D.C. DanceWatcher

Dancing in Red

Posted in Ballet, Broadway, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 13, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

THE RED SHOES

Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Johan Persson

Generations of budding ballerinas have lusted after the shiny crimson satin pointe shoes in the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes. Who can resist those shoes, they make the wearer dance, and dance, and dance. This week the Kennedy Center Opera House is filled with ballet lovers captivated by the red shoe mystique. Matthew Bourne’s theatrical production re-imagines the Emeric Pressburger-Michael Powell film as a wordless evening of movement theater with mixed results.

Bourne, the British director and choreographer, has long demonstrated his love of classics. His Swan Lake featured a prince discovering his sexuality and a gaggle of bare-chested male swans, while his Sleeping Beauty, seen here two seasons ago, was populated with vampires. His Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray, and Play Without Words all evoke classic movies. Bourne’s The Red Shoes is a riff on the Technicolor movie, using a recorded score from Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Hermann. Like the film, it pits art against life. Art wins.

Usually an astute storyteller, here Bourne has trouble boiling down the narrative into a compelling performance without dialogue. He does maintain the vivid color and heightened musicality of the motion picture, but paring down the story to essentials denudes it of some of its drama.Victoria Page is a young ballet dancer vying for a company job and, ultimately, stardom. She convinces – through the help of her overbearing mother – impresario Boris Lermontov to hire her for his world-renowned European company, with its repertory of classic and cutting-edge choreography. As a rising starlet, Page gets a shot at the spotlight when the lead ballerina suffers an injury: a Broadway plot line for the ages, which differs from the film when the lead ballerina marries and leave the company. Lermontov sets his sights on Page’s stardom and becomes jealous when she takes up with a handsome, young composer, Julian Craster. The ballet’s centerpiece is a realization of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a spare, black and white mid-century modern vision of a dancer caught up in the enticing life of an artist.

The 16-member cast of the New Adventures company is exceedingly attractive and adept at bringing Bourne’s ideas to fruition. They dance with the flair of storytellers but remain mindful of ballet’s demanding technical precision. As Victoria, Ashley Shaw resembles the film’s ardent lead, the exquisite Moira Shearer, and we understand her best in her heart-breaking duet with Julian – American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes on opening night. The pair have been rejected by Lermontov after their affection rankled the possessive producer. Down on their luck performing at low-rent music halls instead of grand opera houses, their relationship frays. We see that conflict danced out in tensile angles. Gomes, too, demonstrates his capacity for dramatic storytelling in a solo that makes visual his conductor’s creative process in musical composition. The interpretation is of an artist at work, discovering the subtleties and gaudiness of Hermann’s music. It’s a compelling visualization of an artist in process. Alas, Sam Archer’s Lermontov – a Diaghilev or Balanchine-like figure – does not inhabit the severity and control that an old-school impresario would exhibit, which puts Shaw at a disadvantage – her struggle between her director and her beloved composer isn’t as compelling as it could be. And that’s one of the best elements of Bourne’s Red Shoes: he shows artists hell-bent on perfecting their art.

Act one is filled with intrigue: backstage rehearsal scenes and artistic encounters. The company, dressed in their rag-tag rehearsal togs a la mid-1940s, dance through sections of a 20th-century classic, Les Sylphides, an homage to Romanticism set to an aching Chopin piano score. These show-within-a-show moments are a Bourne trademark that pays homage to the past in smartly succinct vignettes.

Act two features a Gatsby-esque party for the dancers, who Charleston, tango, and conga with abandon overlooking the Mediterranean sea on the French Riviera. The talents of designer and frequent Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston are a key element in interpreting the work. He remains loyal to the saturated colors of 1940s Hollywood and the centerpiece is a show curtain and a stage-within-a-stage that spotlights the onstage/backstage tensions that percolate within a ballet company. (On opening night, a chandelier flew in too early and the internal show curtain got stuck causing a nearly 10-minute pause. “Safety first,” Bourne remarked after the performance.)

Marcelo Gomes

Marcelo Gomes as Julian Craster and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Shaw in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Lawrence K. Ho.

 

There is much to like about this lavish, lovingly conceived production, but, it can’t, and shouldn’t, upstage the classic film. For those planning to attend, do your homework, re-watch the Powell/Pressburger movie. It will enhance your enjoyment. In the movie, Lermontov asks young Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” He responds, “I must.” And Vicky says, “That’s my answer to you.” The Red Shoes is a full immersion in the art of living a fully committed creative life. Let’s hope this re-telling inspires another generation of ballerinas enamored of shiny, red satin slippers that inspire the dance.

© 2017 by Lisa Traiger. Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and reprinted here with kind permission.


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Percussive Family Reunion

Posted in Dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2017

Lotus, featuring Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Omar Edwards, Derick Grant, Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Baakari Wilder and the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet
The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 7, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Tap dancers are family. As family they gather together, catch up, trade stories, reminisce, honor their forbears and simply, yet profoundly, enjoy each others’ company. Saturday evening’s sold-out Lotus reunited a half-dozen dancers who initially connected in the rehearsal studios and on stage in the 1995 Broadway groundbreaker Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. The musical, conceived by director George C. Wolfe with choreography by Savion Glover, pushed the percussive dance form into the limelight, showcasing its deep and sometimes dark roots in the ignominious slave history that continues to haunt our nation. The young, then-unknown dancers at the time, were just discovering that tap could speak deeply of America’s racial bias and slave history.

Lotus tap Ken Cen

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick Grant and Omar Edwards front the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. Not shown: Baakari Wilder. Photo: Chris Stark, Stark Photo Productions

 

Today those dancers are at the heights of their careers. Lotus brought them together for one night, but the reunion wasn’t as much about looking back over the decades, but of forging ahead.

Joseph Webb, a Maryland native who most recently directed the American Embassy of Dance studio in Northwest Washington, D.C., brought his peers together as both a celebration and a meditation on the vitality and cultural import of tap. In the just-re-opened Terrace Theater – now wrapped in warm undulating wood – these six dancers hoofed their hearts out, drawing on the glorious tap dance history of their forbears – teachers, mentors, friends and family who supported their dreams and got them to this point in time.

Yet there was nothing reverential for too long. In the darkness, the call and response of the Hoofer’s Line, “Ho yeah, ho yeah ho,” got the 75-minute program off to a rousing start, each dancer entering in a rumbling tattoo of rhythms to the accompaniment of the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. The roar of paddle-and-rolls was a thrilling backdrop as each dancer showed their stuff – a taste of what was to come. This opening gambit reached its denouement as the six wound themselves into a close circle before whipping out a turn that went to blackout.

Tap, like many improvisatory dance forms, has a strong competitive streak and old school hoofers often issued a “challenge” to other dancers in the line or circle to try to best them. Here, these six took on the challenge with a sense of camaraderie, egging one another on with friendly encouragement. The result: terrifically complex rhythmic conversations, syncopated dialogues that speak of past, present and future all at once.

The six performers brought together for Lotus teemed with energy, their footwork a succession of fiery pyrotechnics and calmer meanderings exploring the rhythmic universe. Each exhibited distinctive traits and I’m willing to bet that with a bit more time, one could as readily identify them by their beats in the dark as on the warmly lit stage.

There was Omar Edwards, the showman of the group, radiant in his stark white suit. And Derick Grant with a knit watch cap atop his head, the workhorse of the sextet, in t-shirt and jeans. Joseph Webb, his man bun bobbling atop his head, a city-slicker scarf around his neck, exuded cool, calmness in his dark shades. An attractive combination of uptown and downtown, Jason Samuels Smith is the swell of the group, sharply attired in a three-piece blue business suit and shiny gold tap shoes, he can hit hard, and slum it, but also, demonstrate a lightness. The intellect of the gang is lanky, understated Baakari Wilder, another local, who co-directs the youth company Capitol Tap and teaches at Knock on Wood studio. In his trademark purple tap shoes he’s the deep listener, and when he puts foot to wood, it’s with a studied approach, his head cocked slightly to the left, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed. Finally, but most certainly not least, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards shows the feminine side of what can sometimes become a boys’ club of heavy hitting tap. But she’s no shrinking violet. In fact, she’s easily as fierce as the men, her waist-length braids whipping behind her, her upper body grace belying the power pumping from her feet. Occasionally in heels, Sumbry-Edwards recalls the popular adage: “Sure Fred Astaire was great, Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”

The evening incorporated voiceovers from some of the performers, talking about why tap was so vital to them and who they wished to credit as mentors and inspiration. These monologues were often quite moving – the only problem was at times it was hard to discern all that was said over the band and the taps.

Edwards’s recorded monologue spoke about his not always easy journey, but, he said, “it wasn’t as bas as it could have been … every day I love to hear the sound of metal hitting wood … and I still dream about tap dancing.” He also removed his white patent leather tap boots and, barefoot, paid tribute to his Liberian-born mother, who only received her first pair of shoes at 14. Shortly after, he grabbed a microphone and urged the audience into a clapping call-and-response, allowing those sitting in the dark a moment to trade rhythms with a few of this generation’s best tap dancers. Wilder, the most reserved of the six, spoke on tape about his support system — his mother, his family and his faith — and how he has slowly but steadily grown into his gift. Webb stated that for him tap is “a healing art form.” He acknowledged the gratitude he held for his master teachers, including Lon Chaney (the tap dancer), Gregory Hines, Diane Walker and others. Then his solo paid tribute in steps – the smooth Chaney-isms, the flashier speed of Hines, the lilt of Walker, the playfulness of Buster Brown. Webb spoke, too, about his admiration for the work of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who not only sought her own freedom, but helped many others escape the hardship of American slavery. Webb and his tap brothers and sister dance in the footsteps of those who came before.

The band drew selections from jazz and blues classics – Thelonius Monk, Cole Porter, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Gershwin brothers. More contemporary voices included Wilder’s solo danced to a piece by popular composer and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo and Sumbry-Edwards’s solo “Just Swinging,” by the dancer and Alison Miller.

Also beautiful about tap is that it is as much a musical form as a dance form. As the band played Branford Marsalis’s “Mo Betta Blues” longtime friends – they call themselves brothers – Webb and Wilder syncopated the piece with their quicksilvery taps. Samuels Smith sliced up rhythms like a birthday cake performing to Miles Davis’s “Joshua” and Lee Morgan’s “Ceora.” Webb followed trombonist Reginald Cyntje and trumpet player Joseph Jamaal Teachey on a sharply cut swath of light reminiscent of a New Orleans Second Line. And the rousing, and too short, closing number that brought the gang of tap friends together featured Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.”

Lotus tap Ken Cen (2)

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb and Omar Edwards with the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet, Photo Chris Stark of Stark Photo Productions

Each of these dancers had plenty to say about the form, their mentors and what tap means to them. They also let their feet and bodies do the talking. Edwards with high kicks, and Nicholas Brothers stunners like a flip into a jazz split. Grant followed a hard hitting section with some butterfly-like ripples on the floor. Samuels Smith brought a high-powered ease to his riffs and more than a little dazzle with some tricky balances, slides and rolls. Webb offered lighter flashy footwork along with his million dollar smile. Sumbry-Edwards could play the flirt, especially at the end in her sequined little red dress, but she did a stunning riff on time steps that could put a mathematician to shame with its numeric complexities. Wilder, the lightest of the dancers, sometimes recalled old time soft shoe in his easygoing lilt.

This format, which also featured projections of unnamed portraits – sketched, painted and photographed – of African Americans from the past, seems to have been drawn from last fall’s DC Metro Tap Roots program at Dance Place. This time with more dancers, it’s more fleshed out, but there’s still more to do, more stories and experiences to be shared. As the six dancers and the musical quartet stitched out their rhythmic patterns in shifting solos, pairings and groupings, the moment became one of tribute to the multitude of unnamed, and perhaps nameless, ancestors whose lives and struggles made this moment of celebration and homage possible.

Throughout the evening, tap aficionados nodded in recognition of steps, patterns, rhythms and riffs that drew upon the work of beloved tap masters, including the likes of Buster Brown, Lon Chaney, Gregory Hines, Diane Walker, Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, the Condos Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers and Jeni Le Gon, leaving out many more than I could name.

Webb called this evening Lotus to evoke the flower that, he wrote in the program “grows in the mud ….Tap dance, with deep roots and tradition in African dance, has not always been a just and beautiful experience in America.”

But it’s important to note that Lotus was not just an evocation of the past. It was a look to the future. These six dancers are at the peaks of their careers and they dance in acknowledgement of the lineage they carry in their muscles and bones, their sinews and souls, but they are ever moving forward, forging their own paths. It’s America’s story, told through dance, through steps in time, rhythms that speak of ancient tribal calls and modern hip hop stances. That is the story of tap dance – one of our prized indigenous American dance forms – that remains rooted in its past as it fearlessly pushes forward. Let’s hope these dancers and musicians can build this one-off into a touring production that would bring this vibrant generation of tap masters to further attention around the nation and beyond. Their voices and feet need to be heard.

© 2017 by Lisa Traiger. Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and reprinted here with kind permission.

 

Archaic/Modern

Posted in Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 21, 2017

“Cave of the Heart”
Martha Graham Dance Company
Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Washington, D.C.
March 3, 2017

“Archaic/Modern” is not only the title of the estimable exhibit of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi mid-20th-century works at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Archaic/modern describes the archetypal and incalculably influential choreography of Martha Graham, one of our nation’s iconic founders of modern dance. Friday evening, in conjunction with the Noguchi exhibit, the Martha Graham Dance Company gave a riveting performance of the iconic Cave of the Heart, one of Graham’s Greek tragedies told from the woman’s point of view.

cave-of-the-heart-ben-schultz-charlotte-landreau-jump_1000The 1946 work is imbued with coiled energy, heightened passion and jealousy restrained until bursting. Based on the myth of Medea, a sorceress in love with Jason, she is awaiting his undivided attention after he has gained the Golden Fleece. Instead, he betrays her with King Creon’s daughter. Graham begins the 30 minute work as Jason returns from his battle. Distilling the complex mythology into a four character ballet, elemental emotions of jealousy, betrayal and revenge are laid bare.

Noguchi’s iconic set with its naturalistic shapes, stepping stones, an amoeba-like green stone snake, a large throne-like centerpiece of black basalt-like material and the formidable spiky spider dress. Distilled to four characters, Graham’s ability to bare emotions through sharply etched contractions of the torso and stylized hand gestures allows each character to speak dynamically through the choreography. Medea, the exquisite compact powerhouse Xin Ying, is like a pot ready to boil over, her energy barely wholly contained. Broad-shouldered Ben Schultz epitomizes a Greek god and as Jason, he’s a typical Graham male lead: with his body-builder’s muscles and pervasive tattoos he fills the stage with heel-stabbing arabesques, and deep lunges his arm cocked as if to stab the air with an arrow.

Creon’s daughter, The Princess, the lovely Charlotte Landreau,  gets carried, suported, lifted and straddled by Jason. The contrast between the two women, Medea, who asserts her strength and holds her ground and The Princess, who acquiesces and follows Jason across the stage on Noguchi’s stepping stones, representing the islands he traversed on his quest.

Blonde hair flowing and draped in a short white tunic, Landreau paints The Princess as a carefree converse to Medea’s edgy sorceress. But Landreau is not wilting, she exhibits her power through her flirtatious jumps and girlish skips, still assertive in their space engulfing Grahamesque manner.  It’s clear this Princess has her eyes on the stunning Jason, wearing briefs and black straps suggestive of bondage across his chest.

The choreography remains consciously specific to Graham’s eye-catching movement language. As if peeling this ancient tale of lovers jealousy and betrayal from antique Greek vases, Graham maintains the flattened two-dimensional quality in some of her movement motifs, most particularly Jason, who seems more a stereotype of muscular machismo than an archetypal warrior. For Medea, a role Graham created for herself, she allowed nothing to rein in the burning rage that lies of a cuckolded woman. While Ying is provocative, in the way she splays and tumbles to the floor, drawing a red ribbon from her heaving chest as if spilling out her guts before devouring the stage space with a series of hip thrusting contortions of the waist.

Graham’s choice to begin this ballet — yes she called her pieces ballet, even at the dawn of modern dance — at the moment in the myth when Medea discovers Jason’s betrayal, provides a gut-wrenching reversal. The commissioned score by Samuel Barber builds to a climax of pulsing, sawing orchestrations that raise the pulse and clarify how growing anger might sound, like itchy strings that accelerate into a grand orchestral gesture as Medea becomes overcome by her unrelenting rage — her eyes narrowed to slits, her fingers splayed like claws, her torso contorting as if she is being eaten from the inside out.

The one calming force in the work appears in Graham’s conception of the Greek chorus, here danced by a one woman, the role serves as both the soothsayer and penitent. She warns of sorrows to come her arms stretched wide, or one hand cupped against her mouth as if calling to calm the impending rage. Leslie Andrea Williams is a lanky and soulful dancer as she spreads her limbs, her fingers trembling, her foot cocked in an angular flexion, that simultaneously heightens and assuages the building tension. There’s a stoic statuesque demeanor to her character that contrasts to the relentless rage that fills Medea and the vapid trust of The Princess.

Cave of the Heart provides a stunning example of the deep and fruitful collaboration between Graham and Noguchi — working on 21 pieces together. They both drew on ancient and archaic elements — Graham in Greek tragedy, Noguchi in natural carved formations — reinventing them for their era. Crafted amid the turmoil of World War II, this highly dramatic psychodrama that delves into the dark and vengeful passions of love at its most destructive, there is much that remains captivating about this 71-year-old work. This most recent rendering in the intimate  shows that the Graham company continues to breathe life into its mid-20th-century classic works, with exacting stagings that capture the elemental emotions that captivated Graham and became central to so many of her works over her more than 70-year career. It was wonderful to hear the dancers breathing for breath lies at the core of Graham’s dance technique: an expulsion of the breath contracts the pelvis and sets the body in motion. Cave of the Heart lives on in the very lungs, bones, blood and sinews of this new generation of Graham dancers.

Ben Schultz and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart, photo Brigid Pierce.
This review was originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted with kind permission.
(c) Lisa Traiger 2017

Spice and Spitfire

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 12, 2017

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Choreography by Alvin Ailey, Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle, Mauro Bigonzetti,  Johan Inger, Christopher Wheeldon, Billy Wilson
February 7 & 8, 2017
The Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger
ailey-revelationsThe Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is looking as strong and beautiful as ever in its annual February visit to The Kennedy Center Opera House. Now in his sixth year as artistic director of the company Alvin Ailey founded in 1958 with the goal of creating a multiethnic modern repertory company, Robert Battle is leaving his imprint. The legendary dancers, including a new younger crop who can tackle both the old school traditional works and contemporary pieces that push them to varying expressive and physical limits, look well honed and perform with amazing strength, flexibility and precision. They can tackle the loose-limbed release technique, balletic pas de deux and conceptual expressionist work. Battle has brought in new repertory including pieces from international choreographers that challenge the dancers and take the company to new realms.

Tuesday evening’s opening night program included as much glitz and glamour in the audience as it did on stage. The 18th annual gala for the company brought out a few big names in business and politics and a theater filled with Ailey lovers who collectively raised more than $1 million for the company’s programs. But it was the dancing that shone brightest.

While the company is beloved for Ailey’s works, including the incomparable program closer “Revelations,” it was and remains foremost a repertory company, bringing in works by American and international choreographers. The opener, the late Billy Wilson’s “The Winter in Lisbon,” sparkled in a new production of the choreographer’s 1992 work, here restaged by longtime Ailey associate and assistant artistic director Masazumi Chaya. With Barbara Forbes’ intensely jewel-toned costumes — emerald, amethyst, burgundy and deep orchid dresses, with matching shoes and tights for the women and neat slacks and shirts for the men — the piece showcased the easy going jazz style beloved by Wilson and Ailey. Set to composition by Dizzy Gillespie and jazzman and founder of the D.C. Jazz Festival Charles Fishman, “Winter” was at turns sultry and slinky, snazzy and cool, and all-around lowdown and hot. Dancers slid and rolled through easy going pirouettes, fan kicks, and hip thrusting turns. Men lifted women into soaring split leaps, tucking into smooth spirals on the next beat. Both sexy and fun, it showed off easy virtuosity.

ailey_walking_mad_8New to the company and to the Kennedy Center, Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” proved both amusing and vaguely inscrutable. Originally created in 2001, but brought into the Ailey rep last year, the piece featured an eight-foot-high wooden wall that became integral to the dance for it could be opened, flattened, pushed into right angles, climbed on, leaned and pushed against and manipulated for varying effects. The dancers clad in nondescript grays and drab dresses on the women, they variously donned trench coats and bowlers or pointy party hats to add a spark of character, color and silliness as Ravel’s “Bolero” built up its stormy froth. Game-like tricks of hide-and seek between opened and closed doorways and one end and the other of this wall provided the light-hearted silliness, and tempered the unfortunate political connotations that talk of a wall brings these days. Inger’s movement vocabulary draws from an improvisational smorgasbord that looks to be influenced by Israeli dance master Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. All loose limbs, extreme moments of attack, pedestrian strolls, unsettling tremors and bold highly physical body slams against walls and other dancers make up Inger’s palette. An alum of Nederlands Dans Theater, which includes Naharin’s choreography in its repertory, the similarities are unsurprising.

Robert Battle’s small, but not inconsequential “Ella,” a tribute and call out to the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is full of personality, spice and spitfire. A tightly packed duet it takes on Fitzgerald’s incomparable scatting (“Airmail Special”) with verve and impeccable timing by dancers Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel. Wednesday night, a second duet, from contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, showcased the more balletic side of the Ailey aesthetic. The pas de deux from “After the Rain” features an emotional arc as the choreography builds, the dancers, gorgeous Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, entwining and spiraling, stretching to their utmost and retreating to sensuous moments laying on the floor.

ailey-bignozettiWednesday evening’s program featured another new to the Kennedy Center work, Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” which proved a stunning showcase for the Ailey dancers’ contemporary skills and their multi-lingual dance languages. A dark work, with dancers clad in black on a shadowy stage demarcated by boxes or cubes of light, the choreography fashions the dancers into clumps and pairs executing variations on contorted and broken body positions, emphasizing flexed arms, bent elbows and knees and sharp contrasting torsions of pairs and groups. Contrasting the angularity are curving and undulating or rolling hips and torsos drawing from street moves and hip hop. Hand gestures, too, suggest another cultural construct — perhaps Indian hastas — sign language. The score, club-influenced music by Ibeyi, a pair of twin sisters with French Cuban cultural and musical roots, propels the dancers along showcasing their virtuosity and taut unison. But, “Deep,” with all its cross- or multi-cultural borrowings of movement and music, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s lovely to watch but shallow in its message.

aileyamericandancetheaterinkyleabrahamsuntitledamerica-photobypaulkolnik_a6df169e-ffea-4b6f-b8d4-210516dd0ba4-prvAlso new to Washington, Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” a section of his full-evening triptych, left a sobering pall. Drawing on interviews with incarcerated citizens and their family members — which we hear in voiceovers along with a score featuring Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai, Kris Bowers and traditional spirituals, the piece dealt plainly with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Dressed in nondescript gray pants and open tops that from the back could resemble prison jumpsuits, the dancers execute choreographer Abraham’s pain-evoking gestures: hands held aloft in a “don’t shoot” posture, or clasped behind the back as if handcuffed or behind the head for a body search. The half-lit, smoke-filled stage with sharply delineated boxes of light felt oppressive and the dancers, lined up and filed on and off the stage into darkness, like a chain gang. Abraham’s movement is loosely constructed but hard edged, the oppositional attack contrasting the few moments of connection. The work leaves the dancers in their singular isolating bubbles, as voiceovers speak of the loneliness and disconnection of prison life. The hard faces and clenched fists speak powerfully about where Abraham’s America is now.

ailey-revel-christopher-duggan_135That pall lifted as the lights lowered and the hum of a gospel chorus took everyone to Ailey church. His “Revelations,” the 1960 masterwork that closes virtually every program the company dances, has become an expectation for audiences who seek spiritual succor and uplift the indelible choreography. With its traditional gospel score, its journey from slavery to religious renewal to freedom it’s iconic. At the first hummed strains “I Been ‘Buked,” applause takes over. With each emblematic moment — dancers curved over their birdlike arms punctuating the air, the internal struggle made visible through staunch abdominal movements in “I Wanna Be Ready,” the smooth hip rolling walks of “Wade in the Water” — the applause builds. These moments have become iconic, seared into memory by Ailey fans and appreciated for embodied legacy they carry: the choreography itself renders the story of African Americans in vivid wordless moments. At last, a bright, hot sun shimmers on the back scrim and the church-like revival reaches its peak with “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” The women wave their straw fans, the men pulse their shoulders and take their loving scolds with equanimity. “Revelations” has become the most-performed, and likely beloved, modern dance in the world. For the company it represents past, present and future, returning young dancers to the root of the company’s ethos and bringing audiences a spiritual charge that will sustain them until next year.

This season the company included area natives Elisa Clark, who trained at Maryland Youth Ballet; Ghrai Devore; Samantha Figgins who trained at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Jacqueline Green who danced at Baltimore School for the Arts; Daniel Harder who studied at Suitland High School’s Center for Visual and Performing Arts; and Jermaine Terry.

Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” Matthew Rushing and Dwanna Smallwood, photo by Andrew Eccles
Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” Jamar Roberts, Jacquelin Harris, and Glenn Allen Sims, photo by Paul Kolnik
Mauro Bignozetti’s “Deep,” choreography Mauro Bignozetti, photo by Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” photo by Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” photo by Christopher Duggan

 

© 2017 by Lisa Traiger. Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and reprinted here with kind permission.

 

Erotic

Posted in Burlesque, Contemporary dance, Dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on January 8, 2017

Antithesis: Dance Place Practice
Gesel Mason Performance Projects

Conception and choreography by Gesel Mason
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
January 6, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

mason-antithesis-2017-pc-kelly-shroads-photography-1252-2
Since one of her first independent performances in Washington, D.C., at Dance Place, dancer and choreographer Gesel Mason has been navigating the taboo and the titillating. She has put a bold face on works that wrestled with race, racism and its deep-rooted role in American history in her A Declaration of Independence: The Story of Sally Hemmings (2001), as well as her ongoing “No Boundaries” project, which gives voice to African-American choreographers in a series of commissioned and revived solos. Mason also has a biting wit: one of her signature solos, How To Watch a Modern Dance Concert or What the Hell Are They Doing On Stage? takes down the sacred cows of 20th-century modernism and post-modernism in dance, with the choreographer’s tongue firmly planted inside her cheek. And, finally, and more than for good measure, Mason has often used her own text and poetry, including the searing “No Less Black,” as accompaniment to her choreography.

On her return to Dance Place, the nation’s capital’s most popular dance performance venue, she converts the black box studio theater into a post-modern burlesque house for her evening-length inquiry into the erotic, and the exotic, of embodied female sexuality. It’s a daring endeavor for Mason, who early in career was a company member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange until forming her own project-based troupe and production company, Gesel Mason Performance Projects. Over nearly two decades, the dancer/dancemaker has tackled the profane and provocative before in Taboos and Indiscretions (1998) and her later Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t (2010), when she collected the stories and movements of District-based sex workers for a piece that gave voice to often well-hidden and ignored female stories.

So it was interesting that Mason names her latest work with a less provocative and more academic title: Antithesis. Developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is now an assistant professor, it continues her explorations into personal and public sexuality, the role of the female in society and, an oft unremarkable theme in much American modern dance, personal expression and self-exploration. The piece features a cast of ten, including burlesque dancers Essence Revealed, Peekaboo Pointe and Love Muwwakkil, as well as more traditionally trained modern — or as Mason refers to them, post-modern — dancers (Ching-I Chang Bigelow, John Gutierrez, Kayla Hamilton, Kate Speer and Rita Jean Kelly Burns are among the cast), with a cameo by Mason’s mom, Andrea Mason. The work, in development for nearly three years, brings together these two worlds where the female body is on display, either in the dance studio and concert stage for the modern dancers, or in the strip club and burlesque stage for the pasty-clad performers. In Mason’s purview, it’s a chaotic collision.

With a stripper pole prominently displayed before the studio mirrors, the show begins. Clad in a silky bathrobe Mason serves as emcee, introducing the audience, seated on all four sides, to the ladies. There’s Peekaboo, the taut bleached blonde with an Ultrabrite smile, in her patriotic g-string and pasties. And Love, a virtuoso of the pole, caressing, climbing and sliding on her apparatus like Simone Biles on the balance beam. But there are other more prosaic dancers, whose talent for, say, Quickbooks, savings accounts and bank account reconciliations is lauded as vigorously in Mason’s biting narrative. And on that note it becomes clear that for the next hour the audience is in store for more that so-called tits and ass. Mason has constructed a probing critique of a slice of contemporary eroticism.

Informed by poet and literary critic Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Mason set out to understand the female body as it is seen and used, empowered and comodified, in various public spaces in the 21st century. For Lorde, the erotic isn’t eroticism, particularly not derived from the male gaze that has made women’s bodies objects to be stared at, re-shaped, manipulated, and appropriated. Lorde views the erotic as harnessing female power — that vital physical and spiritual lifeforce that imbues creativity of all kinds on individuals. Eroticism, then, is about knowing oneself truly, and it’s about embracing the chaos of life and living.

Antithesis pursues that idea by mediating between the patriarchal view of the erotic — the specific kinds and shapes of women’s bodies on display for male desire and pleasure. But instead, especially the burlesque dancers demonstrate complete comfort and confidence in their bodies. They own their eroticism, their physical power and the hold they have over the opposite sex in particular. And they revel in it. They perform their unique identities for their own pleasure; the audience is merely along for the ride. The pasties and g-strings? Sure they’re hot and sexy, as are the burlesques and strip teases. But removed from a gentleman’s club or a strip joint and located in a typical concert venue, the performative nature of the dance is transformed from eroticism into commentary on the feminine, the female, patriarchy and wholesale comodification of bodies, whether its pasties or Quickbooks.

Mason then traverses the divide between women in modern and post-modern dance and women who publicly display and sell their bodies. Is there, ultimately, a difference? Aren’t we all for sale? Is there always a price? Is one art and the other commerce or objectification?

One dancer, barefoot, clad in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, rolls on the floor, releases her weight, shifting her dynamics with limber ease, her face an expressionless mask. Then on comes Peekaboo in her stilettos and pasties. She parses through the same movement phrase, her firm, sensual body on display, her bored look recalling a pin-up girl. Context is everything. A fan-kick or split is merely a piece of choreography. It becomes meaningful in performance. It’s the question of who … and where. And, as Mason noted in a post-performance talk Friday evening, each time Antithesis is performed, she considers it site-specific. At home in Colorado, it has been shown in a church, in a strip club, and in someone’s private home. Its re-staging at Dance Place is, she said, unique.

While plenty of female flesh and embedded discourse on the erotic filled the hour, ultimately it felt like Mason and her performers didn’t push far enough. Most believable and most comfortable in their bodies and skin were Essence and Peekaboo and Love. Much was said about how the process challenged the rest of the performers, who worked to allow themselves into new territory, physically and psychically, erotically. As the dichotomous sets of performers merged, late in the show, clad in silky vibrant orange, slacks, dresses, and tunics, Mason returned to her microphone, calling cues for the dancers to physicalize: “hidden,” “surrender,” “play,” “joy,” “chocolate,” “pleasure.” Counting up to ten, the dancers strove to embody in free-form movement those words and ideas, but, like many improvisations, it ended up looking more like moving wallpaper than personal transformation. The dancers, particularly the modern dancers, were still acclimating themselves and their bodies to this new way of thinking and moving — this new erotic consciousness.

One of Lorde’s definitions of the erotic is the “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” That final apotheosis, the melding the dancers into a singular unified force, reached for a semblance of utopianism within chaos. And, yet, as this collision of cultures, of bodies, of dancers, that has been occupying the space and lives of its participants, needs to still push further. Mason, her dancers, and dramaturg, Deanna Downes, have described the work as “messy, gritty, tactile, growling, chaotic, passionate and tender.” Antithesis is, in various measures, each of these, for many in the audience. But, no longer the independent artist of her earlier “taboo” days, Mason is now ensconced in the university, and that has taken a toll on her independent, compelling voice. She appears, alas, to have reigned herself in, becoming more self-conscious. Throughout Mason’s career as a choreographer, provocative, even taboo subjects have been an important part of her body of work, most especially wrestling with and coming to terms with identity issues. She has lost some of her youthful boldness, though, in striving to fit into the academic realm (as many independent choreographers have been doing in recent years). Mason’s latest feels trapped in theory: Lorde’s essay and philosophy has too much hold on her.

 

Photo credit: Kelly Shroads
© 2017 Lisa Traiger
Published January 8, 2017

 

 

Change Maker

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Dance theater, Jazz dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on November 18, 2016

What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice
Choreography by Vincent Thomas
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 12-13, 17, 19-20, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Walking into Dance Place for the world premiere of choreographer and dancer Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice, an homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s. But the piece is more than a bio-dance commemorating Gaye, it’s akin to a 21st century piece of agit prop. No one should leave the theater unchanged or unmoved for it’s both a celebration and lament. Dancers — barefoot and clad in white — and audience gathered in the lobby for a little warm-up trivia led by Thomas in his soothing voice. Of course, it wasn’t long before the whole crowd was dancing — a little home grown D.C. hand dancing then a full-on electric slide. We danced our way into the theater, and the grooving didn’t stop for two hours.

vincent-thomas-whats-going-onAnd yet, amid all that festivity, there was also deep introspection. What’s Going On is a look inside to reveal where we are — as individuals, as a community, as a nation and a global village.

The festive atmosphere reached a high as onlookers took their seats at Dance Place, and the dancers took to the stage with soul-pumping and heart-racing dances drawing from African roots. With choreographic assistance from Sylvia Soumah or Mama Sylvia, D.C.’s undisputed queen of African dance, the group of 17 dancers and drummers captured the essence of a celebratory communal dance, with cheers, hollers and friendly competition, shoulders rolling, hips shimmying, knees pumping, arms slicing and winding, torsos pulsating. This semicircle of dancers recalled the profound embodied language that remains an elemental part of the African-American community, from its churches to its social clubs to its unparalleled performance aesthetic to its family and communal gatherings.

This was the world Marvin Gaye was born into, deeply religious, rooted to the past, but looking to the future. The son of a Pentecostal minister, who preached at a strict House of God church, he grew up singing, encouraged by his mother. He chafed, though, under his father’s restrictions. Gaye came of age as the Motown sound was evolving and three octave vocal range and a body of unforgettable songs left an indelible mark on American popular culture.

Dancer/choreographer Thomas was inspired by one of Gaye’s hits, What’s Going On, to look back at the singer’s life and his legacy and to delve into today’s current events, forcing viewers to pose a rejoinder — “what am I going to do about our current state of affairs.” Two years in the making, how could Thomas know how timely and prescient this piece would be just four days after the most contentious election in recent memory. Continuing ideas and structures he explored in his 2014 evening-length work, Occupy confronted ripped-from-the-headlines issues including stagnating economic opportunities, disparities between haves and have-nots, and the globalization of the economy. What’s Going On treads similar territory but in a further fleshed out and meaningful manner. Here Thomas actually invites the audience to respond, interact, consider their own next steps.

A moving, heartfelt solo, danced by Thomas, who stretches and spirals his torso and lanky arms, in search of something — comfort, connection, a higher power — features a movingly sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And this, like the many vignettes in the work, is preceded by a slide featuring quotes by and about Gaye.

Looking back to Gaye’s era, and the mobs of teen and adult fans who were touched and changed by his music, Thomas takes us to a typical 1960s or ‘70s house party — featuring low lights, mod furniture (in a video backdrop designed by Sujan Shrestha, couples and groups of dancers bobbing trucking, flirting and embracing. But the dance gatherings were more than a fun night out. Thomas notes, via slide, “this social dancing was their social justice.” It was a way African Americans could connect with and proudly own their cultural heritage, amid the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war era and the post-war disenchantment of the 1970s. And Gaye’s voice became their own.

On the old-school record player, spinning LPs, “Hitch Hike” blares and the dancers again turn to celebration. Here their moves echo those featured in the African segment of the show, but they’re smoother, jazzier, more showy, to allow for teasing. They dance — as everyone does — to celebrate youth, beauty, joy, love, but they also dance to connect. The eight company dancers, in pairs, small groups and as a company, show off their moves and stamina to classics like “Funny Valentine,” an achy solo full of inconsolable reaches and stretches and tremoring hands fluttering over the dancer’s heart. Then they stage a Motown revue — lip-syncing of classic numbers, recalling Al Green and The Supremes, among others — with plenty of step-ball-changes, fan kicks and jazzy moves. It’s fun unencumbered and rather slight, although the men’s trio has some high power leaps and spins.

Before intermission or a “social interlude,” as Thomas called it, placard-bearing dancers entered the audience, their signs asking: “Where are your community’s celebrations?” and “What are the concerns in your community?” Audience members were encouraged to fill mini-placards with their thoughts and and responses before What’s Going On turns to far more discordant 21st century territory. Here Thomas includes slides of historic 20th century moments and icons — Martin Luther King, Jr., Equal Rights Amendment marches of the 1970s, Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and others. The dancers, now clad in muted taupe, no longer dance freely and joyfully. Their body language is muted and pained, filled with grasping, deep, despondent sights, and of-the-moment symbolic gestures – performed before a video of Gaye singing the national anthem in 1983. Raised “black power” fists — the dap — and wrists held together behind the back are as telling as a dancer kneeling and another, fully prostrate in a Muslim prayer-like bow.

Thomas returns to again speak to the audience, allowing them brief time and space to voice their own concerns — among them fear of a Trump presidency, clean water, classicism, rich people who don’t pay taxes, job opportunities and more. Diversity, new life, unity, freedom, respect and Dance Place were called out for celebration. Then Thomas — like his mentor, Liz Lerman, who made her name in combining dance and community activism — turned the question around, asking, “How can you turn your concerns into celebrations?”

As the company converges to dance together in a tight-knit clump, the screen projects today’s images: Syrian refugees, police shootings of black citizens, Somali refugees, poor, impoverished masses, close-ups of wounded children from various conflicts. Each photo compels us to do more than watch. What’s Going On is a necessary reminder that there is more work to be done to repair the world.

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Stop

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Hip hop, Jazz dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 31, 2016

Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness
Directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
October 27-30, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

debbieallen-freeze-frameEver since Debbie Allen parleyed a killer look in the 1980 movie “Fame” into a featured role on the popular television series, this triple threat has been busting open doors in Hollywood for women of color. The Texas-born, Howard University-trained dancer/singer/actress/director/choreographer has conquered Broadway, television, and film. She’s had a recent comeback on the popular CBS drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” and behind the camera she’s directed hit TV shows like “A Different World,” “Fame,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” to name a few. On “Fame,” of course, Allen played the hard-driving dance teacher who weekly said, “Fame costs. And right here you’ll start paying — in sweat.”

Allen’s connection to The Kennedy Center that dates back to the ’90s with her high-energy children’s dance-centric musicals, like Brothers of the Knight, a re-imagined version of the folktale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This weekend Allen returns to The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with her newest and most ambitious project to date: Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness. Five years in the making, this high-energy, hip-hop musical grew from the violence and disenfranchisement Allen saw on the streets of Los Angeles and heard about from students who experienced it first-hand at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.

Freeze Frame is a 90-minute, intermissionless musical chock full of ripped-from-the-headlines issues: Gun violence, teen pregnancy, drug-addiction, gang warfare, police brutality, street crime, and prejudice. With an original score contributed by Rickey Minor, Lenny Wee, Thump (Allen’s son), James Ingram, Tena Clark, Wally Minko, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, and Allen herself, the show is a pastiche of contemporary sounds — rap, blues, hip hop, spoken word, gospel, and pyrotechnic ballads and church hymns. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set evokes mean streets with harsh concrete-like pillars, ramps and steps that lead nowhere, with a series of screens where Mic Gruchy’s video projections (filmed and directed by Allen) lend a cinematic aura to some of the numbers and provide plot background.

A gunshot. A blackout. The flashing lights and sounds of a police siren. These shock the audience into silence as a video of a convenience store robbery plays on the panels at the start of the show. Soon, though, the realistic grittiness of a violent crime in progress gives way to a band of dancing L.A. cops — all jazz hands, whipping pirouettes, fan kicks and body rolls, these dancers seem entirely out of character from that starkly realistic opening. Soon we meet David, aka Moon (Matthew Johnson), a well-shod and well-raised teenager, son of Bishop and Mrs. Washington, who run the largest Los Angeles megachurch. Broadway veteran (I Have a Dream, Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and Dreamgirls) Clinton Derricks pulls out all the gospel stops as the high-strung holy man, building up his congregation’s — and the audience’s — spirits with the mighty force of powerful gospel-infused numbers. Allen, now solidly middle aged, plays Mrs. Washington with spirit and integrity in her wedge sandals.

Alas, Freeze Frame has too much going for it and too much going on. The loose plot orbits around father-son friction and Allen has stuffed the show full of multiple vignettes, musical numbers and monologues that provide a snapshot and running commentary on life on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. There’s the wannabe dancer Eartha (Vivian Nixon, Allen’s daughter), who has received a scholarship to the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Center, but her drug addicted single mother is holding her back. And Rosanna, a gang-banging, gun-toting grandmother keeping a watchful eye on her deaf and mute grandson (rubbery dancer Hunter Krikac), who is, one character noted, the neighborhood Diego Rivera, with a talent for graffiti art. William Wingfield’s searing monologue as The Collector, the neighborhood hoodlum, who is exacting revenge without care because of the abuse he suffered as a child, is probably one of the most chilling moments in the show.

There are scenes in the local high school during a class on African American poets interrupted by a police investigation, and another during a basketball game. A sweet playground sequence performed by six of Allen’s young students from her dance academy, brings out some cute and endearing moments about body image and budding boy-girl friends. But, ultimately, much of Freeze Frame, for all its good intentions, is overdone and as riddled with clichés as with hard truths about race and violence in our communities around the country. And that’s hard to say, because gun violence, street gangs, and police brutality are very real, but Allen has relied on old-fashioned storytelling, overly didactic songs and monologues, and derivative choreography instead tackling these hard issues in innovative ways.

That said, painfully, the message is clear: We must find a way to stop the violence. Black lives do matter. And we must remember those whose lives have been lost too soon. The most effective moments in Freeze Frame come after the dancers, singers, rappers, hip hoppers and musicians have left the stage. On those video screens, more than 500 names scroll by of victims of police and gang violence. The audience departs as the names continue. Freddy Gray. William Chapman. Louis Becker. Oscar Romero. Jared Johnson. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking commemoration of this ongoing cycle of violence in our nation. Only in the stillness and aftermath of this high strung, hyperactive 90 minutes, does the message hit home clearly, succinctly. These names tell us to stop the madness.

This review was originally published October 28, 2016, on DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Grit and Resilience

Posted in Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 9, 2016

The Blues Project
Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIG Lovely
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
October 5-6, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

If you want to know how America dances, don’t tune in to those kitschy television competition shows So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars.

Check out Dorrance Dance in The Blues Project. This is how America dances: with fervor and ferocity, humor and intensity, grace and fluidity, intelligence and an eye on where our people have been and where we are going.

dorrancedance_2013christopherduggan-26-960x600The Blues Project digs deeply into our nation’s indigenous dance and music forms — tap and the blues — parsing its taproots in African dances and rhythms brought by slaves to American soil, Irish step dance performed by immigrants, and a culmination of fusing syncopated rhythms, stringed instruments, which evolved from West African kora to banjo, to all-American guitar and bass, and adapting heartfelt storytelling sung in ballads, spirituals and blues. The result is an astonishing and uplifting 65 minutes of grit and gumption told through body, voice, instrument, heart and soul.

On a darkened stage, the first sounds are a beat, pounded out in footwork, the sharp hit of a tap against wood, singularly and then collectively as nine dancers gather in a layered expression of body music. It’s joyful and elemental, for the beat is always reminiscent of the internal life-force: the heart. Even in the large, less-than-intimate space of the Eisenhower Theater, the performers, both dancers and musicians, manage to pull the viewers into their world, one where rhythm takes hold and leads you on a journey.

Dorrance, lanky and lean, clad in a blue-checked shirtwaist dress, comes forward last among her company of eight fine tap dancers (Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Starinah “Star” Dixon, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, and Nicholas Van Young) . Among them her co-choreographers Derick K. Grant, an original company member of the Broadway cast of the instructive and propulsive tap musical Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who coached Michael Jackson in tap over an 11 year period and lists Broadway credits on her resume.

Also on stage, the exquisite powerhouse singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon. Daughter of legendary Washington-based folk, blues and spiritual song leader, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the a cappella “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” Toshi Reagon mines the aural history of America with her blues-infused rock, funk and ballads, that parses the sonic sounds of America’s roots in music.

From boldly and unabashedly spiritual forms like the Ring Shout, which dates back to slavery, to gut wrenching blues and sultry funk, Reagon carries the inflections and voices of generations expressed in their songs of oppression and hope, of slavery and freedom, that continue to resonate today.

Dorrance grew up in her mother’s ballet school in Chapel Hill, N.C., and on the soccer fields where her father coached — he led the 1991 Women’s U.S. team to the World Cup. Her combination of grace and athleticism mark her tap, but she isn’t an old school hoofer. She dances with a 21st-century sensibility and attack, knowing when to get down and hit the floor and when to lightly scuff it and caress it with staccato trembles. Her ear for the rhythmic journey and its counterpoint is impeccable. It’s hard not to notice her, even tucked into her ensemble. Unlike tap great Savion Glover, she doesn’t hide her face or turn her back on the audience, you see her ferocity of concentration as her forehead scrunches up and her eyes focus hard.

In his solo, co-choreographer Grant slyly at first throws down an old school time step. It becomes the basis for his dance rumination that meanders through a distinctive rhythm tap vocabulary while still feeling entirely of the moment to an untrained ear.

Co-choreographer Sumbry-Edwards takes her solo in a different direction, easing into it and playing off of Reagon’s guitar and bluesy and revelatory singing. Their interplay shows the necessity of having instrumentalists on stage — the four-piece ensemble (Adam Widoff on electric guitar, Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, and Allison Miller on drums) plays on a raised platform across the back of the stage. Sumbry-Edwards channels both pain and joy in her cascading hits and scuffs, slaps and shuffles, until she can’t hold back and it becomes a rush that brings her to a hard-won end. It a reckoning with the origins of tap as a way to preserve rhythms of outlawed African drums outlawed, but maintained in the body through dance and percussion called hambone.

Dorrance has incorporated her ensemble into the work in masterful ways, playing two dancers against three, a single dancer against an ensemble, quartets and trios building on layered rhythmic sets that track the evolution of tap, jazz, blues and funk. It’s a wondrous journey taken in loving recollection of America’s past. Dorrance and her eight dancers, along with Reagon and her four musicians, have let loose an evening of unfettered footwork, drawing from the most primal beats that have been kept alive for centuries to tell our true American story.

Our nation’s 19th century poet Walt Whitman wrote a song of his America, mountains, hills, valleys, workers of every stripe who built this nation. Dorrance and Reagon together sing a 21st century song of our nation’s struggles, flaws, triumphs, and hopes.

The Blues Project is exquisite embodied poetry of resilience.

Photo: Dorrance Dance by Christopher Duggan

This review was first published October 7, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Change and Constancy

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on September 30, 2016

Martha Graham Dance Company
Alden Theatre
McLean, Va.
September 24, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Heraclitus may have said it first, but 20th century modern dance pioneer Martha Graham followed his dictum: “Change is the only constant.” The company the iconic dancer and choreographer founded in 1926 remains the oldest modern dance troupe in the world. In fact, the term “modern dance” was coined by early New York Times critic John Martin seeking a new name for the tradition-breaking choreography Graham began creating in New York in the 1920s.

graham-errand-into-the-mazeOn Saturday, September 24, 2016, the company presented a program of classic and new works at the Alden Theatre in McLean VA, showcasing the impeccable legacy that Graham company has preserved for generations. But, as Artistic Director — and former Graham dancer — Janet Eilber noted, the company can’t just be a repository for past works, no matter how important. The dancers and the Graham legacy need to reinvigorate with new choreographic pieces. Thus the program on the modestly sized Alden Theatre stage featured works from Graham’s creative heyday in the 1940s along with new works Eilber and her artistic associates have commissioned in recent years, including a recent premiere by Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg. The challenge for the Graham company — and many other single choreographer legacy companies — is how to balance the classics with new works — and how to showcase both the legacy pieces and new pieces on a single program without giving one or the other short shrift.

The classic works included Graham’s 1947 “Errand Into the Maze,” from the choreographer’s Greek period. Drawing from the myth of Theseus who journeys into the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur, the piece remains an allegorical study of the internal struggle we all battle in different ways. This stripped down version lacks the Isamu Noguchi sculptural set — a two pronged carved wood structure with a rope-like ladder — and Graham’s original costume designs — a dress with abstract ribbons of rope-like appliqué and the horned headdress of the Minotar. The costumes were lost in the flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Instead, dancer Charlotte Landreau stood firm and determined in a body hugging white dance dress, while overly tattooed Ben Schultz, as the Minotaur, was bare-chested, his arms entwined behind him around a wooden rod limiting his movements. The battle is an internal struggle and what better way to represent that than with the pelvis and spine-centered technique Graham created to tell her elemental dance dramas.

Yet, here and in other works on the program — an essential emphasis was missing in the power or thrust those pelvic contractions can contain that render Graham works metaphorical dialogues in deeply seated battles of life sustaining dimension.

“Dark Meadow Suite” distills highlights from the 50-minute work from 1946 that featured a Jungian inner dialogue and a rhythmically and dynamically complex symphonic recorded score  by Carlos Chavez. The abstract piece draws on images Graham collected from her time spent in the southwest. The work, with its spare and classic lines and staccato tremors of cupped hands, feels like a ritual of ancient and mystical purpose. We don’t know for whom these 10 dancers are dancing, but we feel they are dancing for life itself — its preservation and propagation. The men, bold, their bare chests broad as they fill the stage with space engulfing spread-legged hops and cartwheels that end in balanced tilts on one leg. The women are more delicate, their long skirts hiding the rhythmic skittering and stepping of their feet in lovely and complex patterns. If the floor had a layer of sand, the final moments would somehow reveal an exquisitely patterned sand painting. The birdlike flexion of the dancing women’s arms, and the way they hinge and tilt from their pelvic girdles, their bodies like seesaws, demonstrates the power and delicacy these dancers own.

The Graham technique, the once-famed and followed movement structure based on a contraction and release of the pelvis, has lost currency in the 21st century. While the company dancers exhibit the rock-solid abdominal strength, what’s missing is a passionate impetus initiated from an internal force rooted in the pelvis, an expulsion of breath that is felt as the movement grows out of the contraction. But, in truth, Graham has been gone for more than a generation. Modern dance has moved on into various other modes of moving and it’s likely a challenge to preserve something so visceral in a new era that demands different ways to dance.

Of the new works, Lidberg’s “Woodland” felt most finished, but least Graham-like. Commissioned specifically for a score by composer Irving Fine, it features a group of dancers gallivanting in a loose-limbed, very un-Graham-like manner, arms akimbo, torsos free to sway and undulate, breathe and relax, legs and hips sliding easily into the floor and back up to standing again. Most blasphemous of all: the dancers wore socks! A true Graham dancer (I learned from my experiences taking class with old-school Graham dancers back in college) should have enough calluses on the feet to need no footwear whatsoever in the studio or on stage. Barefoot dancing was one of the fundamental principles as modern dance asserted itself in the early 20th century.

“Lamentation Variations” has netted a dozen dances based on one of Graham’s early and most-important solos, “Lamentation.” The work premiered in 1930 and stunned audiences for its gut-wrenching expression of grief in every part of the body. The solo, which Graham and later her surrogates, performed on a wooden bench, features the dancer swathed in purple stretch fabric, contorting and extending her limbs and torso.

The work, projected in silent film clips, showed a young Graham yearning for freedom then allowing herself to be swallowed by her pain in wrenching clarity. The three works drawing inspiration from “Lamentation” included a quirky duet for Anne Souder and Xin Ying, which included physical quotes of some of the memorable moments — a turned in foot, a flat hand wiping an unseen tear from a cheek, outstretched reaches — but ultimately made its own choreographic statement.

lamentation-variations-sonya-tayeh-photo-by-christopher-jones-1024x768Richard Move’s solo for Konstantina Xintara proved the sparest of the three, allowing the dancer to almost imperceptibly cross the stage with a series of reaches and smallish footsteps. Here the choreographer strove for simplicity and constriction of the stage space to just a frontal path, akin to the original’s bench-centric placement. So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s contribution, a group work with a whispered score, proved the most inscrutable and relied almost exclusively on technical tricks included complicated lifts and maneuvers of the female dancers by their male supports. Frustratingly, as much as these pieces were meant to take inspiration from an American classic, none of the works were able to convey any sense of the all encompassing pain of grief that Graham did so succinctly 86 years ago.

The program closed with one of Graham’s most beautiful and soaring works, “Diversion of Angels,” created in 1947 to a score by Norman Dello Joio. The work features three distinctive women’s parts, meant to represent three ways we can express love. Leslie Andrea Williams was steadfast as the woman in white, while Xin Ying switched her hips and tilted, her leg raised well beyond her ear, the seductress as the woman in red. Laurel Dalley beamed with happiness and her leaps soared as the woman in yellow.

Throughout the dancers managed ably on a small stage in the intimate Alden Theatre. The last time the company was in the region at the Kennedy Center, we saw far more expansive and passionate dancing; perhaps the dancers felt constrained by the tight space for these grandiose materials. Because there is nothing small nor incidental about even the slightest movement or moment in a Graham choreography. Her clear-eyed vision, her technical demands of a perfect and present body — the dancers’ lines as etched as cut crystal — remind us of the breadth of her contributions to the artistic conversation occurring among dancers, choreographers, poets, composers and painters of the mid-20th century. And it reminds us of what a treasure it remains that these works are still lovingly maintained while the company strives to find new 21st century voices that echo Graham’s clarion call.

Photos: “Errand into the Maze,” Martha Graham Dance Company
“Lamentation Variations” by Sonya Tayeh, photo by Christopher Jones

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Time

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 8, 2016

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour
“Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie”
November 11-14, 2015
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

DEMO: Time
Curated by Damian Woetzel

November 15, 2015
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp's "Yowzie"

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp’s “Yowzie”

Twyla Tharp was everywhere during the fall 2015 season. On the occasion of her 50th year as a choreographer her 13-member company set out on a 17-city tour — stopping in Berkeley, Austin, New Orleans, Chicago, Bloomington, Ind., to name a few, before finishing up at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Lincoln Center. She was interviewed on radio, featured on TV, blogged in The New York Times, and made the cover of Dance Magazine.

Now 74, Tharp didn’t look back to mark her five choreographic decades by pulling out a retrospective. No revival of “Push Comes To Shove” or “The Catherine Wheel.” No look at historic pieces like “Fugue” or “Eight Jelly Rolls.” No resurfacing of her iconic pop culture pieces “Deuce Coupe,” her Beach Boys ballet, or “Sinatra Suite.” Her Broadway work — the less successful “Singin’ in the Rain” or hits like “Movin’ Out” and “Come Fly Away” — and groundbreaking choreography for television were also passed over.

Instead, Tharp looked ahead, crafting a pair of new works, which, she said, paid homage to some of her forebears — those she has named include Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, and those notably absent, like Paul Taylor, in whose company she danced briefly after college in 1963.

A poster child for post-modernism’s adage “everything counts,” Tharp long ago reeled herself in to craft viable, even popularly loved, choreography for the ballet, modern and theater worlds, making a name for herself. But she still gets her way with her post-modernist roots in merging ballet and Bach, bebop, jazz, pop and ballroom, sharing and intermingling across concert dance styles and genres. The duet of dances she made for this 50th anniversary tour is, ultimately, as much an homage to her own tenacity, creative drive and choreographic signature as it is to those dance icons she publicly acknowledged. In light of the occasion — 50 years of creative output in the oft-unforgiving dance field — Tharp created a pair of fanfares, prologues of sorts, to open each half of the program. These little pieces d’occasion bleed into the full works — Twyla keeping the audience guessing.

Each half of the program was heralded with trumpets, composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet Society). “First Fanfare” featured dancers dashing across the stage, the men in gold-toned slacks and shirts; the women, in demure ballet skirts, leap and are caught. Momentarily Tharp fans flash back to the spectacular and indelible ballroom catches of “Sinatra Suite.” The same energetic busy-ness that is a Tharp trademark in pieces like “In the Upper Room” and “Surfer at the River Styx” fills the stage as the fanfare blends into “Preludes and Fugues,” with its staunch settings to Bach. But, the choreography is anything but. Tharp dissects the music, inserting into the metronomic and fugue patterns jazzy runs, lovely ballroom dips, a polka, some Broadway slides and, even a little balletic batterie of supremely precise footwork. Once again she proves to be master of all concert dance styles and her perspicacious eye has culled a group of gorgeous dancers who can ease into a slouchy slide and prick out a chain of pique turns with equal finesse.

The physical jokes in play include gamesmanship with size, pitting the “too tall” girl with the shorter partner, or lining up the petite dancer with company compatriot who towers head and shoulders above her. It’s gimmicky, not trail-blazing, but, like many Tharpian fillips, it works. Tharp’s 1970 work “The Fugue” dissected the musical form with mathematical precision. That trio is described as “a 20-count theme which is developed into 20 variations. The theme is modified through a number of reversals, inversions, retrogrades and repetitions, re-sequencing and rhythmic manipulations.” Tharp’s return to the Bach fugue today is not nearly as stoic, though I’m sure another look would not call it less structured, but her new fugue has an open danceable feeling contained within its musical structure rather than her more rigid approach in “The Fugue.” The dancers, and audience, revel in the aura of the music, and the choreographic surprises: little hiccoughs of quick stepping patter, a couple of jovial shoves here or there, a silly walk or two, some highly technical Balanchinian moments, and some easier on the eye, though no less challenging, nods to Robbins. As the piece winds its way to closure, a growing sense of collegiality builds as Tharp brings the dancers together, their  paths converging, small duos and trios melding into larger ensembles. Tharp knows how to hold an audience and here she does it with that most succinct and simple of dance forms: the circle. When the dancers converge, Tharp draws that lump-in-the-throat moment — for all the riff-raff and penny ante joviality, the cut ups and the show offs, the Einsteinian musical dissections, in the end, this dance — all dances in Tharp’s world — are about community, bringing the many together as one.

“Yowzie,” dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto, is a more lighthearted romp set to American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Opening with another fanfare, this time the dancers play behind a scrim, showcasing silhouettes, Pilobolus-style, with outlandish headdresses and distinctive clothing cuts. There’s a filmic sensibility to the fanfare, played — or danced — under James Ingalls’ crimson lighting and scrim. This is a rowdier, more easy-going piece, lots of loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hi-jinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like New Orleans Second Line. There are comic riffs — dancers walking away with exaggerated slumps, a barker-like figure, a pair that nearly resort to fisticuffs, but then little Rika Okamoto gets the upper hand and — literally – kicks some butt. It’s lighter fare and the ending, parading off in couples, clumps, trios into the wings, is more of a fade-out than a final statement.

Together both works are ultimately Tharp paying tribute to Tharp: “Preludes and Fugues” is her more serious — with a wink — “Push Comes To Shove” piece, while “Yowzie” is her new “Eight Jelly Rolls,” serving up the fun and games of American musical invention. Tharp’s 50th year in choreography can be summed up simply as Tharp doing Tharp.

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A still new artistic project, the curated salon-like evenings by retired New York City Ballet principle Damian Woetzel look back to earlier cross-over evenings with music, dance poetry, and more sharing a bill. Director of arts programs at the think tank the Aspen Institute, Woetzel also produces the summer’s Vail International Dance Festival. November 15 at the Kennedy Center’s upstairs Terrace Theater, he brought together a collection of artists from across genres for his latest project: “DEMO: Time.” The event featured dancers Tyler Peck, Robert Fairchild, Bill Irwin, and Carmen De Lavallade, along with poet Elizabeth Alexander, musicians Gabriel Kahane, Colin Jacobsen, Claire Chase, Jacqueline Bolier and Glenn Sales. Woetzel, wearing a suit and wielding a clicker for his PowerPoint slides, served as the lecturer-slash-emcee, providing tidbits, quotable quotes and moderately intellectual patter to introduce his overarching concept — time.

The Terrace Theater proved the right venue for this sold-out Sunday evening — small enough to feel intimate, yet the stage was large enough to not rein in the performers, particularly a quirky opening duet by Peck and Irwin. Titled “Time It Was /116,” the playful work contrasted the broad-brushed clownish physicality of Irwin against Peck’s delicate ballerina. Violinist Jacobsen played a measured Phillip Glass piece as the pair variously copied and compared their indelible movement styles. Irwin, ageless in his baggy pants, bowler and flat shoes, borrows exquisitely from the timeless grace of Chaplin in a free ranging jaunt across the stage. Peck was less daring and more staid – the comedic timing harder for her to grasp, but she eventually got some laughs and enjoyed herself. Comedy isn’t easy, especially physical comedy.

Ageless and grace-filled De Lavallade brought an excerpt from her autobiographical evening-length work “As I Remember It.” She begins with isolations, recounting a physical inventory of her body from wrists to toes, fingers, to backs, moving those parts and undulating in a close fitting leotard and skirt. She stands, hands on hips and remembers. As she does, a film clip of her dancing 40, maybe 50 years ago plays. It’s a rehearsal of John Butler’s choreography for a duet based on “Porgy and Bess.” She recounts her work as a female dancer of color during a time when the world wasn’t accepting of her beauty, grace, talent and skill. She shares a few sacred moments in her life, then remarks, returning to her physical inventory — knees, back, shoulders, “Once I was beautiful. That’s how it goes with us.” Once and always, de Lavallade’s beauty in body and spirit remains untarnished, even with age. Time, indeed, stood still for her.

The program closed with a Balanchine-Stravinsky duet, and it became clear that time was its essence. “Duo Concertant,” originally created for Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins in 1972, was dance by Fairchild and Peck and after an evening of song, poetry, music and dance exploring facets of time, “Duo Concertant” felt fresh and timeless. Pianist Glenn Sales released into the knotty score at first while the dancers stood, listening, before taking up the music. And there it was, time, as Fairchild behind Peck, her arm outstretched like the minute hand on a clock, tick away at the receding moments of time. The rest of the duet was beautifully danced, Fairchild especially making the stage feel too small as he swallowed space. Peck more delicate, but no less accurate in her accounting. Time refreshed, enlivened, became a moment to savor in an evening that came together with mixed but mostly fruitful results.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of print-only magazine Ballet Review. What? You don’t subscribe? Visit Ballet Review.