Over its nearly two decades, it was a fortuitous match, Webre and The Washington Ballet. During his tenure he took a fine, but somewhat sleepy and staid company, founded by D.C.’s grand dame of ballet Mary Day, and transformed the troupe into one of the city’s hottest tickets. He modernized the company with daring choreographic choices, challenging his young dancers with major classics from Giselle to a world-renowned Swan Lake, neoclassic masterworks from George Balanchine, and the best from contemporary choreographers, including the likes of Mark Morris, William Forsythe, and Twyla Tharp. He also introduced rising fresh choreographic voices, among them the two dancemakers on the Bowie & Queen program: Edwaard Liang, now artistic director of BalletMet Columbus (Ohio), and Trey McIntyre. Webre also contributed his own works to his oft spectacle driven mix, revamping a tired Nutcracker, reimagining Alice (in Wonderland), and reinventing American literary classics as full-length ballets – The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow. Finally, and not often commented on, Webre reshaped the company with a cadre of dancers from around the world, integrating what was essentially an all-white troupe with dancers of color from Asia, South America, and Africa and homegrown Americans of all races.
To close out his time in D.C., last month Webre revived his opulent and bawdy Carmina Burana, which had its premiere a decade ago and wowed audiences then with stunning showmanship, musicality, design and, of course, dancing. With the Cathedral Choral Society, directed by J. Reilly Lewis, Arlington Children’s Chorus, exceptional soprano soloist Melissa Wimbish, tenor Timothy Augustin and baritone Stephen Combs joining the dancers onstage it was a multidisciplinary piece in the grand tradition of another great impresario, the Ballets Russes’ Sergei Diaghilev. Add in the crafty stage design by Regan Kimmel that puts the chorus on three-levels of scaffolding framing the stage, sexy and hot black costumes by Liz Vandal, and lusty, juicy choreography that channels the lush abandon of the oft-played Carl Orff score and the result is an undeniable high. Orff’s composition set a series of medieval German monk’s drinking songs into an expansive musical statement that demands big and lavish production numbers. (Think roller-coaster commercials.)
And Webre complied, managing to hit all those highs and dips with abandon, wit, and whimsy. His dancers threw themselves into heavy duty unison sections, then turned playful in some fun numbers, especially for his buff men manipulating chairs then brooms to sweep clean sweep tossed confetti. There’s an oversized queen, carted around on a rolling scaffold, who baldly reveals her backside and her comeuppance. The duets are filled with ardor and Webre here has not over choreographed the most intimate pas de deux, making it a loving and lovely expression of romantic and sensual connection. With nothing small nor understated about this revival of Carmina Burana, grandiose and gigantic are fitting descriptions for his enchanting ballet with its life-giving feverish forces. Accompanied by a solid version of Balanchine’s stately Theme and Variations, it was a wonderful way to begin the long farewell to Webre.
The final goodbye came last week and this week with that double-header titled Bowie & Queen. I’ve long challenged the efficacy of using rock and roll in ballet primarily because I haven’t seen a successful rock ballet yet. Ballet is about technical proficiency of the body, about balance, equilibrium, line – essentially geometry of the body in motion. Rock and roll is about abandon, freedom, rebellion and unbridled physicality. To me the two forms often seem mutually exclusive.
Choreographer and former New York City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang’s Dancing in the Street provided the Bowie half of the program. But this isn’t the flamboyant, high-energy kinetic Bowie with his sexy pout and his indeterminate sexuality. In fact, only two musical selections – Good Morning Girl and I’m Not Losing Sleep are performed by Bowie in the work (alas on the Eisenhower’s muddy sounding speaker system). Much of the music was composed by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, who drew on Bowie for inspiration, but it wasn’t his actual music that inspired the composition for piano, violin, cello and percussion, which was played by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra.
It was the introspective, artistic Bowie who spoke in interviews that Smith listened to for inspiration. The music is lovely, richly toned, evocative and emotive. Liang’s choreography, alas, is mostly run-of-the-mill. Featuring an agreeable Tamas Krizsa, clad in white jeans and a t-shirt, as the featured dancer, the ballet begins under a street lamp. Later phalanxes of dancers, clad in brightly colored dresses for the women, slacks and t-shirts for the men, whipped out turns, lifts and balletically inspired allegro, fast-paced footwork. “Dancing” is structured like a classical ballet with an opening movement, variations with four couples, additional theme and variations, a slow movement and pas de deux with the gorgeous Sona Kharatian partnered by Krizsa before the ballet comes full circle. Nothing about it feels free or rebellious or makes me want to rock out and dance, alas.
My rule of thumb about the problems of mixing rock and ballet was disproved by choreographer Trey McIntyre, a Webre favorite whose works have graced the company’s repertory for more than a decade now. “Mercury Half-Life” premiered on McIntyre’s own now-defunct troupe, Trey McIntyre Project, in 2013. This production looks terrific – hard driving, uninhibited, and mostly smartly capturing the operatic and vaudevillian tropes of Mercury’s iconic and ironic music for Queen. Here, the musical selections comprise a best-of album, from two versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Bicycle Race” to “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We are the Champions” and (my high-school’s unofficial anthem) “We Will Rock You.”
Wearing Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s chic white shorts or miniskirts and jackets, with white ballet slippers and knee socks, the dancers look like tennis-playing high schoolers – clean, bright, artificially bored. McIntyre puts ten dancers through their paces, playing both with and against the music, allowing for the unexpected, the quirky and the simply surprising results as dancers skip, slide, run, leap and freeze at varying moments. “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” has old fashioned vaudevillian influences and quick-footed Daniel Roberge throws down a finely executed tap number. Later he is joined by a bevy of women, backing him up with Broadwayesque gravevine steps and toe taps. That melds into some heavy hitting choreography that relies on ever evolving formations of dancers, who rarely mimic the music, instead that play against it or expand it. The structure is loose, casual, driven by the musical choices that McIntyre blended together in a free-form manner.
There are sections with unchecked solos where dancers literally do the impossible, with leaps, dives, one-armed hand-stands, and mid-air catches of horizontally prone dancers who seem momentarily frozen before thrusting forward head first. There’s both a toughness and a playfulness in the way the dancers attack or hurl themselves in McIntyre’s choreography. He captures the essence of Mercury and the grandiosity of the Queen musical catalog.
There’s no restraint here, no held torsos or loving epaulment of the shoulders and arms. While the choreography favors plenty of specific phrases with complex arms and non-stop footwork, there’s hardly a fussy arabesque or perfectly held pirouette in sight, which is exactly what this ballet needs. It’s rock and roll, which demands more off-kilter, off-balance, unrestrained attack. The Washington Ballet’s ten dancers – Kateryna Derechnyna, Nicole Graniero, Jonathan Jordan, Sona Kharatian, Tamas Krizsa, Brooklyn Mack, Tamako Miyazaki, Andile Ndlovu, Maki Onuki, and Daniel Roberge – are like great rockers, they leave it all on the stage.
And Webre? It will be hard not to miss him and his contributions to making hometown ballet exciting and glamorous. He rocked it to the end.
Photos courtesy The Washington Ballet:Carmina Burana, Andile Ndlovu, Jonathan Jordan and Migual Anaya
Bowie & Queen, Jonathan Jordan in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas
Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas
This review was first published May 6, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with permission.
© 2016 by Lisa Traiger
Monica Bill Barnes & Company
Terrace Gallery, Kennedy Center
March 10-11, 2015
By Lisa Traiger
In life some things that are easy look hard and others that are hard look easy. That’s also the case for choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, whose party-cum-commentary on masculinity and femininity, success and failure, connection and anonymity, among other things, brightened up the drab Terrace Gallery setting, upstairs in The Kennedy Center March 11. The small but mighty Monica Bill Barnes & Company has taken it upon themselves to spice up people’s lives with playful but pointed in-jokes that provide layers of depth and insight. What on the surface seems like simple off-the-cuff unplanned sequences, is far, far deeper.
Barnes and Ann Bass, her associate artistic director, fellow performer and partner in crime, champion the underdog while culling from a tastefully curated selection of American dance styles, mainly jazz, theater dance, tap and a tad of ballet and modern thrown in. But it’s not so much the steps and choreography — which are themselves often a hoot, smartly selected and dazzlingly performed — but the way they attack the movement. There’s a sense of going all out and over the top, of dancing for life itself. Sometimes Bass’s neck strains, or Barnes’s eyeballs pop, as droplets of sweat form on their brows and they fling themselves completely into quick, goofy phrases that look so easy yet are anything but. They’re working their hardest for our pleasure. You can’t help loving them for their all-out effort, especially in a workaholic town like metropolitan DC, where the only right answer to “how are you” is “busy, way too busy.”
Happy Hour starts with the conceit of the title. The Terrace Gallery is set with 30 cocktail tables. The company reportedly ran out and bought $200 worth of snacks – microwave popcorn, a box of Cheerios, an extra-large size of gummy vitamins, mini candy bars and a tub of pretzel rods. The room is decorated in a baby blue balloons and crepe paper streamers hung like a six-year-old’s birthday party. Robert Saenz de Viteri acts as the MC and maitre d’ for a “pre-show” that is as much a part of the performance as the dancers, handing out snacks from a rolling production cart artfully labeled “Production Cart” in glitter. He works the crowd getting to know his audience, milking them for self-deprecating laughs. A karaoke machine stands at the ready waiting on the brave few in the audience ready to take a turn with pop classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” There’s a raffle, someone is celebrating a birthday, another couple is visiting The Kennedy Center for the first time. This happy hour is a real piece d’occasion and Saenz de Viteri works it with finesse.
Unexpectedly, after the buildup and the snacks, Barnes and Bass slip in, decked out in well-fitting menswear – crisp white shirts, sharp suits black (for Barnes) and gray (for Bass), their hair slicked back. They’re mobsters maybe or madmen. Their shoulders squared, jaw lines taut, when they walk there’s a touch of masculine swagger, their hands pushed deep into their pants pockets, a look of bored indifference darkening their faces. They proceed to parse through a playlist of 20th century pop hits, from John Mellancamp’s “Hurts So Good” to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Judy Garland singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and to Nat King Cole smoothly covering “Smile” (when your heart is breaking).
As the music elicits nods of recognition in the audience, Barnes and Bass attack the songs with a variety of jazz and tap and show business-y moves layered atop emotional moments read clearly on their faces. There are homages to the tap dancing greats the Nicholas Brothers, and to the smooth and easy going Gene Kelly, and suave sophisticate Fred Astaire, each subtly drawn in the quick steps and lanky runs, the syncopated step-ball-changes and the vaudeville like kicks performed with exaggerated smiles. There’s military precision and honor in the way these two attack their phrases, they look simple but are complex rhythmically and technically — quick little steps packed together all in a row. They’re dancing at the top — nay, over the top — of their game.
But what’s most riveting are the small vignettes — the emotional moments — where these women, dressed and behaving as men, interact, try to pick up women from the audience, cheer each other on, muddle through tense moments, hug and make up. Bass has a habit of pulling a silver flask from her pocket and taking a swig. Barnes is the more sensitive one, the underdog, who pulls out a deck of cards and tries and fails at card tricks. No matter, they serenade each other, applaud one another on, gin up approval from the audience then take elaborate bows, accepting bouquets of flowers, like Olympians or Russian ballerinas.
It all looks ridiculously simple, but every moment, every movement, each twitch of an eyebrow or tug at a shirt, is planned and telescopes meaningful messages about friendship, gender, heartbreak, and perseverance, not only in the face of failure, but also, even more important, in the face of ordinariness. Happy Hour is about elevating the ordinary to high art. Buying supplies at the local drug store for a performance at The Kennedy Center, taking old steps and making them fresh and new, culling from pop classics but finding new statements or highlighting their meanings in new ways — this begins to get at the depth of Happy Hour.
So Happy Hour breaks all the rules of theater, including that fourth wall into the audience, and it offers not merely terrific entertainment, but more than a measure of poignancy, a sense of loss even amid the fun-and-games.
Unexpected life lessons told in subtle and magnified gestures reveal striving, doing one’s best, understanding the desires of the opposite sex and more. As much as this daring and dynamic duo want to be heroes, become the life of the party, their eyes and their physical hesitations show us that painful poignancy of not living up to ideals or dreams, either one’s own or those imposed by others.
But MC Saenz de Viteri finally brings us down to earth and back to reality when he returns with a huge birthday sheet cake, inscribed to the audience member with the birthday. It’s a surprise, a deux ex machina if you will, and, finally, a sweet moment after the heavy duty food for thought that Barnes and Bass served up.
(c) Lisa Traiger 2016
Published March 12, 2016
Photos: Monica Bill Barnes & Company, courtesy Kennedy Center
This article originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.
The Washington Ballet
Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Septime Webre and William Forsythe
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
February 25-28, 2016
By Lisa Traiger
Earlier this month, the dance world rumbled a bit upon learning of the resignation of The Washington Ballet’s high-energy, effervescent Artistic Director Septime Webre. Since his arrival in Washington, D.C., 17 years ago, he has transformed a staid and none-too-risky modest troupe into a powerhouse, with a stable of excellent dancers and a wide-ranging repertory that has introduced new rising choreographic voices, while still featuring standards in the ballet canon. Webre, too, brought both story and more than a touch of glamour and show business to the city’s homegrown ballet company, with his own spectacle-infused evening-length works, like his trippy Alice (in Wonderland), his jazz- infused The Great Gatsby, and the sexy hauntings of Sleepy Hollow. And last year he conquered ballet’s Mt. Everest, presenting a highly praised and internationally covered Swan Lake, which featured one of the first African-American Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried pairings, with the casting of ballet phenomenon Misty Copeland and leading Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack.
This season’s programming has been less flashy and more retrospective, so, if ballet watchers had read the signs, Webre’s departure was already on the horizon. As part of his final season as artistic director, this week his “Director’s Cut” features two of his choreographic favorites — half-Belgian, half-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has crafted a few works on the company in recent years; and William Forsythe, the high priest of sorts of ramped up neoclassical ballet. And, of course, the program featured one of Webre’s more challenging abstract ballets, his State of Wonder, set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with both a live on stage pianist and a live harpsichordist accompanying the choreography.
As always, Webre bounded on stage for his pre-show curtain speech, chic in his slim black jeans, if not as boyish as he was nearly two decades ago in his first season following company founder and grande dame Mary Day’s retirement.
The program opener, Lopez Ochoa’s PRISM, had its world premiere on the company two years ago. Taken by the well-known and beloved Koln Concert by jazz great Keith Jarrett, the choreographer parsed his 28-minute improvised piano improvisation, which is variously sunny and tinkling with lively piano musings and then somber and moody, honing in on more shadowy, cooler shadings.
Since the musical piece was recorded live in 1975, while Jarrett was on tour and his piano didn’t arrive, he instead decided to improvise beginning with the four notes from the theater’s lobby that notified patrons the show was about to begin. We hear in that historic aural snapshot the pianist’s own vocal exclamations, at first almost jarring, then simply sweetly human. Lopez Ochoa found inspiration in this musical contrast and Jarrett’s virtuosity tinged with a lively humanness. Her choreography swirls, winding and unwinding, changing tone and color — even the costumes evolve from severe black turtle necks, biker shorts and black socks for the men and jewel-toned high/low dresses for the women, to black and sheer leotards with gloves and spidery designs. The smoothly easygoing nature early in the piece, following a rather severe, but eye-catching opener featuring a trio of athletic men, shifts into more splayed, edgy motifs — elbows and knees emphasized rather than straightened, fingers splayed. Lopez Ochoa interrupts this tensile and jaggy choreographic landscape with static poses: the group of dancers clumped, a leg or arm shooting out of the mostly grounded formation. And then, the work shifts mood again, the dancers circle and become a community in retreat, swaying, stooped, backs to the audience.
Webre’s State of Wonder premiered on the company a decade ago, and its return is welcome. Set to Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations, the work highlights the infinite possibilities Bach explored in his own thematic variations. The 30 short pieces, purportedly commissioned by Count Kaiserling to help sooth his insomnia, may have been played by a Goldberg, a 14-year-old pianist. For the ballet, pianist Ryo Yanagitani plays much of the work on a movable white platform, and he is later joined by harpsichordist Todd Fickley, on a second wheeling platform, which the dancers maneuver around the stage. There’s much to like in the brief choreographic variations threaded together by the 30 short piano pieces. Webre plays with couples, groupings and a few lovely solos. What stands out are the broad and sweeping variations for men, both solos and groups. There’s a Paul Taylor-esque sense of attack imbued in some of the space engulfing leaps and runs and the athletic allusions – at one point six men look like hunky lifeguards posing on a sunny beach, then two are lifted prone and “surfed” off stage.
Another section features some high-kicking and karate-like punches, as if Webre channeled Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid for his quartet of men. Liz Vandal’s costumes also feature jeweled tones. At some points the men are bare-chested, while the women wear swingy lycra-like dresses. One section clads the men in modified 18th century skirts, while the women wear modern-looking cutaway topcoats — a subtle gender switch. While State of Wonder is not one of Webre’s flashiest works, it offers fine ensemble dancing with careful attention to beautiful musicality from the company members.
The first time I saw American-born choreographer William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, featuring a crashing, booming, scratching techno score by Thom Willems, I was blown away by the boldness, the bored audacity, and piercing stares of the dancers, not to mention the steely attack of the Frankfurt Ballet — once Forsythe’s company. It was the late 1980s or early ’90s. Contemporary ballet was in a state of evolution. Many American ballet companies still considered Balanchine’s neoclassical leotard ballets cutting edge, even as his many ballets became modern repertory classics.
In the Middle … begins with a bang, literally. An electronic, cymbal-like crash and bam startles as harsh, fluorescent-like lights etch the dancers in a relentless eerie glow. Clad in green leotards and bare legs, two women glare out into the darkness of the audience. As dancers enter and exit, arms and legs pierce and slash the space. Forsythe deconstructs the primacy of the stage — pushing choreographed moments to the sides as dancers are half-hidden by the curtain, or they turn their backs on the audience, as if we matter not at all in this futuristic universe.
Hanging about halfway above the dance space are a pair of golden cherries (though they look like apples to me), ironically alluding to the title — In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The work is a literal and mental workout — the women’s pirouettes spin around like whirring drills driving into the floor. They unfurl their legs in ear-grazing splices, their torsos teetering off kilter, but perfectly posed. The men leap and topple off balance, bold and bloodless in their hard, edgy conquests of the bare, black stage.
Nothing loose or easy-going happens here. The entire work is attacked as if the dancers are teetering on the edge of a precipice, with a sense of both abandon and accuracy — one wrong move and the whole thing could tumble into nothingness. The work demands unparalleled muscularity and a sense of urgency that celebrates a harsh pent up energy bursting force. Forsythe’s choreography when his work premiered on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 altered the way many ballets were made thereafter. He is, indeed, a successor to Balanchine, who in his day pushed classical technique to new levels. Forsythe did the same here and with his succeeding body of work, making the classical ballet fundamentals relevant for the new world of the late 20th-century. Today, nearly three decades after its creation, In the Middle … remains as starkly relevant and engaging as it was then. Thirty years ago, when The Washington Ballet was still working to finesse some of Balanchine’s more complicated works, it would have been hard to imagine the company could come so far. Under Webre’s direction his dancers are not only technically adept, they are adaptable — able to tackle the loose jazziness of Ochoa, the complex, occasionally quirky, partnering Webre so frequently favors, and, most refreshingly, the highly stylized sharp and relentless attack Forsythe’s choreography demands.
This review was first published February 27, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with permission.
© 2016 by Lisa Traiger
Dance Place Reunion Celebrates 35 Years
Dance Place Reunion
featuring choreographers Jan Van Dyke, Eric Hampton, Helen Hayes, Alvin Mayes, Lesa McLaughlin, Cathy Paine, Carla Perlo, Deborah Riley and drumming by Steve Bloom
January 30-31, 2016
By Lisa Traiger
When Dance Place marks a milestone, invariably by the evening’s end its Founding Artistic Director Carla Perlo has more people on stage than in the audience. This happened Saturday night January 30, 2016, as Dance Place marked 35 years with a retrospective program highlighting many of Washington, D.C.’s important choreographers from the past three decades. Full disclosure: I, too, was called to the stage and noted for my work as the first full-time manager of then-young Dance Place back in 1985. Since that year-long stint, I have spent the greater part of these past three decades watching dance there, ranging from children’s summer camp shows to major figures in late 20th-century dance, including choreographers Joe Goode, David Parsons, Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Bebe Miller, and groups like Eiko and Koma, Blue Man, Streb, and more than 700 other artists who shared their works there.
The evening was also a moment for Perlo to say thanks to her forbears as the concert was dedicated to seminal Washington, D.C. teacher and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, who died this past year in North Carolina, where she settled after leaving Washington. Many other dance teachers, among them Perlo’s early teacher Jefferson James, and local dance leaders were acknowledged.
Van Dyke founded Dance Place’s precursor, Dance Project in 1974 in Adams Morgan. Perlo and Co-Founder Steve Bloom, took over the second-story studio/theater near 18th and Columbia in 1980, renaming it and reimagining Van Dyke’s vision. Five years later as the neighborhood gentrified, Dance Place moved to the then sleepy Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington, purchasing its own building. Over the years Perlo and Riley built a state-of-the-art dance studio and theater while committing to bringing arts to local neighborhood children and families as well as presenting world-class dance almost every weekend.
The rolling rhythms of “Thunderhead,” co-founder Bloom’s drum solo played on a daf, a large-headed Persian instrument, opened the program with a clarion call to be mindful of both the pounding beats and the subtleties. In a 1992 solo, “Flight of Time,” dancer Triana Brown captured the steely determination of choreographer Perlo’s personality with fearless balances and slicing diagonal reaches that later softened into more gossamer lightness.
It was moving to see “And Back Again,” Van Dyke’s final work, choreographed last year and rearranged for the stage, the program noted, in her last rehearsals. The women’s quartet relays Van Dyke’s austere but clarion approach to movement. She valued precision, control and specificity with a mathematician’s or architect’s eye, and here the quartet maneuvers in and out of highly designed patterns and rows, yet, then each dancer, clad in flared geometrically patterned dresses, gets a little release for a solo while the other three pause and watch.
The program closed with an earlier Van Dyke work from 1989, “Full Circle,” a trio featuring one of her favorite accompaniments, Turtle Island String Quartet. Again watching the dancers parse through the technical, specific leg and arm gestures — so out of character in light of today’s more emotion-laden or loose-limbed release techniques — it was easy to imagine Van Dyke dancing along, her cropped hair and prim presence presiding.
The program also featured “While Waiting” from long-time choreographer and educator Alvin Mayes, a heartfelt solo dance by Adriane Fang in memory of a friend and arts lover, Tuckey Requa. The late Eric Hampton’s Jane Austin-like comedy of manners for three women, “Saudades,” featured three dancers from the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Studio Company in an excerpt staged by former Hampton dancer Harriet Moncure Fellows. Ronya-Lee Anderson danced Riley’s “Shadows” from 2014 with a lushness that was meltingly romantic with its dips, reaches and arcing leg fans all set to a Chopin prelude.
Longtime dance educator Helen Hayes made a surprise appearance with her high-school aged dancers from Joy of Motion’s Youth Dance Ensemble in her first group work, a swirling water-y ballet from 1996 called “Whirlpools.” And a former Dance Place director Lesa McLaughlin revived her edgy 1984 solo “On Look” for her 13-year-old son, Chris Mateer. The piece plays on the tension between feminine and masculine roles and expectations as a dancer — back to the audience — dons a man’s dress shirt, tie and jacket, but not until a turn forward is it clear whether it is a male or female. McLaughlin came to dance late, as a college student, and there was a wildness and awkward gawkiness about her dancing and choreography that was equally intriguing and captivating. Her son has more grace and control, he doesn’t teeter in off-kilter balances with the same abandon, and at 13 is, perhaps, too young to match the sexual tension and androgynous interplay inherent in the work.
Cathy Paine, an early teacher and resident choreographer at Dance Place, returned to the stage after many years absence with a gorgeous and heartbreaking solo “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” A graceful and liquid performer, Paine moved with silken textures, fingers tickling the air, arms softly whispering on unseen currents. Then she melted and rose, rolled and scooted again and again into the floor and out like quicksilver. Her improvised spoken narrative — a popular feature for a generation or two of DC choreographers — was both a personal recollection and reflective testament to her forbears. As the title suggested, Paine drew inspiration from the arcane yet famous Shakespearean stage direction in his The Winter’s Tale. Paine, who noted after the performance that she just celebrated her 65th birthday earlier in the week, was simply ageless, and the meaningful and evocative journey she traveled in the course of the piece, from past to present to future generations proved the evening’s singular moment. Her charge to all in the space as she caressed a small spot of center stage: “This is sacred ground so take care of it” beautifully summed up of a 35-year legacy of creating a place to dance in Washington.
Photo: Dance Place Co-founder Carla Perlo, courtesy Dance Place
Published February 1, 2016. This review originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016
The Sleeping Beauty
American Ballet Theatre
Staging and new choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Kennedy Center Opera House
January 27, 2016
By Lisa Traiger
Alexei Ratmansky’s newest staging of the great classical ballet The Sleeping Beauty feels like that moment in the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz when the scene goes from black and white to Technicolor. Ratmansky has returned color, style and detail to the warhorse 1890 ballet, which, has, over succeeding decades, lost its identifying roots. Ballet, of course, is passed down from generation to generation orally, from retiring dancer to young dancer, from teacher to student, so like a game of telephone, sense and details can get lost, dropped or simply ignored because fashion and stylistic preferences change.
For American Ballet Theatre’s 2014 production, presented at the Kennedy Center Opera House January 27-31, 2016, which premiered two years ago in Costa Mesa, Calif., the beauty is in the details, the small moments, the living tableaux stage that Ratmansky paints. The ballet is both outsized and restrained in stager Ratmansky’s sure hand. The Russian-born and trained artist in residence at ABT is known and loved for his contemporary works, but he’s also an historian, a ballet sleuth, and for this production he searched the archives at Harvard University and in St. Petersburg, Russia, to suss out what the ballet could have looked like in 1890 at its premiere in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, or a generation later in the early 1900s when Diaghilov’s Ballets Russes acquired and performed the work.
The story, at least its bones, is nearly universally known, if not from storybooks then from Disney. But this version is more than simply a fairy tale retold. Created for the Russian czar’s court, the world of the ballet models the social and economic hierarchy of that era and tells us much about the workings of the upper class, the 1 percent if you will, amid the storybook unfolding of the prologue and three acts.
Most frequently lost in classical ballets, particularly when they made their way west to North America, has been the mime, which is essential for the narrative and dramatic elements of the classical ballet canon. Without the story and mime, it’s all merely divertissements — pure dancing, and for a time that’s what audiences wanted. But these days, the trend it back to narrative. Ratmansky, with the assistance of his wife Tatiana, has resuscitated mime passages that have been rarely if ever seen in recent decades, illuminating the story in new ways. We see a conversation between King Floriestan (Roman Zhurbin) and Catalabutte (Alexei Agoudine), his chief minister, that helps us clearly understand the hierarchies at stake in the royal court. A little later in the prologue, when the uninvited evil fairy Carabosse enters, there is a snippet of mimed dialogue where the good Lilac Fairy asks her evil counterpart why she’s so angry. Carabosse answers — a bit of mime I’ve never seen — then begins plucking out hairs of Catalabutte.
The dancing, too, has a renewed vigor, though present-day audiences will find few grand and virtuosic tricks. The women don’t raise their legs to ear-grazing heights and the men don’t soar in sweeping leaps and 540 degree barrel turns. Equilibrium restores moderation and attention to the details of smaller, complex footwork are what brighten and color this ballet. While we often think that ballet technique has advanced in the past 100 years, there are elements that have been lost.
Marius Petipa, the French-born émigré to Russia responsible for much of the classical ballet canon from Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake to The Nutcracker and Raymonda, apparently had specific ideas and distinctions he practiced on the placement of feet and legs. Ratmansky has uncovered those to great effect.
In this setting, the legs rarely go above 90 degrees, lending a greater notion of geometric purity to the way the body moves and poses — particularly the female body. There’s an abiding sense of restraint and purity to the women’s solos. And the partnered balances, especially the famous “Rose Adagio,” where the princess plucks a rose from each suitor’s hand before sticking a breath-catching balance on one leg, is less outlandish and more queenly and staid here. As well, the foot, particularly the woman’s foot, is not just pointed or flatly bearing weight. There are times when weight is borne on the metatarsal, dancers call it demi-pointe, something little seen in modern ballet where emphasis is on highly defined pointe work. And the bent working leg, especially in pirouettes, doesn’t always rise to the knee here — sometimes it remains held at the ankle or at mid-calf. These are not mistakes but conscious choices uncovered in the Petipa notes from Ratmansky’s research.
Aside from the ballet geek details, the larger scope of this production is one of courtly grandeur. The backdrops and sets of castles and palace interiors by Richard Hudson are grandly austere, a bit less colorful than the hundreds of costumes — accented by wigs and shoes — also by Hudson but inspired by the Ballets Russes costumes of Leon Bakst. There are no short classical-style tutus a la the pancake-like circle of netting popularized in Swan Lake. Instead the ladies’ tutus are bell-shaped in the Romantic style and hover just above the knee, again adding a sense of grace and restraint. The score, Tchaikovsky’s of course, is played well by The Kennedy Center’s orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins. And the gaggle of local children, dancing as pages, courtiers and the like, have been beautifully rehearsed by Maryland Youth Ballet teacher Rhodie Jorgenson.
The dancing, of course, matters most for audiences here and the opening night cast did not disappoint. Stella Abrera replaced Veronika Part in the important role of the Lilac Fairy on opening night. Russian-trained Part is a cool and staunch ballerina and would have brought those qualities to the role. Abrera brought a sense of openness and even joy to her pivotal portrayal. Though not overly elegant, and sturdier than Part, she carried off the nearly god-like demeanor demanded of the latter acts when equilibrium is restores the courtly order, for it is her spell that causes the young Princess Aurora not to die at the spindle prick but sleep 100 years awaiting the kiss of her prince charming.
As Princess Aurora, Isabella Boylston exhibited both joy and restraint, not terribly girlish, but she was kind and gentle. Her prince, Desire, danced by Joseph Gorak on Wednesday night, was attentively steadfast and, as noted, he doesn’t have many show-off moves, but his footwork, particularly the fleet foot beats, was admirable, if not perfect.
Marcelo Gomes’ evil fairy Carabosse relished being equal parts conniving and lustfully malicious. Stooped and Disney-scary, he played the bad witch with relish. As notable in Petipa’s Beauty are the many variations for the attendant fairies and, in the final act, the fairy tale characters — Little Red Riding Hood, the Bluebird, Puss and Boots, Cinderella, etc. — each has a noteworthy variation with lovely steps specific to who the dancer is portraying.
American Ballet Theatre typically does a run-of-the-mill job with the old school Petipa classics. It mounted a ho-hum Sleeping Beauty in 2007 with staging by its Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and her husband Michael Chernov. Ratmansky has returned Beauty to, it seems, a previous glory and grandeur.
The ABT dancers have tackled the challenges of the more restrained and pure technique and have acclimated themselves wonderfully to the specificity of the mime. As a whole the dancers have a sturdy, solid look, both corps de ballet and principals, which works impeccably well, rather than the gaunt, idealized thinness of late-20th century ballet dancers (here I’m thinking of the Mariinsky’s 1999 revival). The ABT dancers stand and move on solid ground. They may struggle or wobble in a balance, but they are human beings. Yes, they’re playing fairies and kings and courtiers, who are all striving for a godlike elegance, that’s a distinction that makes this ballet, for all its restraint and detail and historicity, a most satisfying evening.
Published January 30, 2016, originally appeared in DC Metro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016
National Ballet of Canada
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Joby Talbot
Set and Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Silk Effects: Basil Twist
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Projection Design: Daniel Brodie
Kennedy Center Opera House
January 19-23, 2016
By Lisa Traiger
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has taken a challenging late Shakespearean play — The Winter’s Tale from 1623 — and revitalized it into a mostly exquisite 21st-century ballet that breathes soul and spirit into an often cobwebby work. The National Ballet of Canada’s co-production with the Royal Ballet includes staging that draws on a rich collaborative palette of design and musical elements that update what is often called one of the Bard’s “problem plays” for its structural flaws and its hard-to-come-to-terms-with ending.
Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada
Trained at London’s Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon danced with New York City Ballet for seven years before becoming the company’s first artist in residence where he began to try his hand at choreography. His early works were, not surprisingly, Balanchinean — driven by line and technique rather than story and emotion — but he soon began to discover his singular voice. He expanded his style and choreographic reach by working on operas at the Metropolitan Opera; choreographing in Hollywood on the popular ballet movie Center Stage (2000) and on Broadway, where his direction and dances for An American in Paris can still be seen nightly at The Palace Theatre. That work also earned him a coveted Tony Award for best choreography.
Over the years, Wheeldon has developed his skill at storytelling in a pure dance environment, resulting in successful evening-length works like without his 2011 production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland— seen at The Kennedy Center in 2013 — featured the same creative team and the collaboration here is just as fortuitous.
The story centers on jealousy and, more problematically, redemption. King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia renew their childhood friendship during what amounts to a nine-month state visit to the Italian court. Leontes suspects his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery with his friend and in a fit or rages imprisons his wife, causing his young son Mamillius to break down. After giving birth, Leontes rejects Hermione’s baby, who is abandoned in a basket in a distant city state. The baby is found and raised by a peasant shepherd. Act II features a grown Perdita, that abandoned baby, who is courted by Polixenes’s son Florizel (of course) disguised as a shepherd. When the truth comes out, Florizel and Perdita, the young lovers, flee by ship to Sicilia. There eventually true identities get revealed and a wedding takes place. But Shakespeare in this darker romance, hasn’t finished. A stature of Hermione comes to life as Leontes prostrates himself before her image. Hidden for 16 years after her imprisonment, she and her king reunite is a dance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Choreographically Wheeldon is an equal opportunity borrower and he also has great taste in what he collects for his own choreographic toolkit. While it’s a ballet, the movement language is far from pure ballet technique. The choreographer culled from a multiplicity of dance styles, genres and techniques. We see elements of contemporary and 20th-century American ballet in the angular and geometric details that embellish duets — flexed feet, turned in knees – suggestions of Balanchine. The wide ranging emotional stoicism channels Antony Tudor’s dark female-centric works.
The enervated torso and the dichotomous pelvis-centered pull hint at Martha Graham. Other sections feature a loose-limbed swingy-ness and humanistic corpus of dance recalling Jose Limon and especially some vivid and high strung passages of men dancing channel Paul Taylor. And that’s all before the second act, where a Wheeldonian utopia fuses a jumble of world dances into some new post-modernist expression of an imagined nation state where the steps and rhythms hint at an Irish jig or a Hungarian czardas or a Russian kazatsky, all accompanied by an onstage six-piece folk ensemble playing wood flute, African drums, guitar, accordion and a dulcimer-like instrument.
Wheeldon is a whip-smart style thief who usurps movement ideas that intrigue him and reinvents them into something completely fresh and untarnished. Watching his choreography unspool over the three act ballet, elicits little sighs, nods of recognition, wonderments and surprises. His pas de deux — particularly his act one explicatory one featuring Leontes and a pregnant Hermione (Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer on opening night) — are exquisite. The lifts come from a natural — or at least natural appearing — place. The dancers intertwine and unspool in whirling, curving arcs of continual movement that doesn’t feel forced or precious and emits feelings of ardent connection.
The fastidious attention to the detail in the storytelling relies not on 19th century mime techniques but on ordinary conversational gestures that demonstrate how mightily body language, posture and a few well-placed gestures can convey complex ideas and emotions. This is where Wheeldon is best: illuminating a knotty, ancient tale and breathing new life into it for the 21st century.
Joining him in this retelling and updating of The Winter’s Tale is Joby Talbot’s rich and varied score, drawing on orchestral harmonies perfect for the most balletic passages, but also capturing syncopated rhythms of music from a wide swath of locales and cultures that, in blending and fusing cross-cultural sounds, feels both like an ancient discovery from a yet to be uncovered new tribe but sounds absolutely modern. Video projections, by Daniel Brodie often onto expansive swaths of silk draped and designed by puppeteer Basil Twist, allow for far more vivid scenic and location changes. These are enhanced by the gorgeous set and costume designs, which like the music and choreography, pick and choose from a rich amalgamation of cultures and regions. Vests and breeches, demure dresses for the corps de ballet and more severe ones that suggest Martha Graham’s torso hugging designs, allow for clear and precise display of the physical and emotional core of the movement.
The Winter’s Tale only wavers in relying on that problematic — and unsatisfying — ending. The final section, with a revived Hermione and Leontes dancing a reconciliation pas de deux is hard to swallow, until one acknowledges that this world – Shakespeare’s and Wheeldon’s — remains male centric and male dominated, and as in most ballet and literature, the forgiveness and acceptance that rights a toppled universe comes from the woman.
The dancing by the cast, particularly leads Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer, is unabashedly fine. The Canadians fling themselves wholeheartedly into Wheeldon’s — and Shakespeare’s — worlds, making this Winter’s Tale one that inspires warm feelings on a cold winter’s night.
Alas, due to the blizzard of 2016, all performances this weekend at The Kennedy Center have been cancelled.
© 2016 Lisa Traiger
This review originally appeared on DCMetroTheaterArts.com.
For reasons that continue to surprise me, 2015 was a relatively light dance-going year for me. That said, I managed to take in nearly a top ten of memorable, exceptional or challenging performances over the past 12 months.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on its annual February Kennedy Center Opera House visit, brought a program of politically relevant works that culminated, as always, in the inspirational paean to the African-American experience, “Revelations.” Up first, though, was the restless “Uprising,” an athletic men’s piece that draws out the animalistic instincts of its performers. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, drawing influence from his experiences with the famed Batsheva Dance Company and its powerhouse director Ohad Naharin, found the disturbing core in his 40-minute buildup. As these men, in street garb – t-shirts and hoodies – walk ape-like, loose-armed and low to the ground, their athletic sparring, hand-to-hand combat, full-force runs and dives into the floor, ultimately coalesce in a menacing mélange. Is it protest or riot? Hard to tell, but the final king-of-the-hill image — one red-shirt-clad man reaching the apex of a clump of bodies his first raised — could be in solidarity or protest. And, in a season awash in domestic and international unrest, “Uprising,” with its massive large group movement, built into a cri de coeur akin to what happened on streets the world over in 2015.
The Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre has been delving into American literary classics and on the heels of his successes with both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in February his fearless chamber-sized troupe unveiled his latest: a full-length Sleepy Hollow, based, of course, on the ghostly literary legend by Washington Irving. But more than just a haunted night of ballet, Webre’s Sleepy Hollow delved into America’s early Puritan history, with a Reverend Cotton Mather character and a scene featuring witches drawn from elements of the Salem witch trials, expanding the historical and literary context of the work. This new dramatization in ballet, featuring a rich score by Matthew Pierce; well-used video projections by Clint Allen; and scenery by Hugh Landwehr; focuses on the tale of an outsider, Ichabod Crane – a common American literary trope. Choreographically Webre has smartly drawn not only on the expected classical ballet vocabulary, but he also tapped American folk dances and early and mid-20th century modern dance influences to expand the dancers’ roles for greater expressivity and storytelling. Guest principal Xiomara Reyes played the lovely love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, partnered by Jonathan Jordan. It’s hard to say whether this one will become a classic, but Webre’s smartly and carefully drawn characterizations and multi-generational arc in his approach to the Irving’s story expanded the options for contemporary story ballets.
Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company founded by choreographer Andrea Miller, made its D.C. debut at the Lansburgh Theatre in April. Miller danced with Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Israel’s most significant dance troupe, and she brings those influences drawn from the unique methodology Naharin created. Called “gaga,” this dance language frees dancers and other movers to tap both their physical pleasure and their highest levels of experimentation. In “Blush,” this pleasure and experimentation played out with Miller’s three women and three men who dive head first into loosely constructed vignettes with elegant vengeance. With a primal sense of attack as they face off on the stage taped out like a boxing ring. Miller’s title “Blush” suggests the physiological change in a person’s body, their skin tone and during the course of “Blush,” transformations occur as the dancers, painted in Kabuki-like white rice powder, begin to reveal their actual skin tones – their blush. In so doing, they become metaphors for shedding a protective outer layer to reveal their inner selves.
The Washington Ballet continued its terrific season with the company’s much ballyhooed production of Swan Lake, at the smaller Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in April. It garnered international attention for Webre’s casting: ballet “It” girl Misty Copeland, partnered by steadfast senior company dancer Brooklyn Mack, became purportedly the first African American duo in a major American ballet company to dance the timeless roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, respectively. But that’s not what made this Swan Lake so memorable, and mostly satisfying. Instead, credit goes to former American Ballet Theatre principal Kirk Peterson, responsible for the indelible staging and choreography, following after, of course, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He drew exceptional performances from this typically less than classical chamber-sized troupe. The corps de ballet, supplemented by senior students and apprentices, really danced like a classical company. As well, Peterson, who has become an expert in resuscitating classics, returned little-seen mime passages to the stage, bringing back the inherent drama in this apex of story ballets. My favorite is the hardly seen (at least in the U.S.) passage when Odette, on meeting Siegfried in the forest in act II, tells him the story of her mother, evil Von Rothbart’s curse and the lake, filled with her mother’s tears, as she gestures in a horizontal sweep to the watery backdrop and brings her forefingers to her eyes indicating dropping tears. Live music was provided by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra and made all the difference for the dancers, even though the company’s small size meant the act III international character variations were cut. While the hype focused on the Copeland debut, she didn’t own or carry the ballet, and here Mack was a solid, but not entirely warm Siegfried. This Swan Lake truly soared truly through the corps, supporting roles and staging.
June brought the Polish National Ballet, directed by Krzysztof Pastor, to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in lovely evening of contemporary European works. The small company – 11 women and a dozen men – are luscious and intelligent dancers who can captivate in works that push beyond staid classical technique. Pastor’s program opener, “Adagio & Scherzo,” featuring Schubert’s lyricism, twists, winds, and unfurls in pretty moments. There is darkness and light, both in the choreography and in designer Maciej Igielski’s illumination, which matches the shifting moodiness of the score. Pastor’s movement language is elegant, but not constrained, his dancers breathe and stretch, draw together and nuzzle in more ruminative moments, then split apart. In his closer “Moving Rooms” we first meet the dancers arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a black stage, each dancer contained in an single box of light. Using the sometimes nervously itchy score by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, the dancers, clad in flesh colored leotards, used their legs and arms in sharp-edged angles and geometries. But the centerpiece of the evening was a new “Rite of Spring” – yes, to that Mt. Everest of scores by Igor Stravinsky – this one is choreographed by French-Israeli Emanuel Gat. Danced on a red carpet, the five dancers ease into a counterintuitive tango of changing partners, always leaving one dancer as the odd one out. The smooth and slightly sensuous salsa is the basis for the work’s movement sinuous vocabulary, as it quietly builds like a slowly simmering pot put to boil.
Man and machine – or in this case – dancer and computerized robot – meet in Taiwanese-born choreographer and dancer Huang Yi’s 50-minute work. The evening presented in The Clarice’s Kogod Theater, its black box at the University of Maryland in September, provided a merging of art and technology. KUKA, the German-made robot, used in factories around the world to insert parts that build autos and iPads, has become a companion and artistic partner for Yi. Performing to a lushly classical score of selections from Bach and Mozart, Yi, clad in a dark suit, dances with, beside and around the singular movable robot arm sprouting from KUKA’s bright orange base. There are moments of serendipity, when the two seem to be communing in a duet of machine and motion, and others, in the dimly lit work, when each strays off on a tangent – robot and human, may move side by side, or even together, but only one inhabits a spiritual profound space of flesh, blood and breathe. That was my take away from this intriguing experiment in technology and dance. Yi is at the forefront of merging art with new technology and his experimentation – he programmed the robot – is on the cutting edge, but the work doesn’t cut to the quick. Still, orange steel and computer chips don’t trump muscle, bone, flesh and spirit. I would like to see more of Yi’s slippery, easy silken movement, in better light and with living breathing partners.
Camille Brown went deep in mining her childhood experiences in Black Girl: Linguistic Play, presented by The Clarice in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre in October. The evening length work draws on Brown’s and her dancers’ playground experiences, first as young girls playing hopscotch, double dutch jump rope and sing-songy hand clapping games. On a set of platforms, chalk boards that the dancers color on and hanging angled mirrors designed by Elizabeth Nelson, Brown and her five women dancers inhabit their younger selves, in knee socks, overall shorts, and all the gum-chewing gumption and fearlessness that seven, eight -and nine-year-olds own when they’re comfortable in their skin. As the piece, featuring a live score of original compositions and curated songs played by pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Tracy Wormworth hit all the right notes as the performers matured and grew before our eyes from nursery rhyming girls chanting “Miss Mary Mack” to hesitant pre-adolescents, fidgeting and fighting mean-girl battles, to teens on the cusp of womanhood – and uncertainty. The work is a vibrant and vivid rendering of the secret lives of the little seen and less heard lives of black girls. The movement is pure play, physical, elemental, skips and hops, the stuff of recess and lazy summer days, but there are moments of deep recognition, particularly one where an older sister or mother figure gently, carefully, lovingly plaits the hair of one of the girls. Its quiet intimacy, too, speaks volumes.
The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – multitalented performers who can finesse a quick footed petit allegro or execute a jazzy kick-ball-change and slide sequence or bop and rock in bits of freestyle improvisation with equal skill. For the two Tharp did not revive earlier masterpieces, instead she paid a sort of homage to her elf with a pair of new works – “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” Each had elements of hat smart synchronicity that Tharp favors, her beloved little balletic passages that she came to embrace after years of more severe post modernism, and her larky, goofy wiggles, scrunches, and witty physical jokes, like pairing the “tall” girl with the shortest guy in the company, or little games of tag or chase and odd-one-out that are interspersed in both works. “Preludes and Fugues” was preceded by “First Fanfare,” featuring a herald of trumpets composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet society). The two works, one a bit of appetizer, the other the first course, bled into each other and recalled influences of Tharp’s earlier beloved choreography, especially the indelible ballroom sequences and catches of “Sinatra Suite.” “Preludes and Fugues” is as staunch piece set to Bach fugues that Tharp dissects choreographically with precise footwork, intermingling couples, groups and soloists and her eye for the “everything counts” ethos of post-modernism where ballet and jazz, loose-limbed modern and a circle of folk like chains all blend into a whole.
“Yowzie” is brighter, more carefree, recalling the unbridled energy of a New Orleans Second Line with its score of American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto the dancers grin and mug through this more light-hearted romp featuring lots of Twyla-esque 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 hijinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the highly calibrated lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like Mardi Gras. In the end though, both works are Twyla playing and paying homage to Twyla – they’re both solid, smart and well-crafted. They’re not keepers, though, in the way “In the Upper Room,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove” were earlier in her career.
Samita Sinha’s bewilderment and other queer lions is not exactly dance or theater, but there’s plenty of movement and mystery and beauty in her hour-long work, which American Dance Institute in Rockville presented in early December. In a year of no “Nutcrackers” for this dance watcher, this was a terrific antidote to the crushing commercialization of all things seasonal during winter holidays. Sinha, a composer and vocal artist, draws on her roots in North Indian classical music as well as other folk, ritual and classical music traditions. Together with lighting, electronic scoring, a collection of props and objets (visual design is by Dani Leventhal), she has woven together a world inhabited by creative forces and energies from across genres and encompassing the four corners of the aural world. Ain Gordon directed the piece, which sometimes featured text, sometimes just vocalizing, sometimes movement as Sinha and her compatriots on stage Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray trade places, come together to play on or work with a prop, like a fake fur vest or scattered collected chairs and percussive instruments. There were eerie keenings, and deep rumbles, higher pitched vocalizations, cries, exhales, sighs, electric guitar and steel objects banged together, all in the purpose of building a world of pure and unclichéd vocal resonance. It would be too easy to compare her to Meredith Monk and Sinha is far less artistically self-conscious and precious. She is most definitely an artist to follow. Her vision and talent, keen eye and gracious presence speak – and sing – volumes.
© 2015 Lisa Traiger
Published December 31, 2015
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
March 28, 2015
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
April 9, 2015
By Lisa Traiger
It was a fortuitous spring for ballet lovers in Washington, D.C. American Ballet Theatre celebrated both its 75th anniversary and its long relationship with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March with a revival of Ashton’s Cinderella. Then the home-town team, The Washington Ballet, hit one out of the park with its first production of Swan Lake, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack (among other leads) – likely making history as the first African American Odette/Odile and Siegfried in a major company.
ABT’s Kennedy Center season was bittersweet, though, with the leave taking of homegrown ballerina Julie Kent, who retired after 29 years from American Ballet Theatre, making her own history as the longest serving dance in the company’s history.
Alas, Kent, who was scheduled to dance her last time in Washington in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, March 28, 2015, had to pull out due to injury. Instead Gillian Murphy substituted, her crystalline technique punctuating the achy Prokofiev score. The muted tones of the music and Ashton’s first act choreography were highlighted by Murphy’s portrait of the put-upon, abused sister in a household of mean-spirited and grasping women. The step sisters, en travesti roles for Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin asserted their mean girl status in Thursday’s opening with a thick schmear of high ridiculousness. Cinderella’s father, Clinton Luckett, was a berated depressive in this dysfunctional fairy tale family. Murphy’s broom-sweeping solo in act I ached with yearning romanticism. Her transformation, at the hands – and wand – of Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, also on opening night, was not quite magical. Part, regal and distant, is a chilly ballerina, an ice princess and later, in the act III apotheosis, Murphy, too, accompanied by her prince, James Whiteside, show her classical demeanor with little of the warmth or fluidity of her earlier characterization. Here she becomes queenly, precise: bouree-ing and spinning like a music box ballerina.
The Ashton production is not without its moments – comic bits of business by those outlandish stepsisters, or a ridiculous caricature of Napoleon as one of the ball’s guests – but even with David Walker’s lavish sets and costumes, it felt subdued, a bit deflated. The sparkle was missing. Perhaps it was the loss of Kent’s performance. Her bow to Washington came after the curtain dropped; Kent stepped on stage a wisp in her street clothes, for one final curtsy to her hometown audience.
The much publicized debut of ABT’s now principal ballerina Misty Copeland in The Washington Ballet’s first full-length Swan Lake occurred five weeks later, in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater. Heralded as a history-making first for its pairing of Copeland with TWB’s Brooklyn Mack, also African American, the media frenzy and public interest was high and ticket sales brisk. A smart marketer at the ballet screen printed t-shirts that proclaimed: “I Saw Misty and Brooklyn” across the back.
Artistic director Septime Webre brought in Kirk Peterson, who himself had an illustrious 17-year career as a principal at ABT. The former artistic director of Hartford Ballet and one-time assistant artistic director to Washington Ballet, then under the direction of the late founder Mary Day, Peterson’s expertise in restaging full-length classics shone brightly here. Webre also wisely connected with the small, but lively Evermay Chamber Orchestra, which has grown from an ensemble of five into a modestly sized but highly adept mini orchestra, here under the direction of Nabil Shehata. With just 20 full company members and three apprentices, TWB filled out its swan ranks with its 13 dancers from the Studio Company along with additional support from senior level students from the company’s professional training program.
Peterson’s production was finely wrought, well danced and equally well acted. Most notable – and gratifying – was his return to many classic mime passages that are hardly seen, at least not on American soil. He delved into Nicholas Sergeyev’s research on the 1895 original Petipa/Ivanov production following Vaganova’s 1933 Sadler Wells staging in London, which made many Sovietizing adjustments to the work. So it’s possible – or at least believable – that Peterson’s research has returned the ballet to a purer original stage – though of course we’ll never know. In any case, the mostly contemporary dancers of TWB handled the complex mime passages and dramatic sequences with ease and finesse. My favorite is the reintroduction of the passage when Odette tells Siegfried about the curse on her mother and the lake she and her swans inhabit, which was made from her mother’s tears. Equally notable: the lovely and energetic the corps de ballet, particularly in the Lev Ivanov white acts. They were not a unified singular body, but, oh, how they danced with vigor and liveliness.
The main question on most readers’ minds, though, remains, “How did Misty do?” Admirably well considering that Odette and Odile aren’t really her roles. Copeland is a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong dancer, a formidable powerhouse of a mover who can take up space and radiate personality. What she’s not is a classical princess, nor is she, as Odile, a determined seductress. Copeland has the technical chops to knock many roles out of the park. But for Odette, she lacks an abiding sense of fragility and litheness. She understands the physical musculature necessary, for example for her arms to undulate like a bird’s wings, but she doesn’t yet – and may never – have the languid, free-flowing fluidity to make me believe she could in fact take flight. As Odile, of course, beyond being a seductress with an ulterior motive, she has to whip out those beloved and despised fouettes. Alas, for a ballerina of her power and steadiness, it should be an effortless task, one that is barely noticeable, but there was a glitch, she didn’t hit her mark or the count.
As for Copeland’s partner, Mack, who completed his sixth season with the company in the spring, and received some of his training in Washington, D.C. at the Kirov Academy, was an adequate Siegfried. He was not, though, fully believable as a prince. He’s a romantic, but with a more modern sensibility. I’ve seen him expertly and suavely woo a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What he is not, or at least not yet, is a fully classical prince with that sense of elevated self importance, but also that sigh-inducing reverie, that soul-searching quest ever at hand. He has the power to let loose the big jumps and stage engulfing leaps, but he didn’t discover the intense emotional connection with his partner, Copeland, that is necessary for Swan Lake to soar. Alas, they both remained more prosaic than passionate. Now that Copeland has attained the status of principal, there are more classical roles in her future. Time will tell as to whether she can truly attain the classical realm in her dancing. Physically she has the ability; it’s a matter of becoming fully immersed in the drama and emotional life of her role that will make Copeland a true classical ballerina.
This review was published originally in the Fall 2015 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.
Photo: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, by Theo Kossenas
Choreography by Chris Schlichting, in collaboration with performers Dolo McComb, Dustin Maxwell, Laura Selle Virtucio, Max Wirsing, Pareena Lim and Tristan Koepke
Music by Jeremy Yivisaker and Alpha Consumer, featuring JT Bates and Jim Anton
Design and Installation by Jennifer Davis
Lighting by Joe Levasseur
Costumes by Chris Schlichting
American Dance Institute, Rockville, Md.
October 2, 2015
By Lisa Traiger
Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting’s “Stripe Tease” feels both intimate and expansive, drawing on his knack for specificity in inventive movement phrasing and his love of interior design and costuming, the piece evolves in organic and intriguing ways. As his layers build to full-blown climatic kineticism, the finely crafted hour-long work teases out lovely passages crisply performed accompanied live by the fabulous three-piece ensemble Alpha Consumer. Schlichting and “Stripe Tease” made a metropolitan Washington, D.C. area premiere October 2 and 3 at American Dance Institute, one of three commissioning partners through the National Performance Network.
Beginning in silence, two men draw a line in the air, then in tight unison relish a series of complex gestural phrases they deliver with uncommon grace and femininity – wilting hands, melting elbows, sloped, rolling shoulders. There’s an unspoken subversion of masculinity – or is it usurping of femininity – in these men languishing in seemingly womanly motifs, which remains a subtle theme throughout the piece. With a softness and uncommon delicacy, this indulgent beauty and oozing liquid grace multiplies as additional dancers enter, singly and then in pairs, a structure that becomes a motif throughout the evening. The six performers, clad in couture-level black shorts or slacks, tops with slashes, visible zippers, fine pleats and high necks (all designed by Schlichting), relish the opulent, choreographic phrasing that allows for undulations contrasting with saber-like slashes or occasional audible stomps.
Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker’s accompanying music, played live with drummer JT Bates and bassist Jim Anton, provides a rock-inspired and yet easygoing pop inflected foreground on which the dancers parse out their exquisitely evolved phrases. What sings in the piece as it develops are the juxtapositions among the choreographed sections – swift, semaphoric gestures that look like a protolanguage not yet translated – and the building drama unveiled from visual designer Jennifer Davis with an assist from lighting designer Joe Levasseur. At first a study in black, soon that backdrop rises to reveal a sea of color-school stripes in multihued fluorescents and foils. Think late 1960s, early 1970s, bathroom wallpaper and you’ll get the idea. Levasseur’s lighting, too, has a throwback feel, with his sometimes moody, sometimes hot fluorescent choices that open up the performers’ space into the audience.
Playing with duets, danced in close unison side by side, but never truly partnering – there are no lifts, holds or supports in the piece – Schlichting relishes his own expressions of formalism, unleashing his dancers like indie fashion models for a take-no-prisoners fashion house like Rick Owens’ – their tough, hard stares intimidating one moment, then their eye scans an invitation the next. At one point the dancers become bored cat-walking models, pacing the stage in a broad loping gait, then mounting the steps into the audience, to pause and pose. Off to the side in an exit alley, a duo performs small sidebar movements, hands and forearms swiveling and waving like little handkerchiefs whipping in the wind. As the Schlichting with Ylvisaker’s musical support builds a crescendo into the work, the stage design elements have their own fashionable reveal. Stage hands, smartly dressed in black with vivid belts, draw back curtains and later side panels in each wing to reveal two tigers painted in fluorescent stripes of neon tape glowing orange, green and pink. Have all the choreographic movement markings been a tease for the stripes – or vice versa?
No matter. How easy it is to get drawn into Schlichting’s world, where a dancer finger tracking a line in space early on then eggs forward into a rich collection of intricate and ever-evolving hands, arms shoulders looping in circles, cupping hands, full-blown and half-way there. Meaning and story here are, of course, subverted for the pure beauty and delicacy captured by the six fine performers: Dolo McComb Dustin Maxwell, Laura Selle Virtucio, Max Wirsing, Pareena Lim and Tristan Koepke. The work is far more than a tease, it’s a tantalizing collection of treasures with rewards for the patient and caring viewer.
Photos: top, Bill Cameron; bottom, Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center
Published October 3, 2015
© 2015 Lisa Traiger
Eleven Reflections on September
Written and directed by Andrea Assaf
Choreography by Donna Mejia
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
September 15, 2015
By Lisa Traiger
One of the most powerful antiwar statements of the 20th century remains Pablo Picasso’s stunning 1937 oil on canvas, “Guernica.” The painting conveys from its large canvas the atrocities, pain and suffering of war in graphic details of newspaper photojournalism, shifted through the surrealist lens of Picasso’s cubism.
“Eleven Reflections on September,” three-dimensionalizes the message of Picasso’s Guernica, using poetry, spoken word, original music, video and world fusion dance to bring this message that war garners no true victories into the 21st century. “Eleven Reflections” – part of the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival taking place this fall in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs – draws on the Arab-American experience both pre- and post-September 11. The result is a searing artistic statement of the troubling pain and displacement that occurs when the known world is over taken by the unknown, the uncertainties, the indignities and inequities that happen in war and uprising.
Beginning with a haunting violin and low call of the didgeridoo, flames flickering on the backdrop, poet and spoken world artist Andrea Assaf’s words tumble out. She begins at that brilliant and horrible moment in 2001 when the world changed. The planes and towers were down. Chaos reigned in lower Manhattan and Assaf speaks presciently: “everything that came before was over.” Now there’s a line, a division, a before and after, a moment where Americans in particular realized their vulnerability on the world stage. She speaks of the “smoke of memory” as video captures horrific images of twisted, collapsed buildings.
When black-clad dancer Donna Mejia enters, shoulders bare, skirt full and flounced, hair twisted into a topknot, the violin, played by Eylem Basaldi, shimmers, the doumbek played by Natalia Perlaza provides the syncopated beat. And Mejia’s head and shoulders roll, undulating to the beauty of the sound, replicating the wafting smoke alluded to earlier rising into the brilliant, blue sky on that once-gorgeous then horrific September day. Assaf talks of fruit trees, particularly the emblematic olive which takes generations before its pleasant yield can be harvested. Mejia’s arms reach like the branches, then reshape themselves into sharp-elbowed corners – trees cut down, towers downed, souls sacrificed in a split second of insanity and inhumanity.
Choreographically Mejia helps embellish Assaf’s text just as calligraphers often embelish Arabic script into curvilinear designs with graceful arabesques linking and winding into letters, words and verses. In a melding of dance forms referred to as transnational fusion, she draws upon tradtions from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and western modern dance. As letters and words collect on the backdrop in Pramila Vasudevan’s video, Mejia has gathered hip rols and shimmies, arm undulations and shoulder rolls, convulsive contractions of the midsection and torso and deep lunges, her supple body circling above.
Assaf brings forth a basin of water infused with bunches of mint – an act of purifying, of hospitality, of offering. Mejia seems to expand to a haunting wordless chanted call let forth by Luna, then later, she plants both feet firmly into the ground, her solid wise stance an act of ownership and defiance as images of uprising populate the backdrop. The reflections, drawing from the specificity of Assaf’s experiences reified in poetry form the basis for a soul-piercing experiences. While September 11 has had life-changing effects on many aspects of our society and government, “Eleven Reflections” personalizes the act of communal remembrance and also illuminates the specificity of the Arab-American experience.
Mejia’s choreographic contribution to the work allows the words to resonate more fully, underlining and highlighting moments when Assaf’s poetry spurts forward, quickly relentlessly. The dance moments, a shoulder tremor, a head roll, arms twisting, snaking, like the wrapped coils of Mejia’s hair. The elemental mix of these complex dance genres, and the richly evocative world music forms serve to broaden and deepen the viewer’s experience. “Eleven Reflections” with its richly collaborative contributions of singular women’s voices illuminates the antiwar message at the root of Assaf’s poetry. As the poet, clad in black, forges forward, leaving the stage, Mejia takes over. Suddenly her hips tremor and erupt at breakneck speed, the jingling coins of her hip belt punctuating the drum and violin. It’s not merely celebratory, but, more importantly, it’s life affirming.
Picasso overwhelmed viewers with the horrors of war in his politically driven “Guernica.” Assaf’s canvas is equally large and she is not immune to the politics of this moment in time and the resonance of September 11, concomitant uprisings and crises occurring in the Middle East, and beyond. But she and her collaborators don’t wallow in the destruction. In their 21st century multimedia “Guernica,” they recount war’s horrors and the politics of hate, but then push onward, beyond. Amid the death, destruction, protests, and prejudices visited in the piece, blood still courses through veins, muscles still flex, hearts still beat, poetry still rings out. Life, even in the unrelenting grip of war and destruction, goes on and that is the true message “Eleven Reflections on September” leaves viewers to ponder.
Photo: Donna Mejia, by Jen Diaz, courtesy La MaMa
© 2015 Lisa Traiger September 18, 2015