D.C. DanceWatcher

Ballet Americano

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ballet Across America Fadeley v6QDianne McIntyre’s “Change” radiated power and determination. Honoring the strength of women — “Black, Brown, and Beige” as the program noted — it featured the recorded voices of the all-female Spellman College Glee Club singing “I’m Going to Lay Down This Heavy Load” among other selections. Each dancer in the female trio bears a burden, struggles to break through the shadowy light. Lindsey Croop, Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Rae Williams subvert the pointe shoe overthrowing delicacy for sturdy space-swallowing bourres and pricking parallel walks, no partners required. Their upraised palms, churchy fanning motions, prayerful regard and fierce thigh slaps acknowledge the struggles of African American women. This is not tribute; it is triumph denoting how the women broke free from oppression. A barrage of drums interrupts the choir for mood and costumes changes. The trio changes from black chiffon to short patchwork unitards that speak their own fraught history — sewn from the multihued tights of DTH dancers in shades of coffee, beige, café au lait, and mahogany — the dancers literally wear the legacy of oppression and triumph on their backs.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© 2020 Lisa Traiger

 

 

2019 Danced: A Year of Watching

meredith monk cellular sounds

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

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

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

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

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

Orange Grove dance photo @evangelinaa_g

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

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

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

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

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

     

Serenades and Diversions

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 6, 2018

Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied and Wheeldon
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
January 30, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

As parts of the nation settled in to hear 45 read the script of the State of the Union address, and other parts assiduously ignored the same, balletomanes and ballet goers in the Washington area welcomed a program of new and recent choreography from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) to kick off its annual Kennedy Center Opera House season. I’ll leave comments on the SOTU to the political pundits, but can proclaim wholeheartedly that, on the heels of a tough year for ballet companies, from shrinking budgets, to rising touring costs, tighter visa restrictions for foreign artists, and year-end revelations of sexual harassment  and abuse in companies large and small, the state of ABT is strong. In fact, I haven’t seen the company as a whole dance this well since its heyday in the mid-1980s, when premier danseur Mikhail Baryshnikov served as artistic director.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,”  photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Tuesday evening’s program of four works — three by living male choreographers created in the past decade — showcased the company’s commitment to building repertory for the 21st century, instead of recycling the tried and true of the past. Though none were world premieres, these offerings demonstrated a high level of sophistication that demanded far more from the typical “story ballet” crowd that fills the Opera House on Saturday nights and weekend matinees for the Swan Lakes, Giselles and Le Corsaires that the company can churn out.

Artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky has been a prolific dancemaker, creating pieces for his current home company, ABT, as well as for New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, which he directed from 2004-2008, and many others. His choreography demonstrates an astute awareness of the classical underpinnings that remain integral to the art form, but he has a fresh take on how these classic steps get put together and, more essential, how dancers perform them. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” shows that he’s in top form, creatively, intellectually and technically. The work is among his best, featuring seven of the company’s male principals in unexpected and consequential solos that focus on new their distinctive personalities and putting them far enough outside their comfort zone to allow them to shine.

Ratmansky takes self-assured inspiration from a less-well-known, but by no means lesser, score from Leonard Bernstein. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” is a violin concerto (here marvelously played by Kobi Malkin), joined by strings and percussion, especially deep timpani. The composer crafted it in 1954 after a Platonic dialogue and you can hear the questions and answers in the score, as well as the distinctive voices of the participants. Ratmansky follows both the intellectual tenets and the emotional currents Bernstein put into play, placing his dancers in conversation, giving them singular solos — danced monologues — and drawing them together into a larger discursive group, Platonic discourse embodied.

The work for seven men is filled with smartly executed Ratmansky-isms – complicated but pure bits of footwork that showcase the swiftness of feet and legs in a fashion not often seen in new ballets that too often focus on hyperextensions, and gymnastic-like tricks or other elements peripheral to the choreography. But Ratmansky loves and honors the ballet dictionary, the vocabulary that dates back to the French court. The more complicated and honed the footwork is, the more interesting it makes the choreography. And the more interesting the choreography, the better the opportunities dancers have to step up to the plate and hit it out of the park. Atop this evolving base of old and new, he allows for a sense of open expressiveness in the upper body, emphasizing epaulement — the shifting placement of the shoulders and head to enliven and add dimension to the dancers’ interpretations. For this “Serenade,” they really use everyday conversational hand gestures — widespread and open arms with palms up, a questioning shrug, an emphatic fist, an accusatory forefinger — which are more than decorative, they’re essential to the work’s development and purpose.

Calvin Royal in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheedon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Calvin Royal in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Most striking in “Serenade” is the luscious attention to detail from the dancers, from soft-footed landings following soaring jumps, to gentle bourrees — a quick gliding step most often associated with women dancing en pointe — to sequences of freshly executed pirouettes, full body reverses, and a simple repose. Here Ratmansky gives his men equal opportunity to showcase their softer, feminine sides in choreography that allows for a different dynamic and level of attack than is typically expected of male ballet dancers. The men are draped and swathed interestingly in muted tones of gray, beige, rust, black and crisp white, the varied costumes by Jerome Kaplan suggesting the one-shouldered classic Greek toga. Brad Fields’ lighting, too, assists in distilling each of the seven singular performances, and also adding special effect upon introducing the one woman in the cast.

This “Serenade” is a men’s dance: by, about and for men. But it’s also a dance about Love — not cupids and cute Valentine hearts and happily ever afters. This is Platonic love, a divine inspirational connection to the idea of Eros, a transcendent, non-sexual love that rises above the banality of happy endings. Bernstein’s inspiration was the Platonic symposium — an intellectual conversation where the ultimate truth and beauty are in service of Eros.

Interestingly, Ratmansky has avoided any homoerotic undertones in his danced “Symposium” — instead providing heartfelt camaraderie, friendly sparring, frustration, joviality, even disruption. It’s an idyllic universe of music, dance and ideas. They cuff one another like playful lions, but they also question, shrug, clasp hands, brush off and draw in their compatriots as Ratmansky pulls from non-verbal gestures that allow an easygoing verisimilitude. As shifting configurations of twos, threes, fours and the entire group evolve, some dancers peel away to recline, Greek style or to sit on the sidelines regarding their brothers in debate. There’s a real-world feeling to this conversation — or symposium — and the oversized tilted placard states in Greek letters just that, “symposium” at the start of the ballet. By the end it is upturned and becomes a cloud or canopy, hanging above the dance space.

On opening night, Jeffrey Cirio’s solo set the conversation in motion, Calvin Royal’s lush adagio — in his split personality half black, half white costume — let him stretch to his fantastic height. Gabe Stone Shayer seemingly invented new jumps and skips and leaps from thin air in an airborne section while littler Daniil Simkin was playful in his lightness and larger Alexandre Hammoudi seemed stoic. Blaine Hoven, in his white jacket, appears to lead, while bearded James Whiteside played up some of the more feminine steps — crossed Romantic-style wrists, bourrees — with tongue in cheek.

Then, like a deus ex machina, Eros appears in person, entering through a gold-lit opening in the back curtain. Eros (Devon Teuscher in a pale blue dress) dances a brief, entangled duet with before exiting, and this is, interestingly, the least compelling part of the work. The pas de deux is ordinary, while the men’s previous solos and duets were extraordinary, filled with sentiment, moments of softness and rigor.

This was the program’s gem, a keeper that should be well on its way to masterpiece status.

Alas, the revival of Jerome Robbins’ small but not inconsequential pas de deux “Other Dances,” originally made for the incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in 1976, provided an example of what happens when a dance is mothballed and remounted without care to casting and attention to detail beyond the steps. Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns managed the technical demands of Robbins’ highly evocative choreography without a glitch. They simply had no passion, either for one another, or for the poignant yet lilting Chopin pieces that suggest a lost Russian world of mazurkas, booted men, and aproned women, borscht and dachas in the woods, which the choreography acknowledges in the snappy heel closes, hands resting proudly on waists; toe and heel taps, and even — here, entirely too timid — an emphatic floor slap. Yet, neither dancer projected that soulful longing for each other or for bygone days. “Other Dances” evokes another time and place, when wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve added life and zest to the piece. The Chopin was lovingly played on piano by Emily Wong.

Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions,” photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions” is a small piece, a collection of duets, made bigger by adding a 16-member corps behind the four solo couples. Wheeldon’s most memorable dance moments for me have been his duets — here he multiplied those by spreading paired couples across the stage as decorative ornamentation and filtering them in clumps. Danced to Benjamin Britten’s “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21,” the 13 variations melded into one another, while Fields’ lighting, opening with a triangular corner of the backdrop glowing and growing, before evolving into changing colors and temperatures as a bar of bright orange, then blue, then purple, bisected the wall horizontally.

French-American choreographer, former short-lived director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied dabbled in post-modernism with some outtakes from Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” On a stage stripped of scrim, drops and all accoutrements, the dancers march across in a platoon, before the lights come down. Clad in gray tanks and black biker shorts from the rag and bone catalog, the dancers look small and inconsequential in Millepied’s pastiche of exercises and floor patterns for the large cast. Even megastars Misty Copeland and David Hallberg — recently back after a long recovery from an ankle injury — needed something more substantial to shine.

Intentionally the piece felt regimented, with much walking and dancing in unison, canon, and succession and much that likely required a traffic cop to keep order as lines crossed and bled in and out of one another. In the opening section, “Tremor,” Copeland pulls and prods Hallberg from the floor, they push palms against each other and each has a moment before the group overtakes them. Throughout there’s a push against the solo and partnered dancing as the group usurps the individual or couple. At times their mouths covered by black kerchiefs, it’s hard not to think of rioters or protesters, yet the work felt bland, not statement-making.

Much has been written about Millepied (spouse of Hollywood’s Natalie Portman) challenging ballet with something fresh and shocking. But these ideas, themes and barebones staging have a long history in modern dance. Perhaps some ballet audiences may experience shock and awe at the discomfiting usurpation of classical modalities and techniques, but it can’t possibly be that many. In the larger dance world this is rather ordinary. As lovely as it was to see Copeland and Hallberg, along with fellow principals Herman Cornejo, Hee Seo, Stearns and Teuscher, they weren’t able to shine in this dreary piece. It was hard not to wish for another Ratmansky work on this program, which began so promisingly.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
This piece was originally published on dcmetrotheaterarts.com, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

 

 

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

Posted in African dance, Ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 31, 2017

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

The dance that I experienced this year moved me by being meaningful, making a statement, and speaking truth to power. Thus, the choreography that excited or touched or challenged or even changed me was unsettling, thought-provoking, visceral. The influence of #Black Lives Matter, #Resist and #MeToo meant that dance needed to be consequential, now more than ever. Here’s what made me think and feel during a year when I saw less dance than usual.

cafe muller

Not merely the best performance I saw this year, but among the best dance works I’ve experienced in a decade or more was the double revival of Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” and “Rite of Spring” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alas, the company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C., so my experience with Bausch’s canonic works are few, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these two masterworks. Their significance cannot be understated. In “Café Muller,” the profound gravity of the performers in that closed café, with its scintillatingly scattered chairs, doorways and walls arranged in perfect disarray is humorless, just like the dancers, who arrive with their aura of existential loneliness. The bored banality of these slip-dressed sleepwalking women, the meaningless urgency of the red-head in her clickety clackety heels and green dress, the morose body-bruising couplings, as a slip-thin woman incessantly throws herself onto her male counterpart only to be flung, dropped, and sideswiped with as much care as one might give to a sack of laundry. “Café Muller’s” fragrance, with its snippets from a Purcell score, is heavy with the perfume of existentialism and the Sartrian notion that hell is other people. The work feels like life: a study of losses, regrets, and the unrelenting banality of existence. I’m glad I saw it in middle age — Pina understood it as the decade of disappointment.

A rejoinder to this nondescript yet vivid café of no exits, is the cataclysmic clash of the sexes that imbues Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring” with the driving forces of primitivism that jangle the nerves, raise the heart rate, ignite loins, and remind us of our most basic animalistic instincts for creation and destruction. The infamous soil-covered stage, populated with xx men and women elemental gravity in came from the It took a trip to Brooklyn, New York, because, alas, the Pina Bausch Dance Company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C. The double revival of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring shook my world, reminding me what the greatest dance can do to the gut and the soul.

Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2A companion of sorts to Bausch, arrived later in the fall at the University of Maryland’s Clarice. Germaine Acogny, often identified as the Martha Graham of African modern dance, brought for just a single evening her taut and discomfiting Mon Elue Noire — “My Black Chosen One” — a singular recapitulation of “Rite of Spring” drawing, of course, from Stravinsky’s seminal score, and also dealing unapologetically with colonialism. The choreography by French dancemaker Olivier Dubois places 73-year-old Acogny, first clad in a black midriff baring bra top, into a coffin like vertical box, her head hooded by a scarf. A flame, then the sweet, musky perfume of tobacco smoke draw the viewer in before the lights come up. There she sits, smoking a pipe, eyeing the audience with suspicion. The drum beats and familiar voice of the oboe as the musical score heats up, push Acogny into a frenzy of sequential movements. The French monologue (alas, my French has faded after all these years) from African author Aime Cesaire’s 1950 “Speech on Colonialism” sounds accusatory, but it’s the embodied power Acogny puts forth — her flat, bare feet intimately grounded, her long arms flung, her pelvis at one point relentlessly pumping powers it all. As smoke fills the space, Acogny pulls up the floor of her claustrophobic stage and slaps white paint on herself, brushes it in wide swaths on this box, filled with smoke. Now wearing a white bra, her lower body hidden beneath the floor, her eyes, bore into the darkened theater. Mon Elue Noire’s bold statement of black bodies, of African women, of seizing a voice from those — white colonialists — who for centuries silenced body, voice and spirit rings forth both sobering and inspiring.

I was just introduced to formerly D.C.-based choreographer/dancer MK Abadoo’s work this year and I’m intrigued. Her evening-length Octavia’s Brood at Dance Place in June, time travels, toggling between Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and a futurist vision of the world where women of African descent reclaim their bodies and voices in an ensemble work that takes inspiration also from the writings and commentary of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The work begins with a bantaba — a meeting or dancing ground. The audience is invited onto the stage to encircle the dancers. The women, clad in shades of brown, fall to their knees, rise only to fall again to all fours. Beauteous choral music accompanies this section. Soon they stretch arms widely reaching to the sides. A sense of mysterious spirituality fills the space, a space once more enriched by the uncompromising presence of strong, graceful black women’s bodies. Octavia’s Brood is not simply about memory. It navigates between past, present and future while celebrating the durability of black women in America – there’s a holy providence at play in the way Abadoo and her dancers draw forth elemental, earth-connected movement.

IMG_2038They toss their arms backwards, backs arching, leg lifting, while a conscious connection to the floor remains ever present. Later, we see these same dance artists on stage, the audience now seated, on a journey that draws them to support and uphold one another. There’s a gentle firmness in their determination and a tug and pull in the choreography, underscored by a section where the women are wrapped in yards of brown fabric, a cocoon of protection. Then as they unwind it feels like rebirth.

In September Abadoo premiered a program featuring “LOCS” and “youcanplayinthesun,” commissions by the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long wrote in the program that these pieces too draw inspiration from Afro-futurist sci-fi author Butler. But they also wrestle with intracultural racism. Poet Marita Golden called it “the color complex … the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features” among African Americans, and others. The six dancers clad in white fuse a modern and African dance vocabulary, but more essential to the work are the smaller gestural moments. Like when an older dancer, Judith Bauer, proudly gray haired, sits on a stool and braids and combs Abadoo’s hair. She carries a rucksack, which slows and weighs down her gait. Later we see that the bag is filled with lengths of hair, locs, suggesting the burden black women carry on whether they have “good” — straight — or “bad” — curly or kinky — hair. But that quiet moment, when Bauer tends to Abadoo’s hair — it’s a maternal act, sacred and memorable for its resonance to so many who have sat in a chair while their mother, grandmother or aunt hot combed, plaited, flattened or styled unruly hair into something not manageable but acceptable to a society that has denigrated “black hair.”

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)Interestingly, in ink, Camille A. Brown’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in November, also features black women’s hair — a subtext in a larger work that wrestles with African American identity. The evening was made more vivid by a live jazz percussion quartet helmed by Allison Miller. Structured with compelling dance vignettes that bring African American cultural and societal mores to the fore ink speaks an oft-silenced vocabulary through bodies, gestures, postures and poses. A solo by Brown feels like a griot’s history lesson articulated with highly specific gestures that vividly reflect what could be read as “woman’s work” — dinner preparations, wringing laundry, caregiving. Later Brown gives us a different story, of two guy friends — first they’re wonder-filled kids, then they hang ten, basketball their game of choice. But, unseen, unspoken, something hardens them. Later an intimate duet shows a loving couple behind closed doors. But that love belies the challenges outside that arduous nest. In ink, Brown has completed her black identity trilogy, which included Black Girl: Linguistic Play, by consciously asserting the beauty and bounty of black bodies, souls and spirits that inform, intersect and shape our larger American culture.

Other standouts for me during 2017 ranged from a new work for the Ailey company by Kyle Abraham, “Untitled America,” with its narratives of incarcerated citizens and their family members, and a simple yet powerful palette of pedestrian and gestural elements, to Lotus, a rollicking tap family reunion at the newly renovated Terrace Theater, upstairs at the Kennedy Center, that traced the home-grown percussive dance from early roots to a high-spirited finale, with plenty of meditative percussive and narrative moments in between — plus enough flashy footwork.

It was also a year of change at many Washington, D.C. dance institutions. Dance Place’s founding director, the indomitable Carla Perlo retired in the summer, along with her long-time artistic associate Deborah Riley, passing the reins to choreographer/dancer/educator Christopher K. Morgan. It’s too early to tell whether Dance Place will move in new directions, but it appears that the organization is in solid hands. Morgan continues to make his own work for his company, lending continuity to the profile of a working artist-slash-administrator-slash-artistic-director.

We also have a better sense of the direction The Washington Ballet will be moving toward under artistic director Julie Kent. It appears that predictions of a company that resembles American Ballet Theatre, where Kent spent her stage career as a principal ballerina, are coming true. Remarks that The Washington Ballet is now “ABT-South” are no longer facetious; they’re reality. Kent has brought in her colleagues Xiomara Reyes, school director, and her husband, Victor Barbee, as her associate artistic director. And her commissions, too, have been ABT-centric, from an atrocious tribute to President John F. Kennedy called “Frontier,” from her former partner Ethan Steifel to upcoming commissions by Marcelo Gomes (who recently resigned from ABT under a cloud of suspicion over sexual allegations not related to ABT). But Washington, which gets a surfeit of ballet riches with annual visits from not only ABT, but also New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and other top ballet companies, doesn’t need an “ABT-South.” The city needs a ballet company that speaks to the needs of the District and its environs, not the international ideal of Washington. An ideal Washington ballet company would be one that nurtures ballet artistry that is unique and relevant to hometown Washington, not government Washington. Former artistic director had one vision of a ballet company and some of its works under his direction made singular statements. What the city and its dance audiences don’t need? More Giselles, Don Quixotes or Romeo and Juliet by a mid-sized troupe.

The region also suffered a loss in The Kennedy Center’s decision to shutter the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. While the company never, or rarely, in its 17 years achieved the notoriety or success one would have wished for an ensemble founded by choreographer George Balanchine’s elusive muse, the early December program hinted at missed possibilities. Her company’s farewell program, a tribute to Balanchine, was strongly danced, an aberration for a company that often looked ill-prepared and at times a bit sloppy on stage, alas hinting at missed possibilities in the loss of her directorship.

2017 was also a year where dance — particularly big name ballet companies — made the news, and not in a good way. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, well-substantiated accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties against New York City Ballet ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, rocked the ballet world. It’s again too soon to know if systemic change can come to this male-dominated leadership model and the endemic hierarchical organization of most ballet companies; but change has been a long time coming to the ballet world where hierarchy and male power reigns supreme.

Let’s hope for a new year where that status quo will be upended as ballet companies — among other companies — strive for a more equitable, comfortable and safe creative and artistic environment. The dancers deserve it. The choreographers deserve it. The art deserves it. Let 2018 be a year of change for good.

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

Dancing in Red

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

By Lisa Traiger

THE RED SHOES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcelo Gomes

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

 

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

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


Going Out With a Bang

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance by lisatraiger on May 13, 2016

The Washington Ballet’s Carmina Burana and Bowie & Queen

Carmina Burana
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music Carl Orff
April 13-17, 2016

Bowie & Queen
Choreography by Edwaard Liang and Trey McIntyre
Music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, David Bowie and Queen
May 4-15, 2016

Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

The standing ovation came before a single dancer took the stage. It lasted about two minutes to honor the final time The Washington Ballet’s loyal opening night audience would hear the game-show like introduction: “Ladieeeessssss and Gentlemen, Septiiiiiiiiime Webre.” Bounding onto the stage in his slim-cut suit, sock-less as usual, the audience stood as he took in the crowd getting a touch emotional. Then he introduced the company’s season closer, and his last show as artistic director of the company he helmed for 17 years. Bowie & Queen, an evening of ballet inspired by iconic 1980s rockers David Bowie and Queen’s Freddie Mercury, is his final statement and it seems he wants to blow the roof off The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Bowie, of course, died earlier this year and Mercury died in 1991 at age 45. Both left behind tremendous bodies of work that changed the music industry.

The_Washington_Ballet_Carmina_Burana_Jonathan_Jordan__Andile_Ndlovu__and_Miguel_Anaya_ticketsOver 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 Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen_Jonathan Jordan by media4artists, Theo KossenasThe 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 grapevine 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.

The Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen by media4artists, Theo Kossenas.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 kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

Ballet Elevated

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on February 28, 2016

 

“Director’s Cut”
The Washington Ballet
Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Septime Webre and William Forsythe
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
February 25-28, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez, photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “PRISM,” photo Theo Kossenas

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.

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Morgann Rose_photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Morgann Rose in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” photo Theo Kossenas

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