D.C. DanceWatcher

The Winter’s Tale: Warm Production for a Cold Winter’s Night

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on January 23, 2016

National Ballet of Canada
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Joby Talbot
Set and Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Silk Effects: Basil Twist
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Projection Design: Daniel Brodie
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
January 19-23, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has taken a challenging late Shakespearean play — The Winter’s Tale from 1623 — and revitalized it into a mostly exquisite 21st-century ballet that breathes soul and spirit into an often cobwebby work. The National Ballet of Canada’s co-production with the Royal Ballet includes staging that draws on a rich collaborative palette of design and musical elements that update what is often called one of the Bard’s “problem plays” for its structural flaws and its hard-to-come-to-terms-with ending.

wheeldon1-460x325

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada

Trained at London’s Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon danced with New York City Ballet for seven years before becoming the company’s first artist in residence where he began to try his hand at choreography. His early works were, not surprisingly, Balanchinean — driven by line and technique rather than story and emotion — but he soon began to discover his singular voice. He expanded his style and choreographic reach by working on operas at the Metropolitan Opera; choreographing in Hollywood on the popular ballet movie Center Stage (2000) and on Broadway, where his direction and dances for An American in Paris can still be seen nightly at The Palace Theatre. That work also earned him a coveted Tony Award for best choreography.

Over the years, Wheeldon has developed his skill at storytelling in a pure dance environment, resulting in successful evening-length works like without his 2011 production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland— seen at The Kennedy Center in 2013 — featured the same creative team and the collaboration here is just as fortuitous.

The story centers on jealousy and, more problematically, redemption. King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia renew their childhood friendship during what amounts to a nine-month state visit to the Italian court. Leontes suspects his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery with his friend and in a fit or rages imprisons his wife, causing his young son Mamillius to break down. After giving birth, Leontes rejects Hermione’s baby, who is abandoned in a basket in a distant city state. The baby is found and raised by a peasant shepherd. Act II features a grown Perdita, that abandoned baby, who is courted by Polixenes’s son Florizel (of course) disguised as a shepherd. When the truth comes out, Florizel and Perdita, the young lovers, flee by ship to Sicilia. There eventually true identities get revealed and a wedding takes place. But Shakespeare in this darker romance, hasn’t finished. A stature of Hermione comes to life as Leontes prostrates himself before her image. Hidden for 16 years after her imprisonment, she and her king reunite is a dance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Choreographically Wheeldon is an equal opportunity borrower and he also has great taste in what he collects for his own choreographic toolkit. While it’s a ballet, the movement language is far from pure ballet technique. The choreographer culled from a multiplicity of dance styles, genres and techniques. We see elements of contemporary and 20th-century American ballet in the angular and geometric details that embellish duets — flexed feet, turned in knees – suggestions of Balanchine. The wide ranging emotional stoicism channels Antony Tudor’s dark female-centric works.

The enervated torso and the dichotomous pelvis-centered pull hint at Martha Graham. Other sections feature a loose-limbed swingy-ness and humanistic corpus of dance recalling Jose Limon and especially some vivid and high strung passages of men dancing channel Paul Taylor. And that’s all before the second act, where a Wheeldonian utopia fuses a jumble of world dances into some new post-modernist expression of an imagined nation state where the steps and rhythms hint at an Irish jig or a Hungarian czardas or a Russian kazatsky, all accompanied by an onstage six-piece folk ensemble playing wood flute, African drums, guitar, accordion and a dulcimer-like instrument.

Wheeldon is a whip-smart style thief who usurps movement ideas that intrigue him and reinvents them into something completely fresh and untarnished. Watching his choreography unspool over the three act ballet, elicits little sighs, nods of recognition, wonderments and surprises. His pas de deux — particularly his act one explicatory one featuring Leontes and a pregnant Hermione (Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer on opening night) — are exquisite. The lifts come from a natural — or at least natural appearing — place. The dancers intertwine and unspool in whirling, curving arcs of continual movement that doesn’t feel forced or precious and emits feelings of ardent connection.

The fastidious attention to the detail in the storytelling relies not on 19th century mime techniques but on ordinary conversational gestures that demonstrate how mightily body language, posture and a few well-placed gestures can convey complex ideas and emotions. This is where Wheeldon is best: illuminating a knotty, ancient tale and breathing new life into it for the 21st century.

Joining him in this retelling and updating of The Winter’s Tale is Joby Talbot’s rich and varied score, drawing on orchestral harmonies perfect for the most balletic passages, but also capturing syncopated rhythms of music from a wide swath of locales and cultures that, in blending and fusing cross-cultural sounds, feels both like an ancient discovery from a yet to be uncovered new tribe but sounds absolutely modern. Video projections, by Daniel Brodie often onto expansive swaths of silk draped and designed by puppeteer Basil Twist, allow for far more vivid scenic and location changes. These are enhanced by the gorgeous set and costume designs, which like the music and choreography, pick and choose from a rich amalgamation of cultures and regions. Vests and breeches, demure dresses for the corps de ballet and more severe ones that suggest Martha Graham’s torso hugging designs, allow for clear and precise display of the physical and emotional core of the movement.

The Winter’s Tale only wavers in relying on that problematic — and unsatisfying — ending. The final section, with a revived Hermione and Leontes dancing a reconciliation pas de deux is hard to swallow, until one acknowledges that this world – Shakespeare’s and Wheeldon’s — remains male centric and male dominated, and as in most ballet and literature, the forgiveness and acceptance that rights a toppled universe comes from the woman.

The dancing by the cast, particularly leads Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer, is unabashedly fine. The Canadians fling themselves wholeheartedly into Wheeldon’s — and Shakespeare’s — worlds, making this Winter’s Tale one that inspires warm feelings on a cold winter’s night.

Alas, due to the blizzard of 2016, all performances this weekend at The Kennedy Center have been cancelled.

© 2016 Lisa Traiger
This review originally appeared on DCMetroTheaterArts.com.

 

2015: A Look Back

For reasons that continue to surprise me, 2015 was a relatively light dance-going year for me. That said, I managed to take in nearly a top ten of memorable, exceptional or challenging performances over the past 12 months.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on its annual February Kennedy Center Opera House visit, brought a program of politically relevant works that culminated, as always, in the inspirational paean to the African-American experience, “Revelations.” Up first, though, was the restless “Uprising,” an athletic men’s piece that draws out the animalistic instincts of its performers. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, drawing influence from his experiences with the famed Batsheva Dance Company and its powerhouse director Ohad Naharin, found the disturbing core in his 40-minute buildup.  As these men, in street garb – t-shirts and hoodies – walk ape-like, loose-armed and low to the ground, their athletic sparring, hand-to-hand combat, full-force runs and dives into the floor, ultimately coalesce in a menacing mélange. Is it protest or riot? Hard to tell, but the final king-of-the-hill image — one red-shirt-clad man reaching the apex of a clump of bodies his first raised — could be in solidarity or protest. And, in a season awash in domestic and international unrest, “Uprising,” with its massive large group movement, built into a cri de coeur akin to what happened on streets the world over in 2015.

wash ballet-sleepyhollowThe Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre has been delving into American literary classics and on the heels of his successes with both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in February his fearless chamber-sized troupe unveiled his latest: a full-length Sleepy Hollow, based, of course, on the ghostly literary legend by Washington Irving. But more than just a haunted night of ballet, Webre’s Sleepy Hollow delved into America’s early Puritan history, with a Reverend Cotton Mather character and a scene featuring witches drawn from elements of the Salem witch trials, expanding the historical and literary context of the work. This new dramatization in ballet, featuring a rich score by Matthew Pierce; well-used video projections by Clint Allen; and scenery by Hugh Landwehr; focuses on the tale of an outsider, Ichabod Crane – a common American literary trope. Choreographically Webre has smartly drawn not only on the expected classical ballet vocabulary, but he also tapped American folk dances and early and mid-20th century modern dance influences to expand the dancers’ roles for greater expressivity and storytelling. Guest principal Xiomara Reyes played the lovely love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, partnered by Jonathan Jordan. It’s hard to say whether this one will become a classic, but Webre’s smartly and carefully drawn characterizations and multi-generational arc in his approach to the Irving’s story expanded the options for contemporary story ballets.

Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company founded  by choreographer Andrea Miller, made its D.C. debut at the Lansburgh Theatre in April. Miller danced with Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Israel’s most significant dance troupe, and she brings those influences drawn from the unique methodology Naharin created. Called “gaga,” this dance language frees dancers and other movers to tap both their physical pleasure and their highest levels of experimentation. In “Blush,” this pleasure and experimentation played out with Miller’s three women and three men who dive head first into loosely constructed vignettes with elegant vengeance. With a primal sense of attack as they face off on the stage taped out like a boxing ring. Miller’s title “Blush” suggests the physiological change in a person’s body, their skin tone and during the course of “Blush,” transformations occur as the dancers, painted in Kabuki-like white rice powder, begin to reveal their actual skin tones – their blush. In so doing, they become metaphors for shedding a protective outer layer to reveal their inner selves.

copeland mackThe Washington Ballet continued its terrific season with the company’s much ballyhooed production of Swan Lake, at the smaller Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in April. It garnered international attention for Webre’s casting: ballet “It” girl Misty Copeland, partnered by steadfast senior company dancer Brooklyn Mack, became purportedly the first African American duo in a major American ballet company to dance the timeless roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, respectively. But that’s not what made this Swan Lake so memorable, and mostly satisfying. Instead, credit goes to former American Ballet Theatre principal Kirk Peterson, responsible for the indelible staging and choreography, following after, of course, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He drew exceptional performances from this typically less than classical chamber-sized troupe. The corps de ballet, supplemented by senior students and apprentices, really danced like a classical company. As well, Peterson, who has become an expert in resuscitating classics, returned little-seen mime passages to the stage,  bringing back the inherent drama in this apex of story ballets. My favorite is the hardly seen (at least in the U.S.) passage when Odette, on meeting Siegfried in the forest in act II, tells him the story of her mother, evil Von Rothbart’s curse and the lake, filled with her mother’s tears, as she gestures in a horizontal sweep to the watery backdrop and brings her forefingers to her eyes indicating dropping tears. Live music was provided by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra and made all the difference for the dancers, even though the company’s small size meant the act III international character variations were cut. While the hype focused on the Copeland debut, she didn’t own or carry the ballet, and here Mack was a solid, but not entirely warm Siegfried. This Swan Lake truly soared truly through the corps, supporting roles and staging.

June brought the Polish National Ballet, directed by Krzysztof Pastor, to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in lovely evening of contemporary European works. The small company – 11 women and a dozen men – are luscious and intelligent dancers who can captivate in works that push beyond staid classical technique. Pastor’s program opener, “Adagio & Scherzo,” featuring Schubert’s lyricism, twists, winds, and unfurls in pretty moments. There is darkness and light, both in the choreography and in designer Maciej Igielski’s illumination, which matches the shifting moodiness of the score. Pastor’s movement language is elegant, but not constrained, his dancers breathe and stretch, draw together and nuzzle in more ruminative moments, then split apart. In his closer “Moving Rooms” we first meet the dancers arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a black stage, each dancer contained in an single box of light. Using the sometimes nervously itchy score by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, the dancers, clad in flesh colored leotards, used their legs and arms in sharp-edged angles and geometries. But the centerpiece of the evening was a new “Rite of Spring” – yes, to that Mt. Everest of scores by Igor Stravinsky – this one is choreographed by French-Israeli Emanuel Gat. Danced on a red carpet, the five dancers ease into a counterintuitive tango of changing partners, always leaving one dancer as the odd one out. The smooth and slightly sensuous salsa is the basis for the work’s movement sinuous vocabulary, as it quietly builds like a slowly simmering pot put to boil.

HUANGYI_lightened-593x396Man and machine – or in this case – dancer and computerized robot – meet in Taiwanese-born choreographer and dancer Huang Yi’s 50-minute work. The evening presented in The Clarice’s Kogod Theater, its black box at the University of Maryland in September, provided a merging of art and technology. KUKA, the German-made robot, used in factories around the world to insert parts that build autos and iPads, has become a companion and artistic partner for Yi. Performing to a lushly classical score of selections from Bach and Mozart, Yi, clad in a dark suit, dances with, beside and around the singular movable robot arm sprouting from KUKA’s bright orange base. There are moments of serendipity, when the two seem to be communing in a duet of machine and motion, and others, in the dimly lit work, when each strays off on a tangent – robot and human, may move side by side, or even together, but only one inhabits a spiritual profound space of flesh, blood and breathe. That was my take away from this intriguing experiment in technology and dance. Yi is at the forefront of merging art with new technology and his experimentation – he programmed the robot – is on the cutting edge, but the work doesn’t cut to the quick. Still, orange steel and computer chips don’t trump muscle, bone, flesh and spirit. I would like to see more of Yi’s slippery, easy silken movement, in better light and with living breathing partners.

camille brown 0Camille Brown went deep in mining her childhood experiences in Black Girl: Linguistic Play, presented by The Clarice in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre in October. The evening-length work draws on Brown’s and her dancers’ playground experiences, first as young girls playing hopscotch, double dutch jump rope and sing-songy hand clapping games. On a set of platforms, chalk boards that the dancers color on and hanging angled mirrors designed by Elizabeth Nelson, Brown and her five women dancers inhabit their younger selves, in knee socks, overall shorts, and all the gum-chewing gumption and fearlessness that seven, eight- and nine-year-olds own when they’re comfortable in their skin. As the piece, featuring a live score of original compositions and curated songs played by pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Tracy Wormworth hit all the right notes as the performers matured and grew before our eyes from nursery rhyming girls chanting “Miss Mary Mack” to hesitant pre-adolescents, fidgeting and fighting mean-girl battles, to teens on the cusp of womanhood – and uncertainty. The work is a vibrant and vivid rendering of the secret lives of the little seen and less heard lives of black girls. The movement is pure play, physical, elemental, skips and hops, the stuff of recess and lazy summer days, but there are moments of deep recognition, particularly one where an older sister or mother figure gently, carefully, lovingly plaits the hair of  one of the girls. Its quiet intimacy, too, speaks volumes.

The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – multi-talented performers who can finesse a quick footed petit allegro or execute a jazzy kick-ball-change and slide sequence or bop and rock in bits of freestyle improvisation with equal skill. For the two Tharp did not revive earlier masterpieces, instead she paid a sort of homage to her elf with a pair of new works – “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” Each had elements of hat smart synchronicity that Tharp favors, her beloved little balletic passages that she came to embrace after years of more severe post modernism, and her larky, goofy wiggles, scrunches, and witty physical jokes, like pairing the “tall” girl with the shortest guy in the company, or little games of tag or chase and odd-one-out that are interspersed in both works. “Preludes and Fugues” was preceded by “First Fanfare,” featuring a herald of trumpets composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet society). The two works, one a bit of appetizer, the other the first course, bled into each other and recalled influences of Tharp’s earlier beloved choreography, especially the indelible ballroom sequences and catches of “Sinatra Suite.” “Preludes and Fugues” is as staunch piece set to Bach fugues that Tharp dissects choreographically with precise footwork, intermingling couples, groups and soloists and her eye for the “everything counts” ethos of post-modernism where ballet and jazz, loose-limbed modern and a circle of folk like chains all blend into a whole.

“Yowzie” is brighter, more carefree, recalling the unbridled energy of a New Orleans Second Line with its score of American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto the dancers grin and mug through this more light-hearted romp featuring lots of Twyla-esque loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hijinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the highly calibrated lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like Mardi Gras. In the end though, both works are Twyla playing and paying homage to Twyla – they’re both solid, smart and well-crafted. They’re not keepers, though, in the way “In the Upper Room,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove” were earlier in her career.

Samita-atlas-ektaaraSamita Sinha’s bewilderment and other queer lions is not exactly dance or theater, but there’s plenty of movement and mystery and beauty in her hour-long work, which American Dance Institute in Rockville presented in early December. In a year of no Nutcrackers for this dance watcher, this was a terrific antidote to the crushing commercialization of all things seasonal during winter holidays. Sinha, a composer and vocal artist, draws on her roots in North Indian classical music as well as other folk, ritual and classical music traditions. Together with lighting, electronic scoring, a collection of props and objets (visual design is by Dani Leventhal), she has woven together a world inhabited by creative forces and energies from across genres and encompassing the four corners of the aural world. Ain Gordon directed the piece, which sometimes featured text, sometimes just vocalizing, sometimes movement as Sinha and her compatriots on stage Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray trade places, come together to play on or work with a prop, like a fake fur vest or scattered collected chairs and percussive instruments. There were eerie keenings, and deep rumbles, higher pitched vocalizations, cries, exhales, sighs, electric guitar and steel objects banged together, all in the purpose of building a world of pure and unclichéd  vocal resonance. It would be too easy to compare her to Meredith Monk and Sinha is far less artistically self-conscious and precious. She is most definitely an artist to follow. Her vision and talent, keen eye and gracious presence speak – and sing – volumes.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

Published December 31, 2015

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

 

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 ogling at 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, his 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 Washington, D.C., 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 multiple sensuous, stylized pas de deux for 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. 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 hyper-kinetic, 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 D.C.’s 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