D.C. DanceWatcher

Stepsisters and Swans

Posted in Ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on November 30, 2015

Cinderella
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
March 28, 2015

Swan Lake
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
April 9, 2015
Washington, D.C.

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.

copeland mackAlas, 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

 

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BalletX: Entering the Talented Tenth (year)

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet by lisatraiger on July 20, 2015

This review originally appeared in Broad Street Review and is reprinted with kind permission. 

BalletX Summer Series 2015
Choreography by Adam Hougland
July 8-12, 2015
The Wilma Theater
265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia

By Lisa Traiger

To celebrate entering its tenth year, BalletX gave its summer season over to a single choreographer. That can be a risky proposition, resulting in a bland program of works drawn from the same creative wellspring, but in this case the three works by 38-year-old Dallas native Adam Hougland provided ample distinctive differences in movement invention, tone, and approach to satisfy a multiplicity of tastes.


“Risk of Flight,” Hougland’s earliest work for the company, was for ten dancers and Zoe Keating’s taut and somber score. A dark piece, it begins with the dancers, sleekly garbed in subdued shades of black and gray, splicing and parsing out the stage as they are drawn to and fight against ineffable waves from a hidden force. Dimly lit by Drew Billiau, “Risk” suggests indefinable but arduous interrelationships. The centerpiece of the work is a duet of struggle and acquiescence between muscular Gary W. Jeter II and featherweight but powerful Andrea Yorita. He gathers her up and swings her, legs propellerlike, into arcing circles. She punctuates her airy weightlessness with arms that slash, footwork so precise it could thread a needle. The resulting duet contrasts gravity-pulling weight and the yearning for freedom.

A lark, “Mashup,” from 2012, puts five 1980s college characters in a 21st-century setting. The score is an embarrassment of clichés: easy-listening covers of ‘80s New Wave, rock, and funk classics (“Super Freak,” “The Rose,” “Dancing in the Dark”) ironically recorded by Big Daddy. The characters —  a nerdy girl, a prep, a dominatrix, a glasses-wearing geek, and the cool dude — find the playful antics in Hougland’s fluid scenarios drawn from the music of a “forgotten” generation – post-rock, post-soul, post-disco, pre-hip hop. The humor is arch, the portrayals broadly and lovingly played, and the dancers — Chloe Felesina, Francesca Forcella, Zachary Kapeluck, Daniel May and Richard Villaverde — are in on the jokes. They don’t mug, though; they dance it out dryly, wittily, and archly, just as Hoagland intended, so everyone is in on the joke.

All this and a world premiere

The third work, a world premiere, drew inspiration from Philadelphia roots rock composer Chris Kasper and his band, who played on stage as backup to the dancers. “When We’re Alone” featured the entire company of 10 in a haunting evocation of life’s trials and triumphs played out with smartly sentimental poetics of Kasper’s aching compositions. Hoagland demonstrates his choreographic ballet chops in some highly detailed and classically imbued balletic partnering sequences early in the piece. Then it gets more personal with trios, duets, and solos unspooling from the dancers, who are draped in muted flowy pastels designed by Christine Darch. A few loving struggles play out on a carpet, with couples connecting and separating in the eternal metaphorical struggle between love and independence. The dancers here exude a sense of calm thoughtfulness and exhibit loping ease in Hoagland’s phrases, especially the way he has them casually cross the stage or sit at the edge of the band’s raised platform, connecting with the musicians.

BalletX has developed a keen eye for introducing new choreographic voices. This series proved that ongoing relationships — BalletX and Hoagland have been working together for eight years — with choreographers can reap artistically rewarding results.

Above, Gravity vs. freedom: Andrea Yorita and Gary W. Jeter II in “Risk of Flight.” (photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

Originally published July 19, 2015

Beautiful Excess

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on June 13, 2015

Eifman Ballet’s Rodin
Choreography by Boris Eifman
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
May 29-31, 2015

By Lisa Traiger
Rodin1Boris Eifman is a choreographer critics love to hate and audiences simply love. In fact, in his 2011 opus, Rodin, detailing the loves of the great French sculptor who chiseled the art form into the modern age, Eifman creates a gaggle of critics, clad in prim green suits carrying crimson notebooks and they maneuver around the stage and examples of the Rodin works recreated with living, breathing dancers. It’s as much a statement on Rodin’s relationship with the establishment art world critics as it is of Eifman’s opinion of critics. Audiences oohh, ahhh and gasp at the vivid stage pictures, the incomparable athleticism and unparalleled physicality of the troupe of 30 or so dancers in his self-named Eifman Ballet. He brought his St. Petersburg company to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Friday night for a quick, weekend run. But what do the gaggles of critics say? Not much effusive praise.

There’s nothing subtle about an Eifman ballet and that rubs us in the critical world the wrong way. Eifman knows it and puts it out there, smartly smug about his stature and popularity, if not his critical acclaim. He puts critics in their place, and leaves all his flamboyant drama and sturm und drang for audiences to drink in with pleasure. Born in Siberia where his Jewish parents had been exiled, Eifman graduated from the ballet and choreographic school of the Leningrad Conservatory and founded his own independent company in 1977, when Soviet ballet was a product and property of the state. Eifman was bold enough to hang out his own flag. Yet he mostly worked within the strictures of the communist system creating a contemporary genre that looks like an amalgamation of Yuri Grigorovich’s bombastic government-approved works for the Bolshoi and those late 20th-century extravaganzas by French Belgian Maurice Bejart and his Ballet of the Twentieth Century, along with a touch of early 20th-century Ballets Russes dabbed into the eclectic mix.

Eifman’s company has been treading into hyper kinetic and dramatic waters with “oh, so Russian” highly strung pieces for more than three decades. His wheelhouse is remaking literary classics or artistic biographies in what he calls “the language of movement.” His lurid bio-ballet Tchaikovsky made a local stop in the District in 2003.

Eifman’s latest, Rodin, examines the fraught artistic and love lives of French groundbreaking sculptor Auguste Rodin, his longtime companion, Rose Beuret, and his artistic muse and fellow artist Camille Claudel. The stormy, passionate relationship between Rodin and Claudel is the centerpiece of the ballet and Eifman pulls out all the stops with sensuous, stylized pas de deux between the couple, as well as moments of discord, artistic creativity and all around high drama. There’s much to admire in the excess Eifman captures to tell this tragic tale – a love triangle, as Shakespeare already taught us, always ends in tragedy. And this ballet starts there: in an insane asylum, where a bevy of beautiful but crazy young women twitch, fling, grope and smile at the audience with discomfiting sweetness. These are sex kittens, not gone wild but gone mad. The stark set, designed by Zinovy Margolin, is a spare series of beams and scaffolds that slash the stage in diagonals with a mobile platform on which models and living sculptures in the guise of dancers pose and get manipulated or sculpted. Appropriating an eclectic collection of composers ranging from Saint Saens to Massenet to Ravel, Debussy and Satie, the recorded score proves to be a mashup of comfortably recognizable classics for Eifman to dissect and deconstruct choreographically in his dramatic solo dance monologues or in upbeat group numbers, including a high-kicking can-can, that gaggle of prim critics, and even — a la Giselle — a grape harvest festival, as suitable for Broadway as the ballet stage.

Eifman’s exceedingly articulate dancers demonstrate the results of years of impeccable Russian Vaganova training: high arches, limber backs, legs that stretch beyond human capacity, shoulders and torsos on the men that put Ryan Gosling to shame. And the high-level of dramatic expression would go down well with scenery-chewing Stanislavski method actors. The physical gifts of these dancers are simply astonishing to observe; but the women, in particular, have that emaciated, rib-protruding look that thankfully has mostly gone out of style in the Western ballet world. Oh, how I would like to give some of them a sandwich. rodin2The true protagonist of Rodin, is not, of course, the master sculptor but his consort Camille. Though Rodin’s life partner was Rose Beuret, Eifman paints her as the staunch, repressed woman at home, as opposed to the free-spirited and creative Claudel, who allows her artist/lover to mold her body, and her soul, giving her power and even her artistry over to him. Even Olga Shaishmelashvili’s costumes demonstrate the stark differences between the women: Rose in Victorian long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length dresses and Camille often wearing white slips, or, in the studio, loose pants and other artsy work attire. In Eifman’s choreographic universe both women are hyperkinetic, hyper stretched and on Friday night Lyuov Andreyeva as Camille was inhumanly flexible. Gaunt, tall Oleg Gabyshev, portraying Rodin, molded her body like clay into pretzel or Gumby-like contortions and his facial contortions matched the choreographic ones. And Yulia Manjeles as Rose, equally overstretched, found Joan Crawford drama in portraying her rejection and restraint. But in Eifman’s world, there’s no real sympathy for these women. It seems they must suffer not for their own art but for their love of an imperfect and single-minded man.

I wonder how Martha Graham, with her powerful woman-centric approach to the classics, would have re-told this story. Absolutely without the misogynistic undertones Eifman suggests — from those sexed-up but mad insane asylum inhabitants to the often nearly degrading crotch views he (and many other male contemporary ballet choreographers) favors for his two lead women. What proved most interesting in this Eifman oeuvre — and much of his choreographic output is fully theatricalized in the most heightened sense — is his quoting of the Rodin sculptures. His dancers took easily to the challenge of shaping their bodies with an uninhibited plastique into stage pictures suggesting works like “The Age of Bronze,” “The Gates of Hell” and, even, I think, “The Burghers of Calais” (of which we have a version here at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden). There were also actual sculptures, a sculpey-like model that Claudel manipulated, a pair of lovely cupped hands Rodin sculpted that appeared a few times. Then, of course, that passionate marbleized “The Kiss,” on stage came to life in many a pas de deux between Claudel and Rodin, for this is, first and foremost, a ballet of unbridled passion.

The love story is tragic — ending, Nijinsky-like, with Claudel broken from her affair with Rodin and committed to an insane asylum. There are no small gestures, no subtleties in an Eifman ballet. And audiences love the grandeur, the bombast, the emotive excess of it all. It reeks of Russian melodrama and that Russian mindset where there are no happy endings — in art or in life. And, alas, Claudel, who was manipulated, degraded, sexualized and never given her own artistic due, is the one who suffers most.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger Photos: Eifman Ballet
Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com.

‘Swan Lake’ Soviet-Style

Posted in Ballet by lisatraiger on January 17, 2015

Swan Lake
Mariinsky Ballet

January 28, 2014
Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

Swan-Lake-100 corps

Mariinsky Ballet corps de ballet

Swan Lake, the very epitome of ballet, is both the apex and the aspiration of companies the world over. The 1895 Petipa/Ivanov version for St. Petersburg still lives on in structure and in oral tradition passed on from ballerina to ballerina, generation to generation. St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet remains the ultimate exponent of this fairy tale of a white ballet.

For the Mariinsky’s now annual Kennedy Center visit, the company brought its “Stalinized” staging from 1950, in which Konstantin Sergeyev stripped out substantial passages of mime, “streamlining” and “Sovietizing” the first act. But this alteration is minor compared to the “Stalinized” happy ending, instead of the more poignantly satisfying one that unites the lovers in death – a finale Western audiences are far more accustomed to seeing.

The sheer scope and accumulated tradition that the Mariinsky maintains lends this production its richly lustrous look. Igor Ivanov’s sets – a gothic castle overlooking the action, balconies in the great hall for trumpeters to herald, a moody, moon-washed wooded lake – are beautifully painted and detailed. The action shifts from a warm afternoon glow in the castle grounds of act one to the frost-tinged forest lit in an icy blue in act two. Costumes, as well, by Galina Solovyova are richly decorated and detailed, as is the dancing, which is to be expected by this still illustrious company.

swanlake sergeyevBringing just one set of principles to Washington this year, left Odette/Odile and Siegfried open to soloists and second soloists save opening night. That evening’s principals, Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov, are familiar to District audiences from their run in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013. While they are a model attractive couple, the dramatic connection was simply not there, making it hard to believe the prince was love struck and pining for the Swan queen. Somova, lithe and flexible, willowy in that Mariinsky manner so suitable for Odette, was icily cold in her transformation to the black swan. She was so chilly it was hard to believe Siegfried could become transfixed by her standoffish demeanor. In whipping out the requisite fouettes – in single-double-triple combination – she wobbled and bobbled a bit, but pulled herself back steadying her whipping of that aggrandized the moment. She drew requisite applause even if she didn’t mesmerize.

One of Sergeyev’s unnecessary additions to the ballet is the role of the Joker. Clad in a black-and-white Harlequin unitard and with excessive mugging and leaping, he steals the spotlight from many of the act 1 divertissements and the prince’s introspective solo moments. By excising much of the mime, Sergeyev also bled the ballet of the essential core of this story-driven work. Instead, we are left with manege after manege, chock-full of barrel turns and grand jetes punctuated with pirouettes. Vladislav Shumakov had the forceful physicality to pull off his bag of balletic tricks, but the character is an unfortunate afterthought muddying the near-perfection crafted by Petipa-Ivanov.

Shunted aside is the role of Siegfried’s wonderful hunting buddy, Benno. And even the Prince’s mum, danced by the regal Elena Bazhenova, has lost much of her job in act one; she barely has an opportunity to tell her bachelor son he must choose a bride.

In Ivanov’s glorious white acts, the Mariinsky corps asserts itself as this production’s true star. Even looking slightly askew at times, the corps remains unsurpassed among ballet companies. Swaying, breathing, and bourre-ing as one, the Mariinsky corps is the epitome of Swan Lake. Alas, in the Sergeyev version instead of the purity of 24 white swans, the choreographer has clad eight in black, Rothbart’s hench-swans. They battle, and then in near-cartoon fashion, Siegfried and Rothbart spar unfurling grand jetes and chaines like a Bruce Lee flick. Siegfried tugs off Rothbart’s wing, doing in the sorcerer and breaking his spell over Odette and her swan sisters. Ending more like a Disney film than a classical ballet, the prince and former swan queen go off into the sunrise, presumably happily ever after.

Unfortunately, the soul of this ballet lives in the pairing of Odette and Siegfried. Somova and Shklyarov, however adequate were not transcendent, which is what a Swan Lake needs, particularly in a era when so little else in the world can lifts one’s spirits into a higher realm.

This review was originally published in the print-only Ballet Review, winter 2014-15 issue. What? You don’t subscribe? Learn more here.

(C) 2015 Lisa Traiger

A Year in Dance: 2014

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Hip hop, Modern dance by lisatraiger on January 3, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Swan-Lake-100 corpsMy year 2014 in dance opened in January with the return of the now annually visiting Mariinsky Ballet to the Kennedy Center Opera House. Though the company brought Swan Lake, the company’s signature work – created on this most famous classical troupe by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895 – was not what we saw. Instead the “Sovietized” Konstantin Sergeyev 1950 version, filled with pomp and additions startling for Western audiences (a second corps of black swans, for example, in the “white” act), was on offer. Ultimately, the true star was the singular corps de ballet. Who can resist the Mariinsky’s 32 perfectly synchronized white swans in act two? The impeccable Vaganova training remains one of the Mariinsky’s most essential hallmarks. Even standing still, the corps breathes together as one body; in stillness they’re dancing. The result is simply stunning and awe-inspiring, ballet at its best.

KAFIG-AGWA-Christopher_Duggan-001-300dpiCompagnie Kafig’s hip hop with a French accent and a circus flair rocked the Kennedy Center in February. Founded in 1996 by Mourad Merzouki in a suburb of Lyon, Kafig’s all-male troupe of athletic dancers flip and tumble, punching out percussive beats and floor work that toggle between their North African roots and b-boy street moves. Merzouki’s latest interest is capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dance-cum-martial-art. His “Agwa” featured about 100 cups of water, arrayed in grids, poured and re-poured, along with plenty of circusy tricks and surprises. Hip hop dance has for a generation-plus moved beyond its inner-city, thug-life street demeanor; we see the results daily in popular culture, on television and in suburban dance studios. Kafig’s creative and expansive approach drawing from North African and Afro Brazilian rhythms and French circus opens up a whole new world for this home-grown vernacular form.

In April, Rockville’s forward-thinking American Dance Institute presented the legendary post modernist Yvonne Rainer. Now 79 and still making new work, Rainer is credited in the 1960s with coining the term post-modern for dance and as part of the experimental Judson Church movement taking dance into new, uncharted realms. She famously penned her “No” manifesto – “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image” – which has become a de rigueur short reading for any young modern dancer looking to develop a choreographic voice. In it Rainer encouraged a re-thinking of dance without virtuosity, technique, story and beauty. Dance could be the “found movement” we see on the streets every day. For her evening at ADI’s blackbox theater, Rainer didn’t dance, but her five dancers, whom she lovingly dubbed her Raindears, did. “Assisted Living: Good Sports 2” and “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” were recent, from 2011 and 2013 respectively. They were still steeped in Judsonian traits – lots of game-like patterns and structures as the Raindears jogged the stage like a ragged army of enlisted 5th graders on recess; a montage of unusual music and spoken sections, drawing from classics, opera, popular mid-20th century songs, readings and quotes on economics and more. A dancer drags a mattress, dancers hoist and carry other dancers like movers, Rainer reads and observes from a comfortable perch on an easy chair. First timers to this type of highly conceptual work might leave scratching their heads. But there’s a method to the madness and the accumulation of moments and movement quotes from ballet, tap and vaudeville at various points. Here we have the post-modern notion where everything counts: everything and the kitchen sink get thrown together to make a work. But there’s craft and method behind this madness, this everyone-in approach. Rainer, for me, built a structure that resonated deeply on an emotional level. This pair of works made me think of wrapping up a lifetime, and, more personally, of easing my own parents into their final years: packing up, putting away, remembering and forgetting, burying. This was post-modernism with a new level of poignancy. Though not narrative, it spoke to me in far-reaching ways. When I chatted with Rainer after, I told her how moved I was and how it made me think of my parents in their final years. She acknowledged that while in the studio creating, she was dealing with similar end-of-life issues with a dying brother. Even Rainer, the purest of post-modernists, has come to a place of remembrance and meaning in ways that were unforgettable.

mansur insert here 2One of the year’s most anticipated events was the re-opening of the region’s most prolific dance presenter, Dance Place, which has long been a mainstay of the now revitalizing Brookland neighborhood of northeast Washington. In June the site specific piece “INSERT [ ] HERE” inaugurated the newly renovated studio/theater. Sharon Mansur, a University of Maryland College Park dance professor, and collaborator Nick Bryson, an Ireland-based independent artist and improviser, fashioned a site-specific piece that took small groups through the space – introducing both the public areas like the studio/theater and spacious new lobby to never seen recesses like the dank underground basement, the artists’ new dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms and a long narrow corridor of open desks where most of the staff put in their hours. Audience members were allowed to meander and pause, take note of a moment beneath the bleachers where Baltimore choreographer Naoko Maeshiba was part girl-child zombie, part Japanese butoh post-apocalyptic figure. Upstairs in a rehearsal room, Mansur and Bryson parsed out parallel neatly improvised solos that reflected and spoke through movement to each other. In a dressing area former D.C. improviser/choreographer Dan Burkholder fashioned his movement phrases with silky directness amid a room of candles and found natural objects. The main stage filled with a wash of dancers sweeping in with celebratory bravado: An auspicious, memorable, and entirely perfect way to christen the space.

Long-time D.C. stalwart Liz Lerman, who decamped from her own Takoma Park-based company the Dance Exchange in 2011, returned to the area with another broadly encompassing work, Healing Wars, which had its world premiere at Arena Stage’s intimate Cradle in May. The audience was welcomed in through the stage door, where a “living museum” of characters – Clara Barton penning letters, a Civil War soldier splayed on a kitty corner hospital cot, a woman pouring water libation as a spirit of a runaway slave, and the very real veteran of the recent war in Afghanistan, Paul Hurley, a former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate and graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C., conversing with Hollywood actor Bill Pullman. Healing Wars examines war, injury, death, and recovery from multiple perspective spanning two centuries: the Civil War era and the 21st century. This was entirely and exactly Lerman’s wheelhouse. The piece was didactic, thought provoking, head scratching all at once. And it does what movement theater should: inspire and challenge. Lerman was determined with this project to bring the present day wars and their aftermaths home for America’s largest and most divisive war, the Civil War, touched nearly every household. By drawing together these disparate but not dissimilar historical moments, along with the science, medical advances, politics and, of course, personal experiences, Lerman has contemporary audiences reflect that as individually painful as war traumas are, the suffering that results is our nation’s burden to bear. Lerman, here, through her compelling dance theater underscored the gravity of that burden.

In September, Deviated Theatre returned to Dance Place with a steampunk quest story envisioned by choreographer Kimmie Dobbs Chan and director Enoch Chan. For the evening-length Creature, the costumes — wings, netting and accoutrements draped and shaped by Andy Christ with second act headpieces full of wire-y netting and fanciful shapes by Dobbs Chan — are astonishing. The dancing here was among the best technically of the locally based dance troupes this year. The primarily female cast stretches like Gumbies, soars from an aerial hoop, maneuvers on two legs or four limbs, crab walking, crawling, scooting, loping in bug-like, inhuman ways. Though the apocalyptic fairy tale meanders, the oddball weirdness – eerie, esoteric, eclectic – that Chan and Chan invent continues to endear.

reshimoOctober brought a troupe from Israel, where contemporary dance continues to be a hotbed of creativity. Vertigo Dance from Jerusalem brought choreographer Noa Wertheim’s Reshimo, with its company of nine unfettered dancers who take viewers on an emotional journey. “Reshimo,” a term from Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – suggests the impression light makes, the afterimage. The 55-minute work presented an ever-evolving landscape of singular movement statements, accompanied by Ran Bagno’s rich and varied musical score, which modulates between violin, cello, synthesizers and kitschy retro-pop selections. Sexy trysts, playful romps, casual walks and a moment of frisson, explosive and shattering, fully animate the choreographic voice filling the work with resonant ideas.

Gadi-Dagon-(prog_SADEH21)2My year in dance ended on a high note, another company from Israel: the country’s most intriguing, Batsheva Dance Company based in Tel Aviv, returned to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in November with the area premiere of Sadeh21. The work, by the company’s prolific and long-time choreographic master Ohad Naharin, shows off the dancers’ distinctive abilities to inhabit and embody movement in all its capacities. “Sadeh,” Naharin told me, means field, as in field of study, and the work unspools in vignettes or scenes – some solos, some duets or small groups, some full the company – which are labeled by number on the half-high back wall, the set designed by Avi Yona Bueno. Moments funny and disturbing, sexy and silly include movement riffs that combine the refined and the repulsive, an extended sequence of screaming, another where the men in unison ape and stomp like fools in flouncy skirts. Naharin’s music, like his rangy movement, is erratic, shifting from classical to pop, severe to silly to sweet in game-like fashion. The set design, that imposing back wall, is freighted with multiple meanings. A wall in Israeli context recalls both the ancient Western Wall — the supporting wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But in contemporary terms the wall suggests the one built by the Israeli government to separate Israel proper from the West Bank. Both a protection and a burden, it’s a constant reminder that peace remains an achingly elusive ideal. For Naharin, the on-stage wall literally became a jumping off point. Dancers scrambled up, stood atop the ledge and dove into the inky blackness. That ending is simply gorgeous. Again and again, dive after dive, were they leaping to their freedom, to their deaths, or were they doves, soaring skyward? Continuously, as the music faded and the lights rose, credits rolled like a movie on the wall, as dancers climbed and dove. A taste of infinity. From earth to heaven and back again. I could have watched those final moments forever, they felt so raw, yet whole, risky but real. Final but indefinite. Life as art. Art as life. Batsheva ended my year in dance on a soar.

Lisa Traiger writes frequently on dance, theater and the arts. You may read her work in the Washington Jewish Week, Dance magazine and other publications.

(c) 2015 Lisa Traiger

Story Time: 2012-13 Kennedy Center Ballet Season

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet by lisatraiger on October 26, 2013

Ratmansky’s Cinderella — Maryinsky Ballet
Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet — San Francisco Ballet
Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — National Ballet of Canada
Christensen’s Nutcracker — Ballet West
Dangerous Liaisons — Washington Ballet
By Lisa Traiger

The surfeit of story ballets on the Kennedy Center’s ballet season in recent years has provided a primer of sorts for what works, what doesn’t and what is simply overdone. From new visions of classics by Alexei Ratmansky, to warhorses like The Nutcracker to tricked-up modern versions of favorite children’s novels like Christopher Wheeldon’s up-to-date, smartly modern re-telling of Alice and Wonderland, audiences have been lulled and coddled by mostly known quantities, seemingly to pad the ticket sales by giving subscribers and matinee audiences what they want – story after story after story. If they don’t quite know the ballet, the company or the choreographer, well, no matter; surely they know the rudiments of, say, Cinderella, her nasty stepsisters, her magical godmother and her lost slipper. This isn’t a recent problem at the Kennedy Center, but the valuing of story over repertory and ballet warhorses over newer and more adventurous mixed-bill programs has become standard fare under Michael Kaiser’s direction. Lost with this overly cautious programming is the opportunity to build audiences for newer works, provide opportunities for lesser known choreographers to test their artistic voices and challenge companies to move beyond costume- and story-driven ballets and into new waters.

Back in Washington, D.C., October 16-21, 2012, the Maryinsky Ballet’s Cinderella by Ratmansky – seen here previously in 2005 — opened the season on a mordant note, emphasizing the darker tones of the Prokofiev score along with the choreographer’s darker version of the tale. There’s little light and air in Ratmansky’s vision, set in a foreboding steel trussed urban landscape (the contemporary design is by Ilia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov). In this Cinderella, we glimpse a flashback to her life before her ineffectual and, here, alcoholic father remarried. Her sunny, idyllic childhood has been overshadowed by a Cruella de Vil-like stepmother, the sexy-mean Sofia Gumerova on the two performances I saw. With her razor-sharp pointes stabbing the air, jagged elbows, wrists and knees highlighting her angularity and her treacherous, spiky personality. Her own daughters – Khudishka and Kubishka — deliciously and outlandishly played by Magarita Frolova and Nadezhda Batoeva for full laughs – follow their mother’s nasty footsteps: their preening, primping, one-upmanship as garishly overstated as their florid and cheap costumes (the work of Elena Markovskay). Cinderella, the delicate Daria Pavlenko (on opening night and replacing an injured Ekaterina Osmolkina later in the week) offers the only hope and kindness in this dark and demoralized world of Ratmansky’s making. Her movement is smoothly circular: curves, dips, arcing arabesques elegantly filled with breathy epaulement. Her fairy godmother, a village tramp, the wonderfully warm Elena Bazhenova, shuffles and nods off and looks approvingly on as Cinderella helps the old woman with her spilled groceries. There are no pumpkin-shaped coaches and magical creatures to take her to the ball. Instead, a retinue of seasons – a new-age crew of asexual men in their own outlandish garb, oversee her and spirit her away. The ball Ratmansky staged is wryly astringent, emphasizing the vapid, heartless beauty – air kisses all around, punctuated with disapproving stares — of the young, idle, and rich. Women and men in waves twist and shimmy to a series of made-up faddish dances. The women clad in sleek, garishly colored floor-length dresses, the men in trim tuxedos, wear the bored expressions of the rich and pampered, while the stepmother and step daughters as wannabe socialites try too hard and fall too far.

The moral center of the ballet rests firmly with Cinderella and her questing prince. Vladimir Shklyarov and Igor Kolb provide two interesting readings on this role. Opening night Shklyarov was a 21st century geek, retiring, super shy, he looked all the world like he’d have happily avoided the fancy-dress ball for another episode of “Game of Thrones” or the latest video game release at home on the sofa. When he set off on his quest to find the beloved he had glimpsed, he even carried the all-important slipper in a fanny pack, which must be a ballet first. Igor Kolb radiated the maturity and presence of a danseur noble, and was undeniably more princely in his demeanor, confident in his interactions and impeccable in his solo variations. And, interestingly, he used a messenger bag (or was it a European “manpurse”?) slung casually over his shoulder to carry the slipper. Each reading worked, but it was easy to fall for the geeky Shklyarov with his 21st-century anti-hero status. When the pair reunite, the ballet regains its morality, suggested in that early flashback, when all was right with the world and girl-child Cinderella had an intact nuclear family. Ratmansky’s coupling that brings these two outsiders, these two seeking hearts, together as one is the only time the ballet truly sings. Their lush pas de deux, danced alone in moonlight, is a thing of pure beauty – her lines achingly reaching, he finding himself for the first time in the eyes of a beholder. The partnership between Shklyarov and Shirinkina was particularly affecting, imbued with romantic passion. While Ratmansky hasn’t created a Cinderella for the ages, he has undeniably created one right for our age of cynicism and consumerism.

San Francisco Ballet split its week-long visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House, bringing in a program of repertory that included artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Trio,” a high-minded love triangle imbedded in four movements of Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor “Souvenir de Florence,” Op. 70. Tomasson’s work-a-day choreography served its pride of place as a program opener. The centerpiece of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” was a stylized tale drawing on Eastern meditative and martial arts elements that showcased the lovely Yuan Yuan Tan as a warrior’s widow (I think) to Damian Smith’s Prince. Into their rarefied world, Pascal Molat as the evil monk intrudes, taking advantage of the mourning widow and burning a sacred temple to the ground. Along the way, amid Alexander Nichols’ overly elaborate sets and projections, a band of samurai warriors appears to re-enact a battle. Whether it is for body or soul is little matter; the piece is inscrutable. Christopher Wheeldon’s sunny and bright “Number Nine,” to a rhythmically assertive score by Michael Torke, is forceful in demonstrating the large company’s athleticism and musicality. Holly Hynes’s unapologetically bright costumes, cheery yellow for the corps, and popsicle colors for the four couples, set the tone for the effervescent feel Wheeldon is aiming for: shape-shifting patterns for the group – Vs, diamonds, lines, circles, and intersecting paths, and plenty of eye-candy. The company run, though, focused on Tomasson’s 1994 staging of Romeo and Juliet, featuring the familiar Prokofiev score. Tomasson’s retelling of this oft-danced Shakespearean classic is more ordinary than elevated. The choreography and scenes feel studied and carefully wrought. Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s sets and costumes dutifully in period and lovely to observe. But again, and surprisingly for a troupe as fine as San Francisco, the work simply doesn’t soar. I don’t believe it’s the fault of its principals – lithe and petite Maria Kochetkova as Juliet and stalwart Joan Boada, who was buoyant and brash enough as Romeo the evening I attended. In fact, whether in ballet or play form, Romeo and Juliet requires an intense buildup – the tension between the two families, the chance meeting of the two lovers, the street brawls that set in motion the impossibility of them ever being together, their moonlit love scene and their unfortunate demise – the plotlines are laid out in perfect progression. While Tomasson has mapped out his version methodically, he lost sight of the teeming conflicts and passions that make it such a beloved and masterful work.

While story is often beside the point in the endlessly numbing march of Nutcrackers each December, for a few years running the Kennedy Center has brought in a different company to dance its own version. This past Christmas we received a gift in William Christensen’s rendering of this ever-green ballet, done up with impeccable wrapping, bows and tags by Ballet West. The company’s visit to the Opera House December 5-9, 2012, was a lovely re-introduction to this troupe since Adam Sklute took the helm in 2007. Although Ballet West must relish its pop-culture notoriety in the reality TV world, there’s nothing faddish about Christensen’s version of The Nutcracker, first set onstage back in 1944. Christensen didn’t go in for psycho-drama about young Clara on the cusp of womanhood, nor black snowflakes, nor homo-erotic suggestions. A good Nutcracker doesn’t need the extra-suggestive elements to make an impact, Sklute realized, and there’s nothing wrong with simply presenting a good ballet done very well. There’s a warm glow right from the start and the party scene, lit by candles and, of course, a glowing Christmas tree is surely one reason so many families flock yearly to this ballet event: the suggestion that holidays celebrated together provide a semblance of utopia amid the stress and bustle of daily life. There’s nothing lascivious about this Drosselmeyer (Beau Pearson): in his magic-wielding manner he charms the children and parents alike. Lovely, too, is the cast of real children, not simply short adults as the principals, including the key roles of Clara and her prince (Anastasia Markova and Quentin Rouiller) and upwards of 50 other well-rehearsed youngsters from local studios around the Beltway. Unique among the Ballet West dancers was the uninflected approach they gave to the technique. There was a purity and trueness to their dancing that eschewed affectation or a particular Balanchinean, Russian, or other style. Also notable, Ballet West, more so than many other American companies, featured dancers of a wide range of complexions. Long a thorn in the side of the ballet world is the lily-white look of most companies from corps to principal. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, of all places, appears to have a greater proportion of dancers of color than most companies these days. Kudos to Sklute on that. It seems that even the ever-green ballet classics sometimes need a new addition to the repertoire of stories.

Wheeldon, in 2011, found inspiration in the fantastical 1865 Lewis Carroll novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with all its dusky undertones. Originally created for the Royal Ballet in a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, the Kennedy Center saw the Canadian production January 18-27, 2013. Featuring a wise and melodic score by Joby Talbot and theatrically stunning sets and projections by Bob Crowley and Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the production provides a visual feast while following a lovely Jillian Vanstone as Alice – here a teen on the cusp of womanhood, like so many Claras and Auroras before her — into a bevy of encounters with those well-known odd fellows, creatures and curious royalty in her imaginative world. The whole adventure is set in motion during an outsized garden party where Greta Hodgkinson as an uber-dominating mother bares her teeth and steely pointes to control the event. Later, she like the rest of the cast, reappears. As the erratic but mean-spirited Queen of Hearts she’s equal parts bumbling dominatrix, and mad harridan. There’s even a great sendup of the Rose Adagio, while her emasculated spouse looks on in dreaded hilarity as she wobbles and overdramatizes to ridiculous effect. Woefully mismatched, Rex Harrington keeps a stiff upper lip as the father/King of Hearts, and once in a while a smile slyly peeks through noting his wife’s foolish demands. This Alice is spunky, up for an adventure and by no means a wilting flower, even in the face of her prickly mother/mother figure. The rest of the characters – from the white Rabbit, who doubles as auteur Lewis Carroll – to the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse Cook, Caterpillar and the rest fill the stage, scene by picaresque scene. Choreographically Wheeldon here seems more concerned with the job of traffic cop than dancemaker. With so much happening on stage, the comings and goings of outlandish characters, the changes in scenery and dimension, even a time warp flashback saved for the final epilogue – helped along quite nicely with those projected video effects – leaves the choreography on the back burner. The steps given the dancers seem often an afterthought, filler to get them from one sequence to another in this mostly busy ballet. The budding Alice has her own pas de deux with Jack (Naoya Ebe) in the second act, but this angle seems an afterthought and doesn’t move the characters forward. When we meet them again in the epilogue, there we’re to understand that fate brought them together a 100 years hence, but it’s too little too late from Wheeldon.

A mid-season entry into the story-filled ballet season, The Washington Ballet’s Valentines Special program titled incongruously “L’amour (love, baby …)” included a world premiere of “Dangerous Liaisons”  by the company’s associate artistic director David Palmer. Drawn from the 18th-century French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the 1988 bodice-ripping film adaptation featuring Glen Close and John Malkovich, the work was simply not meant to be a ballet. The seductive court drama with its interlacing romances and betrayals all played out within the ever-important hierarchy of courtiers and servants is far too complex to break down into manageable movement motifs and recognizable character-driven relationships. There are letters passed and re-passed, whispering women in wigs and shortened hooped skirts. Men with ruffled shirts and knickers biding their time to bed and conquest a woman. A Marquise (the exquisite and worldly Sona Kharatian) takes revenge on a lover in challenging Valmont (a passionate Jared Nelson) to seduce his rival’s virginal fiancée (the slip-thin Maki Onuki). With more than a dozen characters in total, from maids and dancing masters, to servants, a favorite aunt, an old military man, and a religious wife, it’s impossible to keep anyone straight in this costume drama. The result, all danced to the clichéd Vivaldi “Four Seasons,” is an attractive but impenetrable mess. Balanchine famously said, with good reason: “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Indeed, this stage of shifting paramours and power-hungry courtiers vying for allegiance would have been better left to the spoken and written word rather than retro-fitting it into a wordless, murky vision of a ballet.

(c) 2013 Lisa Traiger
This article was originally published in the summer 2013 issue of Ballet Review (p. 14). It is reprinted with permission. For more information or to subscribe to Ballet Review, visit here.

Global Cooling? Nordic Cool Heats up Washington

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Uncategorized, World dance by lisatraiger on August 6, 2013

Nordic Cool: Iceland Dance Company, Danish Dance Theatre, Carte Blanche, Tero Saarinen Company, Goteborgsoperans Danskompani
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
Feb. 27-March 16, 2013

By Lisa Traiger

Carte Blanche in Sharon Eyal's "Corps de Walk," photo Erik Berg

Carte Blanche in Sharon Eyal’s “Corps de Walk,” photo Erik Berg

Arriving at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the end of a relatively mild winter, the dance of Nordic Cool provided sharp, crisp, mind-clearing glimpses of what our northern European compatriots are experimenting with in the dance world. The center has become known and beloved for its multi-arts international festivals: previous years included Arab nations, China, hyper-technology from Japan, and music, dance and arts from India. Under president Michael Kaiser, who leaves the center at the end of 2014, the halls, theaters, galleries, restaurants, terraces and lawn have been filled with music, art, food, poetry, textiles, painting, fabricated objects, and new media. Nordic Cool was no exception, beginning with the oversized wooden moose mounted out front, to the glowing Northern Lights projected onto the white tissue-box like architecture of the building, to hallways filled with elegant clothing, well-designed tableware and furniture, a steam house and a display of Nobel Prize winners, to name merely a few.

Primarily the upstairs Terrace Theater, with its smaller stage footprint, was given over to dance companies from Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Evident from the outset, among all of these companies is the sharp contrast with American modern dance. The typical American sunnyness that particularly populates contemporary American modern dance – think Morris, Tharp, Taylor’s brighter pieces, Parsons, etc. – is foreign to the nature of at least these Nordic dancemakers. There’s a greater cool contemplativeness – not that American works don’t have their own depth and inner turmoil, but in general there’s a can-do, feel-good aspect of dance that dance can change us or influence change that comes through in much American-made dance that I didn’t find in the Nordic companies’ works. Yes, there are struggles, but Americans (see Ailey, Bill T. Jones, et al) more often overcome those struggles and rise above the pain expressed in their works.

Nordic dance takes a different tack. In Iceland Dance Company’s Frank Fannar Pedersen’s “Til,” a clothesline hung with collared shirts and a transparent barrier provide the emotional distance for a sharply etched duet that rises from some finely gentle moments into a flailing breakthrough with a mélange of music, including Sigur Ros and Philip Glass. The nine-member troupe’s centerpiece, “The Swan,” carried in its very title, of course, a heavy load of ballet history dating back to ballet forbears from Petipa to Fokine.

Choreographer Lara Stefansdottir has re-imagined her female swan as a powerful 21st century woman. Tall, with muscular thighs and eyes circled in dark shadows, this swan is no retiring beauty waiting for her curse to be lifted by a beloved prince. Ellen Margret Baehrenz’s post-modern net tutu looks more punk than Petipa. She’s joined on stage by a retiring male companion, Hannes Egilsson, curled up dreaming (echoes of “Spectre de la Rose”?) in a clear, egg-like chair from which he tumbles to the floor. Egilsson is no match for Baehrenz’s pursuit and she pushes, struggles and wrestles him into submission; he becomes the one with the aching beautiful arched wings and undulating shoulders in a reversal of the expected roles of a female submissive swan and her caretaker prince. Then a jarring switch to Prokofiev (the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” of all things) and a shower of snow signals a new reality: Egilsson makes his way back to his cocoon-like chair. This fairy tale is one of breaking away, gaining independence. A new swan for a new 21st century.

The Icelandic evening closed with a flashy, catchy work part urban street dance, part pop star video, “Grosstadtssafari” [Big City Safari], with its sexy, cool hip thrusts, leg kicks, endless spins and leather-and-lace costume is, if nothing more, an audience pleaser for the television dance crowd.

Norway’s Carte Blanche brought Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal’s assertive dissection of the walk. As she put it in the program note: “In recent works I have used a system of walks. For me walks are the new dance.” In some ways she’s very much the post-modernist, stripping away technique to suss out new discoveries full of unexpected detail, namely large choral group sections of army-like rigor, quirky yet memorable gestures – elbows and fists curled into a boxer’s unreleased punched – and a driving score by Israeli DJ Ori Lichtik that toggles from David Byrne to Claude Debussy, David Lynch to Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Aphex Twin and more. Like “The Swan” from the Icelandic group, “Corps de Walk,” too, plays on the balletic tradition of a corps de ballet – the ballet’s body of dancers crafted to dance, of course, as a single unit. And Eyal highlights that uniformity in the sleek white unitards with white caps the dancers wear, as well as the eye-blanking white contact lenses they don. But the Carte Blanche dancers move like Amazons, creatures acclimated to a harsh climate, but able to surmount any obstacle. They lunge, thrash, punch, push, leap and crawl like as yet discovered creatures of some unknown harsh environment. But at the base of the work by Eyal, house choreographer for Israel’s renowned Batsheva Dance Company, is the walk, asserting the ever-present forward-goingness of the work. They move like ants, purposeful, synchronized in lock step. Carte Blanche’s dancers – an international group of 13 of varying body types and movers – are in one sense an anti-corps. But they have Eyal’s signature style so deeply etched in their bodies that they are formidable as a united front.

The oddball out among these Nordic troupes proved to be Danish Dance Theater. Directed by Brit Tim Rushton, whose pedigree is Royal Ballet, he brought the U.S. premiere (like nearly all of the other works) “Love Songs.” An evening-length work that mines a song book of cherished American jazz classics from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, the work follows the score’s trajectory of love discovered, lost, found, and explored in a somewhat dark nightclub-like setting. The dozen dancers are easy going movers who pair up, spar, undulate and separate, their legs rock solid, their abs steely. There’s a relaxed looseness, not quite the uber-popular release technique so big for years now here in the U.S., but the dancers display an ease in the way they curl into themselves or unfurl. The costumes, street (or make that club) clothes, then eventually lingerie, proved serviceable. Odd, though, was the choice of singer. These American classics have been interpreted here by Danish jazz artist Caroline Henderson. Frankly, I longed for the originals from many, including Dusty Springfield’s “I’m Gonna Leave You” and the Arlen/Mercer classic “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Ultimately, “Love Songs” did what it set out to: trace an arc across various couples and individuals in this small community of lovers and friends. What it didn’t do, though, was draw the viewer in to care sincerely about these characters. They were just so many bodies, mixing it up – albeit beautifully – on stage, yet with not much to say. And, frankly, the work had such an “American accent,” created by a British choreographer, no less, that it felt odd in a festival called Nordic Cool.

 

Tero Saarinen's "Hunt," photo Tero Saarinen Company

Tero Saarinen’s “Hunt,” photo Tero Saarinen Company

I can’t tell you much about what dance in Finland looks like. Former Finnish National Ballet dancer Tero Saarinen has traversed the world soaking up ideas from across Western Europe and Japan, where he studied traditional Japanese dance and Butoh. That contemplative quiet rests at the center of the three works his eponymous Tero Saarinen Company brought to the larger Eisenhower Theater. “Westward Ho!” is meant to evoke a seafaring friendship among three men. Saarinen’s signature work, the first he created for his company back in 1996, is oddly picaresque. These three men embark on a journey clad in loose fitting white and little black aprons. They process through the stage to the oddly chosen score by Gavin Bryars and Moondog’s “The Message.” At times they’re weirdly quirky, with Buster Keaton-esque walks. But the continuous nature of the work with its small simple gestures and unadorned moments feels both very particular and sometimes inexplicably painful. The men stopping along the way bears a sense of great import – a spiritual connection, perhaps, aligned with the scratchy vocals of “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” which sounds like it was recorded in the London Underground. There’s an aura of gravity, even in some of the goofy moments along the way, which solemnly settles into closure as Mikki Kunttu’s lights fade.

Saarinen himself danced in “Hunt,” a 2002 re-envisioning of the great centennial masterpiece “The Rite of Spring.” The score, of course, holds primacy for nearly every choreographer who tackles it. But here Saarinen strips the work of its original sacrificial scenario and instead draws on the multimedia contributions of Marita Liulia, who has spliced together a non-stop parade of moving images from primitive carvings, animals, and futuristic slides. Saarinen opens circling, his bare chest rippling, wing-like arms undulating. Later a winged skirt-like cape drops down, which he dons to provide a projection for the ever-changing collages of images. Strobes pulsate; the music and his movement heighten; he leaps, thrashes and, finally, ultimately, collapses. This “Rite” then becomes a commentary on the overwhelming nature of our multisensory universe and how we sacrifice ourselves, our true bodies, to the moving image, where images are non-stop and the future is constantly rushing toward us, dehumanizing humanity into pods of video and audio bytes rather than flesh and blood. It’s perhaps not a “Rite of Spring” for the ages, but it is one for right now.

Also at the Eisenhower, Sweden’s GoteborgsOperans Danskompani is a smart looking ensemble of 14, which brought three works, including a chic “OreloB” by Finnish dancemaker Kenneth Kvarnstrom. The Ravel score gave away the title – Bolero spelled backwards – yet we only heard faint snatches of it wafting through Jukka Rintamaki’s electronic accompaniment. Dressed in Helena Horstedt’s black leotards adorned with yards of pleated ruffles, the women especially looked Vogue ready. Oddly though, Jens Sethzman’s set included a black garage-like trap door on one side of the stage that opened and closed for no apparent reason. The choreography filled the stage with spirals and swirls of movement, as dancers rose and melted. A few heated partnered moments ramped up the sex appeal, but while the costumes and movement remained rather static, the cacophony of music built to a crash and the “go to” ending, when a choreographer runs out of ideas these days, an onstage snowfall — in this case the snow was an attractive silver.

 

GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom's "Orelob"

GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s “Orelob”

An onstage pianist, Joakim Kallhed, accompanied Orjan Andersson’s “Beethoven’s 32 Variations,” which included fine, if undefined dancing for four women and four men, which showed adeptness of technique and attack, but little of real substance to capture one’s imagination. The colorful hipster jeans and t-shirts by Catherine Voeffray suggested a casual off-the-cuff tone for Belgium-trained choreographer Stijn Celis’s “You Passion Is Pure Joy To Me,” yet Nick Cave’s heavy handed songs and scratchy vocals lent a gloomy air to the work, which seemed more like a structured improv, where dancers run here, or there, or back again, with little connection to the Cave, Pierre Boulez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Krzysztof Penderecki soundtrack, rather than a well-planned piece of choreography.

So, back to the question: how do they dance in Nordic countries? Well, certainly, not like ballet dancers anymore, at least from the selections brought to the Kennedy Center. Many of these companies, among them Iceland Dance and the Goteborgs Operans Danskompani, previously based their works on ballet technique and tradition, but both have thoroughly assimilated the contemporary dance idiom. It’s not exactly American modern dance, although there are elements that seem very American. Yet, these companies approach their work with a more theatrical than choreographic bent, perhaps because in northern Europe still, funding isn’t as challenging as it is in the U.S. American dancemakers maybe rely more on pure choreography and less on lighting, digital, and other special effects for their climactic moments – even fake snow is expensive in these parts. But no matter what these five companies dance, they each performed with a technical proficiency and potency for movement that was refreshing to watch and, indeed, the cool factor of second guessing what contemporary dance from Finland or Norway looks like was very much part of the fun of Nordic Cool.

This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2013 print edition of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review.

(c) 2013, Lisa Traiger

A Personal Best: Dance Watching in 2012

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, World dance by lisatraiger on December 30, 2012
Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Like many, my 2012 dance year began with an ending: Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Much was written on the closure of this 20th-century American treasure after more than 50 years, especially its final performance events on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve 2012. At the penultimate performance on December 30, the dancers shone, carving swaths of movement from thin air in the hazy pools of light spilling onto raised platform stages in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. A piercing trumpet call emanated from the rafters heralding the start of this one-of-a-kind evening. Pillowy, cloud-like installations floated above in near darkness. Throughout, snippets of Cunningham choreography – I saw “Crises,” “Doubles” and maybe “Points in Space” – came and went, moving images played for the last time, while audience members sat on folding chairs, observed from risers or meandered through the space, taking care not to step on the carpeted runways that the dancers used to travel from stage to stage.

I found it refreshing to get so close to the dancers after years of partaking of the Cunningham company in theatrical spaces, for me most commonly the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Here the dancers became human, sweat beads forming on their backs, breathe elevated, hair matting down toward the end of the evening. Duets, trios, groups formed and dissolved in that coolly unemotive Cunningham fashion, with alacrity they would step off the stage and rest and reset themselves before coming back on again for another round of the complex alphabet of Cunningham bends, pelvic tilts, lunges, passes, springs, jumps and playful leaps. While the dancers energy surged, I felt time was growing short. The end near. I soon found myself on a riser standing directly above and behind music director Takehisa Kosugi who at the keyboard conducted the ensemble and held an digital stop watch. Journalists traditionally end their articles with – 30 –. Here, momentarily I got distracted with the numbers: 41’38”, 41’39”, 41’40”, 41’41” … And then within a minute Kosugi nodded and squeezed his thumb: at 42’40”. An ending stark, poignant, and by the book.

In January, the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Les Saisons Russes” program was an eye opener on many levels. The work of Ballets Russes that stunned Paris then the world from 1909 through 1914 under the astute and market-savvy vision of Serge Diaghilev, remains incomparable for audiences today. The triple bill of Mikel Fokine works wows with its saturated colors and vividly wrought choreographic statements, impeccably executed by Mariinsky’s stable of well-trained dancers. These three ballets – “Chopiniana” from 1908, and  “The Firebird” and “Scheherazade” from 1910 – continue to pack a powerful punch, a century after their creation. The subtle Romanticism distilled with elan by the Mariinsky corps de ballet — from the perfection etched into their curved arms and slightly tilted heads, their epaulment unparalleled — makes one pine for a bygone Romantic era that likely never actually attained this level of technical grace and precision. With “Firebird,” the Russian folktale elaborately retold in dance, drama and vibrantly outlandish costumes, the flamboyant folk characters were part ‘80s rock stars, part science fiction film creatures. Finally, the bombast and melodrama of the Arabian Nights rendered through Fokine’s version of “Schererazade” danced as if on steroids provided outsized exoticism, with more sequined costumes, scimtars and false facial hair and the soap operatic performances to suit the pompous grandeur of the Rimsky-Korsakov score. Surely Diaghilev would have approved.

Mark Morris Dance Group in "L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato"

Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

Also in January, Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House with its brilliant L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, danced with humanity and glee to Handel’s oratorio, itself based on 17th-century pastoral poem by John Milton and the watercolor illustrations of William Blake. Morris – and Milton, Blake and Handel – each strove for a utopian ideal. This work draws together its disparate parts into one of the great dance works of the 20th century. Enough has been spoken and written about this glorious rendering in music, with the full-voiced Washington Bach Consort Chorus, wildly overblown and softly understated dancing from an expanded company of 24 elegant and spirited movers, and set design – vivid washes of color and light in ranging from flourish of springtime hues to fading fall colors — by Adrianne Lobel. L’Allegro was produced abroad, in 1988 when Morris and his company were in residence at the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Belgium, at a time and a place when dance received unprecedented financial and artistic support. I was struck by the open democratic feeling of the dancers, each on equal footing, soloists melding into groups, humorous bits shifting to serious interludes, no dancer stands out individually. For Morris, whose roots date back to folk dance, the community, the group, the natural feeling of people dancing together is valued above the singularity of solo dancing. It’s democracy – small d – at its best. Watching the work again this year, as dance companies large and small balance at the edge of a seemingly perpetual fiscal cliff, was a reminder of how small and cloistered American modern dance has become. We have few choreographers with the resources and the daring to attempt the bold and brash statements that Morris harnessed in L’Allegro.

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo: Gadi Dagon

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora,” photo: Gadi Dagon

Another company that leaves everything on stage but in an entirely different vein is Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, which I caught at Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. Hora, an evening-length study in gamesmanship and internalized worlds made visible was created by company artistic director (and current world-renowned dance icon) Ohad Naharin. With his facetiously named Gaga movement language, dancers attained heightened sensitivity, not dissimilar to the work butoh masters and post-modernist strove for in earlier decades. And yet the steely technical accomplishment and steadfast allegiances to dancing in the moment that Gaga pulls from its best proponents makes Batsheva among the world’s most prized and praised contemporary dance companies. At BAM, the 60 minute work with its saturated colors and pools of shifting lighting by Avi Yona Bueno and music arranged by Isao Tomita featuring snippets from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Mussorgsky offers a smorgasbord of familiarity as the dancers parse oddly shaped lunges with hips askew, pelvises tucked under, ribs thrust forward and heads cocked just so. Odd and awkward, yet athletic and graceful, and undeniably daring Naharin mines his Batsheva dancers for quirks that become accepted as fresh 21st century bodily configurations. Though named Hora, the work has nothing whatsoever to do with the ubiquitous Jewish circle dance, yet after an evening with Batsheva, it’s hard not to feel like celebrating.

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather," with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in “Necessary Weather,” with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

In April, Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz glimmered in “Necessary Weather,” a subtle tour de force filled with small moments of great and profound drama and even, unexpectedly, a smile or two. The glide of a foot, cock of a head, even a raised eyebrow or tip of a hat from Rudner and Reitz resonated beneath the glow of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, which in American Dance Institute’s Rockville studio theater, performed a choreography of its own glowing, fading, saturating and shimmering.

Also at ADI in May, Tzveta Kassabova created a rarified world – of the daily-ness of life and the outdoors. By bringing nature inside and onto the stage, which was strewn with leaves, decorated with lawn furniture, and, in a coup de theatre, a mud puddle and a rain storm. Her evening-length and richly rendered Left of Green, Fall, choreographed on a wide-ranging cast of 16 child and adult dancers and movers, featured sound design and original music with a folk-ish tinge by Steve Wanna. The work tugs at the outer corners of thought with its intermingling of hyper-real and imagined worlds. The senses also come into play: the smell of drying leaves, the crackly crunch they make beneath one’s feet and the moist-wet smell of fall is startling, particularly occurring indoors on a sunny May afternoon. Kassabova, with her flounce of bouncy curls and angular, sharp-cornered body, dances with a laser-like intensity. She’s ready to play, allowing the sounds and sights of children in a park, sometimes among themselves, other times with adults. She’s also game to show off awkwardness: turned in feet, sharp corners of elbows, hunched shoulders and flat-footed balances – providing refreshing lessons that beauty is indeed present in the most ordinary and the most natural ways the body moves.

The Paris Opera Ballet in "Giselle," photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet in “Giselle,” photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet’s July stop at the Kennedy Center Opera House brought an impeccable rendering of one of the pinnacles of Romantic ballet: Giselle. And should one expect anything less than perfection when the program credits list the number of performances of this ballet by the company? On July 5, 2012, I saw the “760th performance by the Paris Opera Ballet and the 206th performance of this production,” one with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot dating from 1841, transmitted by Marius Petipa in 1887 and adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991. Two days later it was 763. The POB still uses the 1924 set and costume designs of the great Alexandre Benois, adding further authenticity to the work. But nothing about this production is museum material. POB continues to breathe life into its Giselle.

Aside from making a pilgrimage to the imaginary graveside of the tragic maiden dancer two-timed by her admirer, it’s hard to find a more accurate and handsome production of this ballet masterpiece. Aurelie Dupont was a thoughtful and sophisticated Giselle, care and technical virtuosity evident in her performance, while her Albrecht, Mathieu Ganio, played his Romantic hero for grandeur. While the 40-something husband and wife duo of Nicholas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta on paper make an unlikely Albrecht and Giselle, in reality their heartfelt performances were so intensely and genuinely realized at the Saturday matinee that they felt as youthful as Giselles and Albrechts a generation younger.

The production is as close to perfection on so many levels that one might ever find in a ballet, starting with a corps de ballet that danced singularly, breathing as one unit, most particularly in the act II graveside scene. The mime passages, too, were truly beautiful, works of expressive artistry many that in most companies, particularly the American ones, are dropped or given short shrift. Here the tradition remains that mime is integral to the choreography, not an afterthought but a moment of import. Most interesting was a (new to me) mime sequence by Giselle’s mother about the origins of her daughter’s affliction and how she will most definitely die (hands in fists, crossed at the wrists, held low at the chest). Later when the Wilis dance in act II, it becomes abundantly clear why their arms are crossed, though delicately, their hands relaxed: they’re the walking dead, zombies, if you will, of another era. Another unforgettable moment in POBs “Giselle,” is its use of tableaux at then ending moment of each act. Each act ends in a moment of frozen stillness – act one of course with Giselle’s death, act two with the resurrection of Albrecht. Each of these is captured in a stage picture, then the curtain dropped and rose again – and there the dancers stood, still posed in character. Stunning and memorable.

Each year in August the Karmiel Dance Festival swallows up the small northern Israeli city of Karmiel as upwards of reportedly 250,000 folk and professional dancers swarm the city for three days and nights of dance. From large-scale performances in an outdoor amphitheater to professional and semi-professional and student companies performing in the municipal auditorium and in local gymnasiums and schools to folk dance sessions on the city’s six tennis courts, Karmiel is awash in dance. I caught companies ranging from the silky beauty of Guangdong Modern Dance Company from China’s Guangzhou province, France’s Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, the youthful and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, whereartistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Rami Be’er in a program of new works by young dancemakers. Maybe not the best that I saw, but the unforgettable oddity of the three-day festival was the headlining company, billed as the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia. In the grand folk dance tradition of the great Moiseyev company of Russia, these dancers, musicians and singers – numbering 60 strong – let the sparks fly, literally. With breathtaking sword play where white hot sparks truly did fly from the swords, to astounding acrobatic feats and graceful, feminine dances featuring smoothness, precision and delicate footwork parsed out in heeled character boots, the troupe was a hit. Few in the appreciative Israeli crowd – many of whom sang along to the old Russian folk songs buying into a mythic pastoral vision of the Cossack warriors – seemed aware of the irony of an audience of predominantly Israeli Jews heartily applauding a show titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” The last time Jews were heard to say “The Cossacks are coming,” things didn’t turn out so well.

Nan Jombang in "Rantau Berisik," photo: Fiona Cullen.

Nan Jombang in “Rantau Berisik,” photo: Fiona Cullen.

In September, Dance Place was fortunate to book one of the State Department’s CenterStage touring troupes at the top of its season. Nan Jombang, a one-of-a-kind family of dancers from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, provided a remarkable and moving evening in its North American premiere. Rantau Berbisik or “Whisperings of Exile” begins with a siren call, a female shriek that’s an alarm and cry of pain, that begins a journey of unexpected images. Ery Mefri, a dancer from Padang, on the western coast of Sumatra, has created a surprisingly original dance culture drawing from traditional tribal rituals, martial arts – randai and pencak silak – captivating chants and unusual body percussion techniques. But most unique about Mefri’s artistic project, and the company he founded in 1983, is that it is truly a family affair: the five dancers are his wife and children. The live, sleep, eat and work together daily in intense isolation crafting dances of elemental power and uncommon dynamism through an intensely intimate process.

The work features a trio of gloriously powerful women who exhibit strength of body and will in the earthbound manner they dive into movement, oozing into deep plie like squats and then pounding the taut canvas of their stretched red pants like drummers. Moments later they spring forth from deep lunges, pouncing then retreating, only to strike out again. The hour-long work is filled with mystery and mundanity: dancers carry plates and cups back and forth from a tea cart, rattling the china in percussive polyrhythms, and one woman sits in a chair and keens, rocking and hugging herself for an inconsolable loss. Later the women pass and stack plates around a wooden table with an urgency and assembly-line precision that brings new meaning to the term woman’s work. The one thin boy/man in the group attacks and retreats with preternatural grace, sometimes part of this female-dominated social structure, other times apart – an outcast or loner. And throughout amid the bustle, the urgent calls, the unmitigated pain and sense of loss, there remains a stunning impression of yearning, of hope. The ancient rituals of home and hearth, of work and rest, of group and individual it seems are drawn from a language and way of life that Mefri sees disappearing. Quickly evident in this riveting evening is how Mefri and his family can communicate so deeply to the heart and soul in ways that strike at the core, of unspoken truths about family, community and cultural continuity and conveyance.

Step Afrika!

Step Afrika!

One final note of continuity and cultural conveyance was struck resoundingly in December with Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Juba: Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. While the program was long on youth and short on masters – an indication that we’ve reached the end our last generation of true tap masters — Dianne “Lady Di” Walker represented the early tap revival providing the link to old time rhythm tap of the early and mid-20th century. The program, emceed and curated by Lane Alexander of CHRP, brought together  a bevy of youthful dance companies, among them Michelle Dorrance’s Dorrance Dance with an interesting excerpt for two barefoot modern dancers and a tapper. D.C. favorite Step Afrika! brought down the first act curtain with its heart-raising rhythms and body slapping percussion. And, closing out the evening, Walker served up “Softly As the Morning Sunrise,” a number as smooth and bubbly as glass of Cristal, her footwork as fast as hummingbird wings, her physics-defying feet emitting more sounds than the eye could see. This full evening of tap also included Derik Grant, Sam Weber, and younger pros Jason Janas, Chris Broughton, Connor Kelley, Jumaane Taylor, Joseph Monroe Webb and Kyle Wildner. The evening with its teen and college aged dancers sounded a note that tap will continue to be a force to reckon with in the 21st century. That it occurred on a main stage at the Kennedy Center was – still – a rarity. Let’s hope the success of this evening will lead to more forays into vernacular and percussive dance forms at the nation’s performing arts center. The clusters of tap fans young and old gathered in the lobby after the show couldn’t bear to leave. If they had thrown down a wooden tap floor on the red carpeting, no doubt folks would have stayed for another hour of tap challenges right there in the lobby.

 ***

And I can’t forget a final, very personal experience. During the annual Kennedy Center run of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in February, I found myself pulled from my aisle seat to join the dancers onstage in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” which the company had just added to its repertory in late 2011. Clad in slim fitting business suits and stark white shirts, the dancers make their way to the lip of the stage and stare. The next thing you know, they’re stalking the aisles, climbing over seats, crawling across laps to bring up randomly selected members of the audience. The sequence is fascinating – a mix of the mundane, the ridiculous and the dancerly – inviting in the human element as these god-like dancers canoodle, slow dance, cha-cha and indulge their new-found partners. Soon they corral the group, circle, and in ones and twos the dancers begin to lead the participants off stage, leaving just one – most frequently a woman – standing in the embrace of her partner as the others hug themselves in a smug slow dance. On cue the dancers fall. The woman remains alone, in the spotlight. Frequently aghast, embarrassed, she slinks away.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," photo: Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” photo: Paul Kolnik

Dreamlike is the best way I can describe the experience. Audience members seem to be selected according to a particular color, most frequently red judging from the previous times I’ve seen the work. As a “winter” on the color chart, I, of course, frequently wear red from my beret to my purse to a closet full of sweaters and blouses. When the dancers lined up, I felt one made eye contact with me right away. I didn’t avert my gaze and I thought that I could be chosen. But as they came into the audience, he passed me by and I exhaled slightly, relieved not to be selected. The stage re-filled with dancers and their unwitting partners as I watched. Suddenly, the same dancer who caught my eye was at my side beckoning, pulling me from my seat. My hand in his I followed him down the dark aisle and up the stairs. There the music changed frequently from kitschy ‘60s pop to rumba, cha cha, and tango – all recognizably familiar, a Naharin trait. Yet the choreographer definitely wants to keep the novices off guard, which is disconcerting because there are moments when the dancers are completely with you and you feel comfortably in their care, then they leave you to your own devices and all bets are off.

I realized quickly that I had to focus fully on my partner and not get distracted by what others on stage or in the audience were doing. We maintained eye contact throughout and went through a bevy of pop-ish dances: I recall bouncing, lunging, throwing in a bump or two and a great tango – wow, what a lead. Then they mixed things up, pushing all the civilians into a circle then a clump before reshuffling things. Somehow I came out with a new partner and things really heated up as I followed him and he me. I felt my old contact skills tingling back to life as I tried to give as good as he gave. He dipped me and I suspect that when he felt I gave in to it, he realized he could take me further. I don’t know how, but I found myself lifted above his head in what felt like a press. As he turned, I thought I might as well take advantage of this. I’m never going to be in the arms of an Ailey dancer again. I put one leg in passe, straightened the other, threw my head back and lifted my sternum, while keeping one hand on my head so my beret wouldn’t fly. He likely only made two or three rotations, but in my mind it felt like a carnival carousel: incredible. Back on earth with my feet on solid footing, he tangoed and embraced me. I knew what was coming. The slow dance when they lead partners off stage. I realized I might was well give in to the moment, I melted into his embrace and we swayed. Two bodies as one. Eyes closed. I momentarily opened them when I sensed the stage emptying. The only words spoken between us are when I said, “uh oh.” He squeezed me and then dropped to the floor in an X with the remaining Ailey dancers. There I was. Alone. Center stage in the Kennedy Center Opera House. I have been seeing performances there since I was a child in 1970s. I had seconds to decide what I was going to do. “%^&#) it,” I said to myself. “I’m standing here in the Opera House with 2,500 people looking at me. I’m going to take my bow.” I moved my leg into B+, opened my arms with a flourish, dropped my head and shoulders and rose, relishing the moment for all it was worth. Seconds later, the audience roared. I was stunned. I made my way gingerly off stage, still blinded by the spotlights as I fumbled up the aisle to find my seat.

Dreamlike. Throughout I knew this was something I would want to relish and remember and tried to find markers for while maintaining the presence of the moment. I was able to find out who the dancers were (yes, there were two) who partnered me. But I believe that Naharin wants the mystery to remain both for the onlookers and the participants. At intermission people were asking if I was a “plant,” insisting that I must have known what to do in advance. But, no, Naharin wants that indeterminacy, that edginess, that moment of frisson, when the audience realizes that with folks just like them on stage, all bets are off on what could happen. While we often attend dance performances to see heightened, better, more beautiful and more physically fit and skilled versions of ourselves (one of the reasons, I think, that we also watch football, basketball and the like), there’s something about seeing someone just like you or me up on stage. If the middle aged mom who needs to get the kids off to school then go to work the next morning can have such a rarified experience then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us can rediscover something fresh, untried, daring, out of sorts, amid the banality of our everyday lives. In this brief segment – and I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but I’m sure not more than five minutes at most – Naharin, through the heightened skill and beauty of professional dancers, offers escape from the ordinary. Audiences live through it vicariously by seeing one of their own up there on stage. For me the experience was unforgetable.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger

Published December 30, 2012

Israel: A Nation Dances

Karmiel Dance Festival
August 6-8, 2012
Karmiel, Israel

By Lisa Traiger

While summer dance festivals abound and al fresco dancing is near irresistible for audiences and dancers from the United States to Europe and the Far East, I don’t know of any dance festival that not only boasts a customized theme song, but also attract upwards of 250,000 visitors over just three days and nights. Karmiel, a little city that could in northern Israel, has both an upbeat theme song — the Hebrew “Karmiel Rokedet” or “Karmiel Dances” — and hordes of visitors who fill the town, population just shy of 52,000, with dancers young and old, pro and amateur, for a non-stop parade of Israeli folk dance sessions and performances by amateur folk dance troupes and professional dance companies touring on the international circuit.

This year, the dance festival’s 25th, included three evenings of performances August 6, 7 and 8, in a vast outdoor amphitheater, which can seat about 19,000 on chairs and the lawn, plus all-night dance sessions for thousands of folk dancers orbiting in concentric circles on the city’s six tennis courts from midnight until dawn. Then there was a handful of international ballet and modern companies performing in the city’s municipal theater. The festival, founded in 1987 by the city’s first mayor Baruch Venger, was meant to pick up where an earlier Israeli dance festival, the famed Dalia Festival left off. Dalia first brought together Israeli folk dancers during the Jewish festival of Shavuot in 1944. A reported 10,000 people traveled to Kibbutz Dalia to celebrate the wheat harvest with traditional and new Israeli folk dances and displays of other ethnic dances from around the world. Israelis trekked to an outdoor hill on the kibbutz to watch groups perform dances paying tribute to the Biblical land and the region’s agricultural roots, which were being resuscitated into a new Jewish state.  

While Karmiel’s heady dance festival is an acknowledgment of Israel’s Zionistic and émigré roots, it has become an event in its own right — and its massive proportions speak to the widespread growth and abiding interest Israel holds in dance across a multiplicity of forms.

Each year the festival opens with a grand showcase featuring some of Israel’s top pop culture icons. This year the opener, overseen by festival artistic director Shlomo Maman, a well-known folk dance choreographer in his own right, honored recipients of Israel’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize. The evening of songs and dances reflected the breadth and depth of Israeli cultural, artistic and social contributions to the nation. Dance and song segments honored the nation’s poets including Leah Goldberg, singers like Naomi Shemer and Yoram Gaon, and organizations like the Tzofim, Israeli scouts, and Tel Aviv’s famed Habima Theater Company. Three of Israel’s renowned choreographers — Gurit Kadman (nee Gertrude Kraus), Yehudit Arnon and Sara Levi Tanai, who each left indelible marks on the growing dance culture of the country — were among the honored laureates.

The opening evening was emceed by a jowly singer/actor Yoram Gaon, who bills himself as Israel’s Frank Sinatra, but with his recent foray into Hebrew sitcoms, perhaps he’s more of a precursor to Justin Timberlake. He served up both a nostalgia-tinged glance at Israel’s cultural achievements and examples of the youthful vigor of its earnest younger generation of Israeli dance performers. Accompanied by the Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra, Gaon introduced dances and songs showcasing Israeli culture. For the most part this shifting company of dancers in the folk dance tradition bobbed and weaved in circles and lines, hopping, skipping and leaping to up-tempo horas. The ladies smiled broadly in their swingy A-lined dresses, the men clad in colorful tunics. Among the opener’s highlights was singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa, in “Keren Or.” The N.Y. High School of the Performing Arts-trained singer/songwriter draws on her Yemenite ancestry and, of the hundreds of Israeli dancers seen, she was one of a very few who exhibited the distinctive yet restrained shoulder shimmy characteristic of authentic Yemenite dances. The dancing throughout, this opening program, and somewhat less so in the third day’s closer, was mostly performed by well-trained amateurs, teenage and young adult dancers who attacked the choreography with more verve than accuracy, but when close to 100 dancers filled the stage, a faux pas or two really was beside the point. Folk dance in Israel was and for the most part remains, a communal activity that promote group unity even amid the diversity of dances that choreographers churn out year after year — horas, partnered waltzes, debkas, line dances, salsa-tinged Israeli dances and more.

The closing program again featured these spirited amateur dancers, this time displaying a greater variety of dance styles. There were groups that borrowed from Spanish or Russian/Georgian traditions, and fresh-faced teens who looked ready for the U.S. studio competition circuit dancing to Hebrew pop tunes in a style I can only call “Isra-lyrical” for its resemblance to that muddy mix of jazz, modern and contemporary that comprises “lyrical” on our own shores.

The headliner for night two at Karmiel was a stunner for many reasons. The last time Jews exclaimed “The Cossacks are coming!” things didn’t turn out so well. But the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia indeed came to Israel and, by measure of the audience reaction, was a terrific hit. The flashy production, actually titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” featured a chorus, a traditional orchestra with balalaika, and a company of exquisite dancers all told numbering nearly 60. Though unable to understand what the close harmony choir sang about, in a nation that has absorbed more than a million Russian immigrants in a generation, these Russian songs were beloved, and many of them sound suspiciously Israeli (for Israelis are also great copycats, particularly in borrowing shamelessly from foreign genres and even specific songs).

The dancing, including spectacular sword battles where actual sparks flew, soaring leaps and sequences of barrel turns, aerial cartwheels, and that knee pumping katzastky step, draws from Russian folkloric traditions. But its fervid Cossack machismo, along with costumes taken straight from the Red Army, has all the trappings of a martial dance company celebrating war spoils or prepping for a battle campaign. Joined by a lovely complement of women in delicate low-heel character boots, they circled and coupled up, promenading in unison and tandem, the women dainty in their grapevines and polkas, the men ever bold in runs, stomps and leaps. Interestingly, even given the ignominious history of Cossack-Jewish relations, Israelis felt a deep affinity for the songs and dances — many in the audience were singing along, or at least humming some of the anthemic-sounding chorales. Of course, Russian and Eastern European culture — music and dance in particular — was highly influential to those forging new cultural traditions 65 years ago in the young Jewish state. Many of the horas and rambunctious circle dances still carry a distinctive Russian flavor in their choreographic bones. Israel’s popular choral group the Gevatron, with its songs of bucolic Zionism and patriotism and its accordion accompaniment,  clearly has its roots in the patriotic and nature-based Russian songs of the Cossack chorus. This odd frisson came over me: the Cossacks made life miserable for Jews in Russia a century ago and yet so many Jews and Israelis continue to hold a warm affinity for the music and dance culture of this period.

But the dance performances at Karmiel weren’t only in the Israeli folk genre or its nostalgic precursor. The Karmiel Festival’s artistic adviser Yair Vardi, who oversees the nation’s premiere dance venue, the Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre in Tel Aviv, programmed a small but interesting selection of foreign ballet and modern companies, which performed not only at the Karmiel Cultural Center, where some shows began at 11:00 a.m. and ran straight through until midnight, but a few companies also performed in Tel Aviv or other cities during their visit.

In a nation with strong European roots, it’s surprising that homegrown ballet hasn’t made inroads to Israel. The mediocre Israel Ballet lacks adequate choreographic vision, and its dancers have fewer opportunities to develop their craft in a nation besotted with modern and contemporary dancers. Thus the visit from the young and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, where artistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. The program showcased the dancers in excerpts from two warhorse classics, “Don Quixote” and “Raymonda.” The muddy recorded scores and off-the-rack backdrops luckily were overshadowed by the generous and fresh performances. Energetic and well-trained, the dancers, all between the ages of 18 and 24, showed off their vivacity and dynamic attack. As Kitri, Melissa Oliveira was lovely, playful and flirtatious with her high-kicking grand jetes, while Gustavo Cavalho was a frisky but not unruly Basilio. The technical training of the company from the corps upwards, with strong fifths and landings out of jumps and turns, showed care and precision. I was reminded of the unparalleled strengths of another Latin ballet troupe, National Ballet of Cuba, but these dancers young and still developing display a youthful vigor and consummate joy. The “Raymonda Suite,” while slightly less assured, again showcased that technical care. “Brazilian Suite” was meant to display the dancers in a contemporary work, this one drew references from the hip swaying samba, but with a raft of complex lifts and supports far removed from the classical realm, the overly complicated choreography didn’t allow the dancers to sparkle.

The U.S. was represented by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, directed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer and ballet master Terrence Orr. The company, on its first international tour in two decades, was invited because of a sister-city relationship the city’s Jewish Federation has with the city of Karmiel. A boon for the dancers, the tour garnered the company extensive visibility in the press and via social media outlets. The program included Mark Morris’s “Maelstrom,” stunningly danced by the company. The seven couples infused this darker, more somber Morris piece with care and precision. The deceptively simple choreography, set to the Beethoven “Trio No. 5 in D Major, Opus 70,” requires steely attack coupled with an ethereal floating quality. Pure balletic passages, punctuated by a flexion of an ankle or wrist, or a daring toss of a female partner to another male, build to passages of tornado-like runs, the dancers bodies converging into a spinning vortex before the stage empties for a solo or pair of dancers. The evening’s crowd pleaser proved to be Dwight Rhoden’s homage to summer at the beach, “Step Touch,” which featured a recorded score sung by Charlie Thomas and the Drifters and Pure Gold. Think sandy bathing suits, “Under the Boardwalk,” the smell of French fries and salt water taffy. The snazzy, bathing suit-like costumes by Christine Darch set the stage for fun-filled groups of sexy women and buff men to intermingle to some of these summertime standards. The program also featured Balanchine’s “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” well danced by Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva.

A third ballet company representing the contemporary European tradition, Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, brought three new takes on works familiar to followers of ballet’s 20th-century canon. Salliot’s re-envisioning of “Daphnis et Chloe” as a love triangle with a homosexual twist was at first inscrutable without knowing the plot change. The choreography has that contemporary Bejart-ian feel in its movement language though at times there’s a Balanchinian sparseness that tempers some of the more overwrought passages. Salliot’s “La Fauness,” featuring the famed Debussy score, updates Nijinsky’s erotic chance forest meeting between a nymph and a faun. The sensuality remains vital in this modern dress meeting of a man and a woman. The female, languidly stretches out in a chair, highly attuned to her body’s sensitivities. A suited man enters as does a second woman. Swooping hugs, sweeping caresses and sensuous lifts and holds heighten the sexual tension among the three. Salliot also refers back to the Grecian two dimensional poses of the Nijinsky but there’s a definite erotic element to the trio.

They closed the program with a reconsideration of “Scheherazade,” featuring the lush Rimsky-Korsakov score and a few episodes from the Arabian Nights tales, told with theatrical finesse using a handful of astute props, particularly a toy sailboat and an oversized swath of silk that became a tent, a sea, and a backdrop for a harem boudoir. The Metz dancers underscored their movement with a lushness and pliancy that kept one’s attention, while the choreography danced with an unmistakable French accent — sensual, expressive, sometimes even overwrought — demonstrated a distinctive take on ballet.

From China’s Guangzhou province, Guandong Modern Dance Company has assimilated primarily American modern dance techniques, but reconfigured them in various interesting ways to speak via movement language with a contemporary Chinese approach. Their program of three works, slated for an 11:00 a.m. time slot, was one of the festival’s stunners. The choreography, often saturated with lighting effects and hazy fog, made the works feel as if they were out of time or unraveling a distant world. The program, titled “Between Body and Soul,” showcased a trio of works, two by the company’s chief choreographer Liu Qi, who has been with Guangdong since 1996, and one by Xing Lang, another former dancer with the troupe. “Touched,” by Xing Lang, featured quicksilver movement by the company of 11, dancers falling and rising, clad in socks and an assemblage of practice clothes. Nearly boneless, their torsos undulating, their arms and feet pliant, the choreography shows the dancers as charged beings that catapult into movement then capitulate in changing mixings and groupings. “Another Voice” seemed to be an excerpt from a larger piece. A trio of dancers were wrapped head to toe in flesh-toned strips of cloth, and moved to the sounds of dripping water as if some sort of forest creatures, wispy, ebbing and flowing, slippery through their ribs and hips. Finally, the closing piece was billed as “Haromim,” which translates to “The Romans.” I believe in actuality this piece was an excerpt from Liu Qi’s “Upon Calligraphy,” with its shape-oriented figurative structures, at once silky and staccato with dancers’ legs develope-ing while elbows and shoulders punctuate a phrase with a slash or a dot of movement. Each of the works was performed with an exquisite sense of silky ease yet total accuracy. Interestingly, for a company drawing on American ideals of modern dance, weightedness and gravitational pull into the floor was eschewed for a sense of weightlessness even as the dancers moved into and away from the floor, an ideal that is anathema to modern dance’s early roots.

Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, which was founded in 1970 and remains based on Kibbutz Ga’aton in the western Galilee, presented a trio of very new works on a program titled “Double 3.” Israel’s modern dance roots are more diverse, with early fundamental contributions coming from Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow among other Americans. But the European influence is broad and remains a driving force for many companies, some of whom look toward ideals of tanztheater for inspiration. It has been said that when Pina Bausch came to Israel in 1981, she inspired generations of choreographers. There’s an unusual hybrid in some of the current Israeli contemporary dance that stems from this duel set of influences: American modern and post-modernism (much likely picked up in European cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin) and European tanztheater. The triple bill from the Kibbutz Company, directed by Rami Be’er, only the troupe’s second leader after Yehudit Arnon, is indicative of this trend.

Idan Sharabi, a Juilliard graduate who danced with Netherlands Dance Theatre before returning to Tel Aviv in 2010, premiered the riveting “I Dropped the Ceiling on the Floor Again,” featuring a complex audio collage with voice, music and sound effects including clips from Ravel and Chopin and captured sounds of falling objects. The work begins in darkness with a low, foreboding rumble. A black partial wall at the back of the stage becomes both a backdrop and a hiding place during the piece. The sounds of crashes, breaking glass and dropping objects instigate the dancers to tremor then freeze, crash to the floor and quake. Each boom or drop instigates another rush of movement, then the dancers, each clad in a colorful assortment of street wear, settle into quirky undulations, twists, curves and swipes of movement. One dancer brings on a glass of water, drinks and then the sound of smashing glass intrudes. The work builds and crescendos in a wall of found sound and movement. Some dancers remain frozen while others dash, squat and scoot in a mad rush for the unknown. Though abstract, the suggestion of “…Ceiling” is of the matsav, what Israelis call “the situation,” meaning the current political and attendant turmoil of terrorism that includes, of course, threat of rockets launched regularly at city enclaves like Sderot in Southern Israel. The work feels terrifyingly real — capturing everyday life disrupted, distorted by the precariousness of the unknown, yet seemingly normal on the surface. The sound score with its broken dishes, a wailing child, and other escalating noise adds an overwhelming sense of unease to what remains often unspoken in a nation where its people live so closely to shattering effects.

Company member Oz Mulay’s “Poor-ya” for six dancers features both galumphing full bodied movements and stretchy, sinewy reaches. A collage of piano, music and voice, here provided less direction for the dancers as they roamed and at points found repose. Another company member, Nir Even Shoham, debuted “Day Too Soon,” which relied on similar movement language but felt more suggestive of a journey or a lifecycle, with its six dancers carrying sacks — clothing perhaps? — and performing a series of semaphoric-like gestures that accumulated. The journey, performed before a series of white panels seemed at times arduous and dancers bounced, rocked and sought out momentarily various support from members of the group. At one point the work reverted to a unison section, looking everything like a competition dance, and breaking the mood that had been more artfully and thematically built. The Kibbutz company dancers attack choreography with an unrivaled sense of commitment, an earthiness and a fearless feeling that whatever might come next will be an adventure. A wonderful way to wrap up a dance-centric trip to Israel.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2012 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

 

Spectacle

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 31, 2012

Alice (in wonderland)
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music by Matthew Pierce
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
April 11-15, 2012 

“Noche Latina!”
Choreography by Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
May 9-13, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

Maki Onuki as Alice and Jared Nelson as the Mad Hatter in Septime Webre’s opulent spectacle “Alice (in wonderland)” for The Washington Ballet

Ballet has had no shortage of showmen over its centuries. From Louis XIV, who personified the god himself as Apollo in elaborate court pageants, to Petipa’s academic pyrotechnics and colossal productions, Diaghilev’s riot-inducing Russian seasons in Paris and Balanchine’s moderne spectacles – Firebird, Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, come to mind – understatement it seems can sometimes be overrated. That’s nearly always the case with The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre, a showman extraordinaire when it comes to programming for his fine chamber-sized company of 18 dancers. Recent seasons he has given his audiences equal parts bombast and baubles with a “Carmina Burana,” featuring the Washington Cathedral Society chorus on two-stories of onstage scaffolding; a Broadway-boards-worthy The Great Gatsby complete with a tuxedoed tap dancer, a jazz singer and swing band that rose from the orchestra pit; a storybook come to life with super sized puppets in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; and a Disney-worthy retelling of Peter Pan with flying by rigmasters Foy. This spring the company’s two programs continued that spectacle-minded showmanship that Webre so favors – and that has built a steady and boisterous crowd of younger-than-average ballet goers in a town where gray-suited government and politics are the trade. Webre is certainly market-savvy in drawing both a crowd of the twenty- and thirty-something, beautiful and stiletto-heeled, as well as Chevy Suburban-driving families.

His idiosyncratically titled Alice (in wonderland), is a case in point. Seen April 11-15 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the ballet is a dizzying trip down the rabbit hole into a wildly psychedelic world for one of Webre’s favorites, Maki Onuki. Here this tiny slip of a dancer was all tarted up in a blond wig making the Japanese-born ballerina look like a cartoonish manga character.

Webre enlisted designer Liz Vandal, who conceived the outre look of the ultra-extravagant production [which cost upwards of $300,000]. A one-time fashion designer whose costume work has been seen on Montreal’s La La La Human Steps and Compagnie Marie Chouinard, along with the Backstreet Boys, Vandal’s recent designs on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO are more representative of the direction she’s taken with Alice: fantastic, whimsical, garishly opulent and, needless to say, memorable. From the traditional baby-blue dress the title character wears, Vandal’s conception – Victoriana meets Peter Max and Ziggy Stardust – creates unique and unforgettable worlds in which the storyboarded ballet unfolds, like pages turned in a children’s storybook.

In “Wizard of Oz” fashion, Act 1 is a study in monotones – whites and grays – until Alice escapes her family, falling into a Technicolor wonder world where hot pink flamingos and decks of cards dance, cartoonish cooks battle and bicker over salt and pepper, a spectacle-wearing rabbit, a fiery pterosaur-like Jabberwocky, and other odd assortments of creatures pop up during the episodic adventures. Like the “Oz” movie, Webre doubles his casting, so the family members of act I, become the fabulous creatures and characters of act II. Alice’s imperious mother with her withering glare returns as a black-widow of a Queen of Hearts, emasculating and fearsome, while her bespectacled father becomes the grinning and aloof Cheshire cat.

Lewis Carroll here plays a role, too, jumpstarting the title character’s imagination, but in a pas de deux there’s also a sense of awakening sexuality in the not-yet-woman Alice as tenderly danced by Jared Nelson and Onuki. Later Nelson returns as the Mad Hatter, resplendent in a vibrant patchwork suit a ringleader at the tea party gone awry. As the white rabbit, Jonathan Jordan leads young Alice into these vivid worlds where flowers dance, a sexily slithery caterpillar smokes a hookah, a Dodo Bird and Eaglet (Brooklyn Mack and Emily Ellis) dance a Petipa-worthy pas de deux, and bunches of thorny roses, the bristling corps with roses adorning their heads, are unceremoniously painted red to please the domineering Queen of Hearts, while little children somersault as hedgehogs in a croquet game gone wild.

Played out in a white box set designed by James Kronzer, silk drapes, unfurled painted banners and rolled-in flats provide much of the scenic variety, and along with Clifton Taylor’s candy-colored lighting, the stage itself often becomes a brilliantly rendered canvas in vivid colors. Matthew Pierce’s score for 10-piece string orchestra provides the backbone for the choreography, lending notes of poignancy and tempering some of the wildness of Alice’s journey with muted tones that are at once reflective and forward going. That he ventures astutely into jazz, pop, Middle Eastern and other rhythms and genres, keeps the listener alive in this multifaceted journey.

There’s much to absorb in this version of the Lewis Carroll tale and at times it’s hard for even an experienced viewer to know where to focus, there’s simply so much happening on stage. But who can resist an orange-haired Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair passing through on a tandem bicycle, for example? Or gaggles of eight and nine year olds dressed as playing cards, flowers and hedgehogs, as innocent as first-recital budding ballerinas, courtesy of the Washington School of Ballet. Or gawk as Onuki soars aloft, floating, and spiraling on a near-invisible line that allows her to “fall” gracefully into the rabbit hole.

Alice (in wonderland) is filled to the brim with stunning tricks, opulent and eye-popping designs, a top-notch score and, even, a bit of choreography among all the traffic. But like other Webre-stamped ballets, choreography is nearly beside the point. At center stands the extravaganza, the spectacle. And while the dancers dance their hearts out, the wild applause the audience offers up is for the production as a whole – a collaborative team that succeeded in crafting a stunning world to re-cast an old story anew. Finally, Webre gives our senses a rest: one simple moment after all the garishness of the proceedings have passed. Alice ultimately returns home and we get a final glimpse of Onuki curled up in a cozy armchair with a book. Repose after the chaos.

***

Sona Kharatian and Luis R. Torres of The Washington Ballet in “Noche Latina!”

The company closed its 2011-12 season May 9-13 with another sort of extravaganza. “Noche Latina!” draws on Latin American cultural constructs and allows Webre to explore connections to his cultural roots as a son of Cuban-American parents. In previous seasons, Webre has brought in Latin-inspired programming from the likes of Nacho Duato, Paul Taylor (“Tango Piazzola”) and the director’s own “Juanita y Alicia,” based on stories about his mother’s childhood in Havana. One year the vividly clad Mariachi Los Amigos mariachi band strolled through the theater serenading the audience during intermission like a South of the Border half-time show. This year’s Latin nights program felt much like a one-note wonder. If flinging ruffled skirts, snapping fingers, tightly held stances and imaginary bullfights account for everything you know about Latin dance, “Noche Latina!” will nicely fill your bill. Each of the evening’s three works played the same notes over and over again. And on a program that featured two world premieres that certainly is disappointing.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sueno de Marmol” (Dream of Marble) felt the least clichéd, likely because it opened the program, and yet, with its run-of-the-mill theme of riffling through memories – in this case by walking among a garden of marble statues that come to life – it left little to really ponder. The company’s tallest, and most commanding presence, Luis Torres was the centerpiece of not only this work, but much of the evening. In “Sueno,” which translates to “Dream of Marble,” he was expectedly introspective, wandering through the fog and still-life of posed dancers clad in white – women in tiered skirts, men showing pecs in sheer body-hugging tops.

As a dancer or two caught Torres’ fancy, they moved together into small variations, Torres in traditional black and red transforming easily from sensual to moody to playful in this nicely wrought memory piece. Lopez Ochoa provides her dancers with lush and full-bodied phrases that they can really sink into discovering expressive fodder. A great compliment for a new choreographer is how comfortable the dancers looked in a work and here she knowingly captured their strengths without highlighting weaknesses.

Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” uses late 1960s pop music versions of Astrud Gilberto’s easy-listening pieces. Think “Girl From Ipanema” and you’re there. In fact Aurora Dickie was that girl in this piece, followed by two of the company’s playfully sexy men – Brooklyn Mack and Zachary Hackstock. But “Samba,” like more than a few of McIntyre’s works, comes from the school of too many steps. With plenty for the dancers to do, lifts, balances, complicated jumps and footwork rush past in a sometime flurry that the samba – cool, calm, undulating hips – gets lost. A samba should feel like a walk on the beach – languid, feet sinking into sand, hips shifting softly, giving into the rhythm sexily with each step.

“La Ofrenda,” an evocation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which celebrates folkloric traditions of honoring dead spirits, closed the evening returning to the skirt shaking, hand-clapping, hip-jutting school of imitative Latin dance. Choreographed by Taiwanese-born Edwaard Liang, the work looks like it used a video cabinet full of “Don Quixote” and “Carmen” DVDs as fodder. Torres once more played a central role, and the company joined as interchangeable spirits, roused to drink, clap, stomp feet, imitate a bull fight and the like. Paired with tiny Onuki, Torres made it easily look like he was dancing with a spirit wisp as he wound her around his body, held her aloft weightless before allowing gravity to take hold and pull her back to solid ground. Again, Torres seemed caught in a memory dance – this time one sometimes wild but always passionate – with spirits, while a village of crafty and boisterous souls let loose for him to tangle with. Decorating the somber stage were Spanish artist Cristobal Gabarron’s white skull-like mask cutouts, lending sometimes sinister, sometimes comic effect to the work.

The evening’s most vital performance came at intermission. Famed Colombian singer Toto la Momposina was joined by her cumbia band, Sus Tambores. They rose out of the orchestra pit with a wild jangle of rhythms, she gorgeous in yards of colorful cloth and a head wrap, brightening the evening with multilayers of syncopated rhythms and her deep-throated vocals. It was enough to make you stand up and get your hips shifting, pumping, swaying to the beat – something ballet doesn’t do nearly as well.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the quarterly magazine Ballet Review and is republished with kind permission. To subscribe, send a check for $27 to: Ballet Review, 37 West 12th St. #7J, New York, NY 10011.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger
Published August 31, 2012