white practice clothes Balanchine sometimes used to replace tutus.   

“Meditation” was the first ballet Balanchine made for Farrell and she owns the rights to it — a gift to her from its creator. A love poem in movement and music (Tchaikovsky), the ballet begins and then ends with a man (Kirk Henning on opening night), alone on stage, his head in his hands. An apparition, the ballerina, enters. Elisabeth Holowchuk is not quite the visionary spirit the ballet requires, but as the brief work concludes, we get an inkling of the intense passion that Balanchine felt for his then-young muse who inspired this work. It’s a love unrequited, but not unexpressed, in this ballet. The dancing alludes to heartbreak as Holowchuk and Henning entwine, their hands clasping, then he supports her in arabesque. But, ultimately, she backs away into darkness; he remains, bereft.

The opening night program began with “Chaconne,” from 1976. At its premiere Farrell danced the duet with Peter Martins. Here Heather Ogden and Thomas Garrett took some time to warm to each other and to the audience. The ballet has a split personality. The opening corps de ballet section features eight women, their hair loose, wearing flowing skin-toned chiffon — resembling Grecian priestesses. The couple returns for a more formal duet, and the rest of the ballet is danced in sky-blue tutus. The ballet’s title alluded to French court dance, and the second part contains courtly underpinnings in its classical structures. Farrell first brought this work into the company repertory in 2002 and revived it in 2007. This performance showed a strengthened corps and soloists over prior performances.

“Tzigane” was also created for Farrell, but after her return to New York City Ballet in 1975 following a hiatus. No longer an ingénue, Balanchine showcased his mature ballerina with a sultry entrance: a slow walk punctuated with gypsy-like flourishes of her hands. Magnicaballi has the spice and verve to heat up the Ravel score, parse out some czardas-like steps and attract her partner Cook. It’s a brief work — just nine minutes — but watching Magnicaballi interpret the Ravel violin solo, then backed up by a corps of four women and four men, hinted at the power and sex appeal that Farrell must have imbued in the role. Magnicaballi was steamy and Cook stalked her with ardor, but moments felt more like embers than flames.

Over her long career as a dancer, educator and artistic director, Farrell has received numerous accolades and awards, but she had not received acknowledgement for her contributions to her adopted city, Washington, D.C. That came December 7, when the Pola Nirenska Award was presented to Farrell in honor of her lifetime achievement in dance. Born in Poland, Nirenska escaped the Holocaust and eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where she became a notable matriarch for modern dance in the region. The honor puts a stamp of finality on the 17-year presence the Suzanne Farrell Ballet had in Washington, noting her contributions to the cultural life of the city through her illustrious dancing, teaching and artistic direction. 

Above: “Gounod Symphony,” The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company, choreography by George Balanchine, photo: Paul Kolnik

This review originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Ballet Review. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review here

© 2018 Lisa Traiger

 

     

Portraits

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on June 17, 2018

‘Portraits’
Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
June 15-16, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Burgess I am Vertical Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli high res (1)

The portraits hang solemnly, unmoving at the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery. Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess breathes life and movement into these two-dimensional works of art with a triptych of works he titled “Portraits” for the Terrace Theater stage June 15-16. The first choreographer-in-residence at the Washington, D.C. art gallery, Burgess has immersed himself in the galleries, finding inspiration from the paintings and photographs that hang there. The pieces were originally made for the gallery. The transfer from the less-than-ideal atrium space with its soaring, wavy glass ceiling that bridges the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery was an auspicious one. The choreography fares much better framed on a proscenium stage than in the more open setting, where site lines and cranky kids, muddy acoustics and no theatrical lighting marred the performance experience.

Burgess created “I Am Vertical” last year from a close study of the intimate single-room exhibit “Sylvia Plath: One Life.” And though the exhibit was small, displaying some of the poet’s self-portraits, along with ephemera like a typewriter, family photos and pages from her manuscripts, her inspiration proved monumental for Burgess in parsing this writer’s brief (she died a suicide at 30) but momentous life. “I Am Vertical” does a close reading of the relationship between Plath and her husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes. Hughes was both Plath’s great love and her destruction. Burgess shows us the multi-facets of a creative mind by using four dancers to represent Plath, and three perform as Hughes. Sometimes they move together, but sometimes they split into fragments of a personality. The stark but attractive set design by Kelly Moss Southall and Ben Sanders, with its black diagonal runway cutting across the white stage floor, and a writer’s desk at either end suggests the great chasm between Plath and Hughes. The choreography uses that black line to draw the two characters and also as a representation of the blackness of Plath’s suffering — she was diagnosed with clinical depression.

The women, robed in attractive burgundy dresses by Judy Hansen and mid-20th-century hairstyles, begin with a tad of jitterbug to a decaying version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Their partners, clad in crisp gray slacks and shirts, bounce along, until they don’t, splintering off into their separate worlds. Burgess’s movement language here is specific — and parsed out succinctly, as Plath did with her words on the page. Each woman at times reflects what the others have done — one arm raised, the other to the side then one hand’s fingertips rest on the breastbone — suggesting tension between reaching out and turning inward. Plath’s life was a struggle between those two dichotomies. There are moments when a Sylvia and a Ted dance together, yet the various couplings among the four women and three men, never suggest ease. Rather a stiffness and formality subsumes these moments and, at times, a pair spars. He grabs a wrist. She turns away. And they both retreat to their respective desks, their alter egos silently observing. The soundtrack features some discomfiting strings, percussion and piano (Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen and Sophia Gubaidulina) and some archival interviews with Hughes and Plath. But most touching and telling are the segments when Plath reads her poem “I Am Vertical,” leading to the powerful, mordant ending: “But I would rather be horizontal” and “I shall be useful when I lie down finally” as each woman lies in down on the blackness in turn, the lights dimming.

Burgess I Am Vertical high res Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton (1)

Drawing from the exhibit “The Face of Battle: 9/11 to Now,” “After 1001 Nights” takes a subdued look at the battle scarred. Laid out like a chess match, the dancers, clad in drab tan slacks and shirts suggesting military khakis, move strategically in formation, initially on opposing sides. At center, two men — a veteran and a young soldier — shuffle oversized army men around a table, the dancers follow suit mimicking the formation in live form. Their lives have been rendered as insignificant as playing pieces on a chess board. The stoic, contained approach to movement suits the military setting, which later heats up with some hand-to-hand duets, but, like most Burgess works, emotions and choreographic choices are held in check. No one gets out of hand or out of line, even with John Zorn’s roaming klezmer-like score of horns and woodwinds. Burgess suggests that though war has damaged these men – and women, the scars remain buried. These veterans and soldiers remain stoic, uncompromised.

Closing the evening, “Confluence” provides a neat companion to “I Am Vertical” in look and sensibility. They both channel mid-20th-century sentiments, styles and sensibilities. Here Burgess took inspiration from a photographic portrait of one of modern dance’s iconic second-generation figures — Doris Humphrey — from the exhibit “Dancing the Dream.” A humanist in her choreographic vision, Humphrey founded a movement technique based on fall and recovery, though not much of that physicality is evident. The portrait, shot by Barbara Morgan, is all light and shadow, grays and blacks, with her subject’s pale skin pierced by deep-set eyes. The five women and five men channel introspection and angst in their chic black costumes — the women with sheer skirts over leggings and midriff-baring tanks, the men again in neat pants and shirts.

Some of Burgess’s favorite movements that arm pose — one up, one out (in ballet we’d call it third position) — and the touching of the breastbone repeat, along with some slashing side leg lifts and arms. Yet these choreographic “tells” are not quite unique enough to name them “signature” moves; they just happen to be favored moments in Burgess’s movement vocabulary. That said, the piece is attractively danced. In fact, the company appears technically as strong as I’ve ever seen it, with a marked improvement by the men, who have often been less adept than the women in prior years.

The accompanying score also channels a mid-20th-century sensibility, with Ernest Bloch’s sometimes nervous violin and incessant piano chords. “Confluence” comes together with a sense of grave purpose, a heaviness of intent that suggests Humphrey’s aesthetic — even her lightest and brightest works reflected a sense of importance and a notion of seriousness that made early and mid-20th century moderns high artists. Like Humphrey, though, Burgess’s works are always well-polished, and his never veer far from pretty. He favors clean, articulate lines and his dancers comply. You won’t find dark, gut-wrenching moments — no gut-wrenching contractions or contortions — and the dancers, even as soldiers and veterans slumped on the floor, maintain a sense of lift. They may give into gravity and fall, but they never collapse in heaps.

Beyond his residencies at the Smithsonian, Burgess, a full professor in the dance department at George Washington University, has toured his company throughout the world, often on the behest of the State Department. Originally founded to provide voice for Asian American dancers and ideals, this program in one among many that has moved beyond his founding mission as the company celebrates its 25th year in Washington, D.C.

 

Photos courtesy Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Top: “I Am Vertical,” Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli, by Jeff Watts
Bottom: “I Am Vertical,” Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton, by Jeff Watts
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published June 16, 2018
This piece originally appeared on DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.