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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

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Woke

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on May 8, 2018

Wake Up!
MK Abadoo and Vaughn Ryan Midder
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
May 5-6, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

abadoo wake up (4)

Walking into the back door at Dance Place this past weekend, felt akin to entering a nightclub, albeit a friendly one. After getting the backs of our hands stamped, we walk onto the stage, which has been transformed into a dance floor; some folks choose to groove a bit, others take seats at the periphery of the circle. The occasion, a remount of choreographic activist MK Abadoo’s Wake Up! begins as a party but by the time the hour is up, no one is laughing.

Abadoo, currently a guest artist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, drew inspiration from Spike Lee’s 1988 social commentary on being young, gifted and black, School Daze. While the movie is also a romp into the social mores of fraternity and sorority members at a fictitious HBCU, Abadoo, an alum of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, flips Lee’s premise on its head. Instead she probes how present-day black students navigate the minefield of race, class, social and political structures of a PWI — predominantly white institution.

Abadoo’s six performers — Moriamo Temidayo Akibu, Kevin Carroll, Shanice Mason,Tariq O’Meally, Selyse and Asia Wyatt — clad in their fictional campus t-shirts that proclaim “priviridge west institute,” navigate through vignettes that lay bare the continuing effects of institutional racism and segregation on young men and women of color. While dance is elemental — the dancers toggle through club moves, hip hop, swing, jazz and blues — they also nod to Lee’s references to minstrelsy and African dance roots.   

A homecoming contest turns into a lesson on “good and bad” hair — the beauty shop battle song from the Lee film — pits darker skinned women with natural locks and braids against lighter skinned women with more “desirable” hair. That is until a white woman with long straight red hair struts away the winner. The choreographer has dealt with issues surrounding black hair before, including in Locs/you can play in the sun, a work that includes a 25-foot swath of hair that becomes both burden and amulet for black women.

Then in an imagined juke joint, Abadoo sets up a “living museum” putting her dancers on display as the “Talented Tenth.” They pose, plastered grins beneath blank eyes, and writhe under hot white spotlights suggesting, as Lee, too, did, ignominious minstrel shows in the obsequious stances — head cocked to the side, foot flexed forward like a “Steppin’ Fetchit.” Here and elsewhere throughout the evening, audience members are invited to walk through the stage space, gazing at these dancers as specimens. The horrifying realization that this is no display of talent, but a hearkening back to slave auctions — some of which took place just 12 miles away in Alexandria, Va. — causes a sense of frisson.

Abadoo’s collaborators, writers Vaughn Ryan Midder, Jordan Ealey and Leticia Ridley, have crafted a taut and searing script that is as much a pointed commentary as it is poetic accompaniment to the movement, which draws from vernacular club styles, a touch of showy jazz, hip hop and Africanist root forms. They don’t ignore history, rather they rely on the awareness — “woke-ness” — of the audience members to get their references to 3/5 a man, Martin, Brown, even Wakanda. The dancers are as adept with this mash up of genres as they are at spoken word. Also notable: the seamless ease that the audience is invited into the performing space and then smoothly ushered off.

DJ MissJessica Denson spins old school grooves and hotter new tracks for the dancers who find freedom and release even amid tension-filled moments. Early on four dancers run headlong into the back cinder block wall, again and again. The moment feels both frenzied and entirely acceptable: why wouldn’t these brown bodied dancers feel frustrated enough to slam themselves into a brick wall. The metaphor of living under the white gaze — under centuries of oppression — has been transformed: bodies slamming into bricks.

Yet, amid the harsh images and resonant history, these dancers too share joy, camaraderie and a sense of communal stake in their free form dancing. These four women and six men are unapologetically comfortable inhabiting this space — a circle, consciously eschewing the divisive privilege of a traditional curtained stage. Wake Up! is a necessary public exhortation to our divided nation that the legacy of America’s original sin — slavery and colonialism — remains ever present. Abadoo is among a rising generation of socially conscious African-American choreographers — Kyle Abraham, Mark Bamuthi Joseph, Rennie Harris, Gesel Mason, Camille Brown, and the list can go on. They understand intimately that the simple act of placing a black body on stage is an unapologetic political statement in 2018. Abadoo and her compatriots are working at the intersection of art and social justice at a fraught moment when a slogan like “Black Lives Matter” is a call to wake up and move to the right side of history.

Photo: MK Abadoo by Idris Solomon, courtesy of Dance Place
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published May 8, 2018

 

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on April 29, 2018

Goldberg Variations — ternary patterns for insomnia
Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
April 26, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia __Photo Credit Hugh Carswell (3)Making the extraordinary ordinary appears to be a notion we can’t shake. If it isn’t dumbing down, it’s taking down, mashing up or just plain copying. Thursday, April 26 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” ceded center stage to the Swedish dance troupe Andersson Dance. The result? A take down of high art.

Bach’s 30 variations, composed in 1747, together are at once a soaring example of compositional excellence, playing variation after variation off of theme, and a musical Mount Everest to which classical musicians aspire. Originally meant for harpsichord but now most frequently played on piano, mastery of the work is a sign of prodigious technical and artistic prowess. Scottish Ensemble, under the artistic direction of Jonathan Morton, played fearlessly and wholeheartedly using the Sitkovetsky transposition for strings as they traversed the Eisenhower stage.

Joining them, and occasionally upstaging them, the five dancers of Andersson Dance skipped and goofed, wiggled and galloped, playing with found-object props and lights, and as often as not moving against the musical themes, rather than dancing with them in expected fashion. This collaborative effort provided a meeting of high classicism and iconoclastic post-modernism. It was a clash of cultures and artistic temperaments. A meet-up and a take-down.

The result? At times the meanderings and off-the-wall antics of the dancers proved funny, odd, frustrating, intriguing, boring, ridiculous and arbitrary. The music and musicians? They kept the performance on track, more than holding their own amid the tyranny of dance non-sequiturs. (Really, can anyone with consequential training and commitment ruin or put to shame the transcendent score?) The choreography? Let’s just say, it’s not a work for the ages, but seems to suit some segment of an audience that doesn’t want too much of highbrow sentiment.

During the program’s 75 minutes, one of the best things about it was the continuing evolution of music and choreography. If something displeased — like the klieg light in the, perhaps, sixth variation that shone directly in my eyes — wait two minutes, and something else happens. Maybe a dancer will gently nudge the elbow of a violinist as he strokes a final note, or a male dancer will strip down to his t-shirt and underpants, or another will straddle the top of a ladder and silently pontificate atop it as violins, violas, cellos and double bass continue to make beautiful and compelling music.

Orjan Andersson’s Stockholm-based pick-up company of three men and two women deconstructs the variations as they are being played with a self-conscious sense of quirky seriousness. Clad in a miscellany of street wear on the gray scale palette, the dancers wiggle, jiggle, jostle, stretch and rebound and though they’re not dancing with the music, they are dancing to it, just as I might dance crank up the radio in my kitchen and let loose. While these moments might feel improvised, Andersson stated that the majority of the choreography is set and does not change. The casual, though often not technical attack, recalls the flingy, loose-limbed release technique, which had been much in vogue in some modern dance circles in recent years. Though on the Eisenhower stage, there is little intimacy, while the dancers are taking turns in singles, pairs and trios performing Andersson’s task like invocations of movement, the instrumental ensemble remains standing, at times walking in mundane person on the street fashion. The violin and viola players remain standing, while the cellos and double bass mostly stay seated closer to the back of the stage.

Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia __Photo Credit Hugh Carswell (3)While the choreographer has gifted viewers with some witty moments — the most compelling choreographic moments are the silences, some rather lengthy between movements. Like musical rests, they imbue additional meaning, at times even gravitas. Early on some of the variations are introduced with pity statements announced by a dancer. But soon the variations are played straight through. especially telling is that they often come in the first half when the initial variations are introduced with a short announcement and explanation. Here and there a smattering of chuckles indicates some in the audience get the self-consciously post-modernist regard Andersson has usurped. Others might just be left scratching their heads. Sometimes the dance action on stage looks like a handful of unruly toddlers got loose and there’s no one to pick up their toys.

Most interesting were moments when Andersson used both ensembles, mapping out paths for the musicians to navigate en masse with everyday pedestrian walks. Later, two instrumentalists put down their instruments to move. They use their bodies to make sounds — play music — by clapping, rubbing their palms together, snapping even taking heavy breaths. The sounds aren’t symphonic, but the performers, both women, are committed to exploring this extracurricular aspect of classical music.

“Goldberg Variations” self-consciously takes down high art. The final sections feature a stage that has filled up with flotsam and jetsam — objects “borrowed” from their Stockholm theater — a quartet of sofa pillows, a clothes rack with sundry dresses and tops, a pair of bowls, a single wedge shoe. The performers — musicians and dancers — are assigned to gather and make “one-minute sculptures” — assemblages of found objects. In that Andersson acknowledges his debt to Dadaism and Dada’s philosophical and artistic hero Marcel Duchamp — he of the pissoire, his 1914 museum exhibition piece “Fountain.”

This oddball confluence of classicism and post-modernism features a group of lovely dancers. Andersson, a one-time soccer player who came to dance late, lucked out with Jozsef Forro, Eve Ganneau, Paul Pui Wo Lee, Javier Perez Perez and Stacey Aung. They can appear serene or goofy as they soar and squat, stretch and melt with equal aplomb. They’re dexterous, eager and fluid even in the quirky touches Andersson uses to punctuate his notions of the flexibility of  Bach’s score.

“Goldberg Variations” is a touchstone work. This version — subtitled “ternary patterns for insomnia” — makes a play on the composition’s origin story (perhaps apocryphal): the work was commissioned to help assuage Count Kaiserling’s sleepless nights, when he would call for his harpsichordist, named Goldberg, to play him to sleep. For those non-math folks, ternary refers to groupings of three (I had to look it up). While trios and other evolving groupings occur, the reference is a mathematical and musical conundrum.

It’s hard to tell if Andersson is paying homage to the Judson Church movement’s avant garde dismantling of virtuosity and technique, or if he’s just playing using these borrowed principles for his own pleasure — and notoriety. Either way, there are clear connections — even an additive solo of repeated uninflected gestures that feels a little too much like Trisha Brown’s historic work “Accumulation.” In 1965, another dance post-modernist, Yvonne Rainer, penned her now-famous “No Manifesto,” which proclaimed: “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make believe.” It was a fervent statement of its time. A way to break away from and break down the status quo. Andersson has perhaps found new relevance in snubbing virtuosity for the pedestrian as a reaction to a new 21st-century normal. He’s thumbing his nose at the highbrow and bringing Bach down a notch. Guess what? Bach can take it. His compositions have been hanging around for a couple of centuries and aren’t going anywhere. Andersson gave it a valiant effort, but Bach still wins.

Photos: Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia by Hugh Carswell, courtesy Kennedy Center
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published April 28, 2018

 

Tapestry

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 23, 2018

Layla and Majnun
Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silkroad Ensemble
Featuring Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
March 22, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8151 (2)

A tapestry of poetry, chant, music and dance drawn from a swath of the ancient Silk Road has provided vivid inspiration for influential choreographer Mark Morris. His re-envisioning of Layla and Majnun, the ancient tale of star-crossed lovers with roots in Persia, Azerbaijan and other Silk Road locales, an ancient trade root which stretch across Asia from Japan to the Mediterranean Sea, fills a riveting 65 minutes. Morris’s acclaimed and beloved dance troupe has made a return Kennedy Center visit, and on opening night March 22 the full Opera House indicated that his choreographic vision continues to astound — and break down cultural barriers.

Modern dance and ancient Azerbaijani music? Yes, please, it works on multiple levels.

This cross-cultural collaboration, which premiered in 2016 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, knitted together celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s brainchild, the Silkroad Project, with renowned Azerbaijani father and daughter mugham singers Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, and Morris’s articulate dancers retelling a poetic tale of forbidden love. It’s no wonder the marketing material touted the work’s similarity to “Romeo and Juliet,” though the original tale dates back to the 12th century, about four centuries before Shakespeare penned his own star-crossed-lover tale of woe and tragedy.

Interestingly, the eight Silkroad musicians — beautifully clad in bold sunflower yellow batik prints — and the Qasimovs are placed right in the center of the stage on elevated platforms. In the five short acts the dancers maneuver around them, up and down the stepped risers performing on various levels behind the musicians or close to the lip of the stage in front of them. It’s a subtle nod to the importance Morris gives to the music and it’s also an acknowledgement that this East-West meeting of music and dance culture is not appropriating, it is emphasizing the ancient traditional singing an instrumentation. And with the late Howard Hodgkin’s gorgeous costumes evoking Central Asia, inspired by miniature paintings from Azerbaijan, and a striking backdrop featuring oversized brush strokes in deep green and strong orange, the work is more than dance, music or opera. I would reach back to Richard Wagner and call it gesamtkunstwerk — a mouthful that means a “total work of art” or a work that synthesizes allied arts — music, dance, theater, painting, poetry — into a singular piece. In dance, during the Ballets Russes era, dancer-turned-choreographer Michel Fokine also promoted this concept. Morris gently brings it into the 21st century.

For movement material, Morris delves deep into his early dance background as a folk dancer — think Greek, Balkan, Serbian, Macedonian — during his teen years and imbues the choreography with a crystalline simplicity that relies on concise arm gestures that stretch, reach and curve with a fine sense of plastique. His footwork, too, is spare, based on natural locomotor movements: walking, stepping, lunging, and, during a celebratory scene, hops, two-footed jumps and tiny mincing steps that could be balletic bourres. He uses the ballet arabesque shape as a decorative gesture akin to the curvilinear lines seen in Arabic calligraphy and art. Instead of a static geometric pose or pause, Morris’s arabesques flow with ease from a balance on one leg, the other lifted behind, into a deep lunge forward in continuous motion, like a calligrapher’s pen tracing elegant script.

The story unfurls in five brief acts, and in each a different pair of dancers play the doomed lovers, a doubling technique that Morris has used in previous works, most notably his 1989 Dido and Aeneas, where he split the central character into two roles — Dido and the destroyer — which he himself played at once. While the dancers are clad uniformly, the women in long tangerine-colored dresses, the men in sea blue silk tunics and white pants, they represent the universality and unity of the community. Out of the many, Leyla and Majnun are each distinguished by a scarf that gets passed on from act to act. As the acts proceed, from the first “Love and Separation” to “The Parents’ Disapproval” to “Sorrow and Despair,” “Layla’s Unwanted Wedding” to the final “The Lovers’ Demise,” the interchangeable couples seamlessly transform from the corps to the lead soloists. This sharing of the lead lovers lends an added sense of universality to the heartbreaking tale drawn from a Persian poem by Nezami Ganjawl, which, too, takes inspiration from older sources on the trade routes. Forbidden love, it seems, has a long and fraught history that continues to capture our hearts and catch in our throats.

The ancient narrative unspools to the plaintive chants of Qasimov and Qasimova and as their voices trill and cant, cry and tremble, you can hear the unrequited desire, the everlasting longing, the pain of separation and the inevitable choice to choose a poignantly beautiful death over a miserable loveless life. Structurally, Morris follows the musical and poetic scores in the work and remains respectful of the Muslim culture from which it derives. The dancers’ costumes are modest, though the women’s hair does flow freely — in the spirit of young love perhaps? — and there are gendered spaces, though Morris’s democratic ethos means that even when men and women are often separated by the center-stage musicians and the risers, they perform the same gestures and steps, in unison and canon.

Morris consciously nods to dance genres linked to the Silk Road — a paddle turn, one palm up and one down, recalls whirling dervishes and he lets the dancers recline on the floor, like ancient Greeks leaning on an elbow at a banquet. The livelier dances resemble pairs of folk dancers with quick little runs, shoulders ticking forward and back, or arms slung across shoulders as short lines of men travel in grapevines like so many central European dances. I also noted a reverence for early 20th century dance modernists — Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis in particular — who both sought inspiration from the art and culture of the Silk Road. In Morris, you see it in snaking arms, wide body tilts to the side, and crooked elbows and knees emphasizing angularity rather than smoothly pleasing body positions — think a sensual S-curve drawn from Indian dance, or a fleet-footed sculpture of Mercury, his lifted leg cocked behind him, ready for flight.

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8173 (2)

Most instructive of the Muslim roots of the story, Morris ensures that the longing lovers Layla and Majnun don’t touch until the end. And the momentary lingering of a hand on a cheek proves more effective and pure than a Hollywoodesque full-on embrace and smooch. There’s a lovely section where he, surrounds his partner with an open armed hug, but their bodies never meet, and then she returns the gesture, as the motif continues, again and again. These moments of gendered spaces meeting with the utmost restraint reveal the power in our over-sexualized society in holding back.

That, too, is the beauty of Morris’s choreographic vision in Layla and Majnun — that earthly love, while enticing, can only attain divinity when body, soul and spirit are sacrificed for eternal love. It’s a story that continues to live across cultures and centuries — conquering intolerance with love.

 

This piece was originally published on dcmetrotheaterarts.com, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 
Photos by Susana Millman, courtesy Kennedy Center.
Top: dancers: Lesley Garrison and Durell R. Comedy in Layla and Majnun
Bottom: Billy Smith and Nicole Sabella, Aaron Loux and Rita Donahue, Lesley Garrison and Durell R. Comedy

 

Published March 23, 2018
© 2018 Lisa Traiger

 

video: Mark Morris on the making of “Layla and Majnun” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7qldzZcuS4