D.C. DanceWatcher

Spice and Spitfire

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 12, 2017

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Choreography by Alvin Ailey, Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle, Mauro Bigonzetti,  Johan Inger, Christopher Wheeldon, Billy Wilson
February 7 & 8, 2017
The Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger
ailey-revelationsThe Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is looking as strong and beautiful as ever in its annual February visit to The Kennedy Center Opera House. Now in his sixth year as artistic director of the company Alvin Ailey founded in 1958 with the goal of creating a multiethnic modern repertory company, Robert Battle is leaving his imprint. The legendary dancers, including a new younger crop who can tackle both the old school traditional works and contemporary pieces that push them to varying expressive and physical limits, look well honed and perform with amazing strength, flexibility and precision. They can tackle the loose-limbed release technique, balletic pas de deux and conceptual expressionist work. Battle has brought in new repertory including pieces from international choreographers that challenge the dancers and take the company to new realms.

Tuesday evening’s opening night program included as much glitz and glamour in the audience as it did on stage. The 18th annual gala for the company brought out a few big names in business and politics and a theater filled with Ailey lovers who collectively raised more than $1 million for the company’s programs. But it was the dancing that shone brightest.

While the company is beloved for Ailey’s works, including the incomparable program closer “Revelations,” it was and remains foremost a repertory company, bringing in works by American and international choreographers. The opener, the late Billy Wilson’s “The Winter in Lisbon,” sparkled in a new production of the choreographer’s 1992 work, here restaged by longtime Ailey associate and assistant artistic director Masazumi Chaya. With Barbara Forbes’ intensely jewel-toned costumes — emerald, amethyst, burgundy and deep orchid dresses, with matching shoes and tights for the women and neat slacks and shirts for the men — the piece showcased the easy going jazz style beloved by Wilson and Ailey. Set to composition by Dizzy Gillespie and jazzman and founder of the D.C. Jazz Festival Charles Fishman, “Winter” was at turns sultry and slinky, snazzy and cool, and all-around lowdown and hot. Dancers slid and rolled through easy going pirouettes, fan kicks, and hip thrusting turns. Men lifted women into soaring split leaps, tucking into smooth spirals on the next beat. Both sexy and fun, it showed off easy virtuosity.

ailey_walking_mad_8New to the company and to the Kennedy Center, Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” proved both amusing and vaguely inscrutable. Originally created in 2001, but brought into the Ailey rep last year, the piece featured an eight-foot-high wooden wall that became integral to the dance for it could be opened, flattened, pushed into right angles, climbed on, leaned and pushed against and manipulated for varying effects. The dancers clad in nondescript grays and drab dresses on the women, they variously donned trench coats and bowlers or pointy party hats to add a spark of character, color and silliness as Ravel’s “Bolero” built up its stormy froth. Game-like tricks of hide-and seek between opened and closed doorways and one end and the other of this wall provided the light-hearted silliness, and tempered the unfortunate political connotations that talk of a wall brings these days. Inger’s movement vocabulary draws from an improvisational smorgasbord that looks to be influenced by Israeli dance master Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. All loose limbs, extreme moments of attack, pedestrian strolls, unsettling tremors and bold highly physical body slams against walls and other dancers make up Inger’s palette. An alum of Nederlands Dans Theater, which includes Naharin’s choreography in its repertory, the similarities are unsurprising.

Robert Battle’s small, but not inconsequential “Ella,” a tribute and call out to the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is full of personality, spice and spitfire. A tightly packed duet it takes on Fitzgerald’s incomparable scatting (“Airmail Special”) with verve and impeccable timing by dancers Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel. Wednesday night, a second duet, from contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, showcased the more balletic side of the Ailey aesthetic. The pas de deux from “After the Rain” features an emotional arc as the choreography builds, the dancers, gorgeous Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, entwining and spiraling, stretching to their utmost and retreating to sensuous moments laying on the floor.

ailey-bignozettiWednesday evening’s program featured another new to the Kennedy Center work, Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” which proved a stunning showcase for the Ailey dancers’ contemporary skills and their multi-lingual dance languages. A dark work, with dancers clad in black on a shadowy stage demarcated by boxes or cubes of light, the choreography fashions the dancers into clumps and pairs executing variations on contorted and broken body positions, emphasizing flexed arms, bent elbows and knees and sharp contrasting torsions of pairs and groups. Contrasting the angularity are curving and undulating or rolling hips and torsos drawing from street moves and hip hop. Hand gestures, too, suggest another cultural construct — perhaps Indian hastas — sign language. The score, club-influenced music by Ibeyi, a pair of twin sisters with French Cuban cultural and musical roots, propels the dancers along showcasing their virtuosity and taut unison. But, “Deep,” with all its cross- or multi-cultural borrowings of movement and music, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s lovely to watch but shallow in its message.

aileyamericandancetheaterinkyleabrahamsuntitledamerica-photobypaulkolnik_a6df169e-ffea-4b6f-b8d4-210516dd0ba4-prvAlso new to Washington, Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” a section of his full-evening triptych, left a sobering pall. Drawing on interviews with incarcerated citizens and their family members — which we hear in voiceovers along with a score featuring Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai, Kris Bowers and traditional spirituals, the piece dealt plainly with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Dressed in nondescript gray pants and open tops that from the back could resemble prison jumpsuits, the dancers execute choreographer Abraham’s pain-evoking gestures: hands held aloft in a “don’t shoot” posture, or clasped behind the back as if handcuffed or behind the head for a body search. The half-lit, smoke-filled stage with sharply delineated boxes of light felt oppressive and the dancers, lined up and filed on and off the stage into darkness, like a chain gang. Abraham’s movement is loosely constructed but hard edged, the oppositional attack contrasting the few moments of connection. The work leaves the dancers in their singular isolating bubbles, as voiceovers speak of the loneliness and disconnection of prison life. The hard faces and clenched fists speak powerfully about where Abraham’s America is now.

ailey-revel-christopher-duggan_135That pall lifted as the lights lowered and the hum of a gospel chorus took everyone to Ailey church. His “Revelations,” the 1960 masterwork that closes virtually every program the company dances, has become an expectation for audiences who seek spiritual succor and uplift the indelible choreography. With its traditional gospel score, its journey from slavery to religious renewal to freedom it’s iconic. At the first hummed strains “I Been ‘Buked,” applause takes over. With each emblematic moment — dancers curved over their birdlike arms punctuating the air, the internal struggle made visible through staunch abdominal movements in “I Wanna Be Ready,” the smooth hip rolling walks of “Wade in the Water” — the applause builds. These moments have become iconic, seared into memory by Ailey fans and appreciated for embodied legacy they carry: the choreography itself renders the story of African Americans in vivid wordless moments. At last, a bright, hot sun shimmers on the back scrim and the church-like revival reaches its peak with “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” The women wave their straw fans, the men pulse their shoulders and take their loving scolds with equanimity. “Revelations” has become the most-performed, and likely beloved, modern dance in the world. For the company it represents past, present and future, returning young dancers to the root of the company’s ethos and bringing audiences a spiritual charge that will sustain them until next year.

This season the company included area natives Elisa Clark, who trained at Maryland Youth Ballet; Ghrai Devore; Samantha Figgins who trained at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Jacqueline Green who danced at Baltimore School for the Arts; Daniel Harder who studied at Suitland High School’s Center for Visual and Performing Arts; and Jermaine Terry.

Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” Matthew Rushing and Dwanna Smallwood, photo by Andrew Eccles
Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” Jamar Roberts, Jacquelin Harris, and Glenn Allen Sims, photo by Paul Kolnik
Mauro Bignozetti’s “Deep,” choreography Mauro Bignozetti, photo by Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” photo by Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” photo by Christopher Duggan

 

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

 

Going Out With a Bang

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

The Washington Ballet’s Carmina Burana and Bowie & Queen

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

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

Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

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

The_Washington_Ballet_Carmina_Burana_Jonathan_Jordan__Andile_Ndlovu__and_Miguel_Anaya_ticketsOver its nearly two decades, it was a fortuitous match, Webre and The Washington Ballet. During his tenure he took a fine, but somewhat sleepy and staid company, founded by D.C.’s grand dame of ballet Mary Day, and transformed the troupe into one of the city’s hottest tickets. He modernized the company with daring choreographic choices, challenging his young dancers with major classics from Giselle to a world-renowned Swan Lake, neoclassic masterworks from George Balanchine, and the best from contemporary choreographers, including the likes of Mark Morris, William Forsythe, and Twyla Tharp. He also introduced rising fresh choreographic voices, among them the two dancemakers on the Bowie & Queen program: Edwaard Liang, now artistic director of BalletMet Columbus (Ohio), and Trey McIntyre. Webre also contributed his own works to his oft spectacle driven mix, revamping a tired Nutcracker, reimagining Alice (in Wonderland), and reinventing American literary classics as full-length ballets — The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow. Finally, and not often commented on, Webre reshaped the company with a cadre of dancers from around the world, integrating what was essentially an all-white troupe with dancers of color from Asia, South America, and Africa and homegrown Americans of all races.

To close out his time in D.C., last month Webre revived his opulent and bawdy Carmina Burana, which had its premiere a decade ago and wowed audiences then with stunning showmanship, musicality, design and, of course, dancing. With the Cathedral Choral Society, directed by J. Reilly Lewis, Arlington Children’s Chorus, exceptional soprano soloist Melissa Wimbish, tenor Timothy Augustin and baritone Stephen Combs joining the dancers onstage it was a multidisciplinary piece in the grand tradition of another great impresario, the Ballets Russes’ Sergei Diaghilev. Add in the crafty stage design by Regan Kimmel that puts the chorus on three-levels of scaffolding framing the stage, sexy and hot black costumes by Liz Vandal, and lusty, juicy choreography that channels the lush abandon of the oft-played Carl Orff score and the result is an undeniable high. Orff’s composition set a series of medieval German monk’s drinking songs into an expansive musical statement that demands big and lavish production numbers. (Think roller-coaster commercials.)

And Webre complied, managing to hit all those highs and dips with abandon, wit, and whimsy. His dancers threw themselves into heavy duty unison sections, then turned playful in some fun numbers, especially for his buff men manipulating chairs then brooms to sweep clean sweep tossed confetti. There’s an oversized queen, carted around on a rolling scaffold, who baldly reveals her backside and her comeuppance. The duets are filled with ardor and Webre here has not over choreographed the most intimate pas de deux, making it a loving and lovely expression of romantic and sensual connection. With nothing small nor understated about this revival of Carmina Burana, grandiose and gigantic are fitting descriptions for his enchanting ballet with its life-giving feverish forces. Accompanied by a solid version of Balanchine’s stately Theme and Variations, it was a wonderful way to begin the long farewell to Webre.

****

The Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen_Jonathan Jordan by media4artists, Theo KossenasThe final goodbye came last week and this week with that double-header titled Bowie & Queen. I’ve long challenged the efficacy of using rock and roll in ballet primarily because I haven’t seen a successful rock ballet yet. Ballet is about technical proficiency of the body, about balance, equilibrium, line — essentially geometry of the body in motion. Rock and roll is about abandon, freedom, rebellion and unbridled physicality. To me the two forms often seem mutually exclusive.

Choreographer and former New York City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang’s Dancing in the Street provided the Bowie half of the program. But this isn’t the flamboyant, high-energy kinetic Bowie with his sexy pout and his indeterminate sexuality. In fact, only two musical selections — Good Morning Girl and I’m Not Losing Sleep are performed by Bowie in the work (alas on the Eisenhower’s muddy sounding speaker system). Much of the music was composed by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, who drew on Bowie for inspiration, but it wasn’t his actual music that inspired the composition for piano, violin, cello and percussion, which was played by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra.

It was the introspective, artistic Bowie who spoke in interviews that Smith listened to for inspiration. The music is lovely, richly toned, evocative and emotive. Liang’s choreography, alas, is mostly run-of-the-mill. Featuring an agreeable Tamas Krizsa, clad in white jeans and a t-shirt, as the featured dancer, the ballet begins under a street lamp. Later phalanxes of dancers, clad in brightly colored dresses for the women, slacks and t-shirts for the men, whipped out turns, lifts and balletically inspired allegro, fast-paced footwork. “Dancing” is structured like a classical ballet with an opening movement, variations with four couples, additional theme and variations, a slow movement and pas de deux with the gorgeous Sona Kharatian partnered by Krizsa before the ballet comes full circle. Nothing about it feels free or rebellious or makes me want to rock out and dance, alas.

My rule of thumb about the problems of mixing rock and ballet was disproved by choreographer Trey McIntyre, a Webre favorite whose works have graced the company’s repertory for more than a decade now. “Mercury Half-Life” premiered on McIntyre’s own now-defunct troupe, Trey McIntyre Project, in 2013. This production looks terrific — hard driving, uninhibited, and mostly smartly capturing the operatic and vaudevillian tropes of Mercury’s iconic and ironic music for Queen. Here, the musical selections comprise a best-of album, from two versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Bicycle Race” to “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Are the Champions” and (my high-school’s unofficial anthem) “We Will Rock You.”

Wearing Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s chic white shorts or miniskirts and jackets, with white ballet slippers and knee socks, the dancers look like tennis-playing high schoolers — clean, bright, artificially bored. McIntyre puts ten dancers through their paces, playing both with and against the music, allowing for the unexpected, the quirky and the simply surprising results as dancers skip, slide, run, leap and freeze at varying moments. “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” has old fashioned vaudevillian influences and quick-footed Daniel Roberge throws down a finely executed tap number. Later he is joined by a bevy of women, backing him up with Broadwayesque grapevine steps and toe taps. That melds into some heavy hitting choreography that relies on ever evolving formations of dancers, who rarely mimic the music, instead that play against it or expand it. The structure is loose, casual, driven by the musical choices that McIntyre blended together in a free-form manner.

There are sections with unchecked solos where dancers literally do the impossible, with leaps, dives, one-armed hand-stands, and mid-air catches of horizontally prone dancers who seem momentarily frozen before thrusting forward head first. There’s both a toughness and a playfulness in the way the dancers attack or hurl themselves in McIntyre’s choreography. He captures the essence of Mercury and the grandiosity of the Queen musical catalog.

The Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen by media4artists, Theo Kossenas.There’s no restraint here, no held torsos or loving epaulment of the shoulders and arms. While the choreography favors plenty of specific phrases with complex arms and non-stop footwork, there’s hardly a fussy arabesque or perfectly held pirouette in sight, which is exactly what this ballet needs. It’s rock and roll, which demands more off-kilter, off-balance, unrestrained attack. The Washington Ballet’s ten dancers — Kateryna Derechnyna, Nicole Graniero, Jonathan Jordan, Sona Kharatian, Tamas Krizsa, Brooklyn Mack, Tamako Miyazaki, Andile Ndlovu, Maki Onuki, and Daniel Roberge — are like great rockers, they leave it all on the stage.

And Webre? It will be hard not to miss him and his contributions to making hometown ballet exciting and glamorous. He rocked it to the end.

 

Photos courtesy The Washington Ballet:Carmina Burana, Andile Ndlovu, Jonathan Jordan and Migual Anaya
Bowie & Queen, Jonathan Jordan in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas
Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas

This review was first published May 6, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

Ballet Elevated

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

 

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

Earlier this month, the dance world rumbled a bit upon learning of the resignation of The Washington Ballet’s high-energy, effervescent Artistic Director Septime Webre. Since his arrival in Washington, D.C., 17 years ago, he has transformed a staid and none-too-risky modest troupe into a powerhouse, with a stable of excellent dancers and a wide-ranging repertory that has introduced new rising choreographic voices, while still featuring  standards in the ballet canon. Webre, too, brought both story and more than a touch of glamour and show business to the city’s homegrown ballet company, with his own spectacle-infused evening-length works, like his trippy Alice (in Wonderland), his jazz- infused The Great Gatsby, and the sexy hauntings of Sleepy Hollow. And last year he conquered ballet’s Mt. Everest, presenting a highly praised and internationally covered Swan Lake, which featured one of the first African-American Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried pairings, with the casting of ballet phenomenon Misty Copeland and leading Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack.

This season’s programming has been less flashy and more retrospective, so, if ballet watchers had read the signs, Webre’s departure was already on the horizon. As part of his final season as artistic director, this week his “Director’s Cut” features two of his choreographic favorites — half-Belgian, half-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has crafted a few works on the company in recent years; and William Forsythe, the high priest of sorts of ramped up neoclassical ballet. And, of course, the program featured one of Webre’s more challenging abstract ballets, his State of Wonder, set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with both a live on stage pianist and a live harpsichordist accompanying the choreography.

As always, Webre bounded on stage for his pre-show curtain speech, chic in his slim black jeans, if not as boyish as he was nearly two decades ago in his first season following company founder and grande dame Mary Day’s retirement.

The program opener, Lopez Ochoa’s PRISM, had its world premiere on the company two years ago. Taken by the well-known and beloved Koln Concert by jazz great Keith Jarrett, the choreographer parsed his 28-minute improvised piano improvisation, which is variously sunny and tinkling with lively piano musings and then somber and moody, honing in on more shadowy, cooler shadings.

Since the musical piece was recorded live in 1975, while Jarrett was on tour and his piano didn’t arrive, he instead decided to improvise beginning with the four notes from the theater’s lobby that notified patrons the show was about to begin. We hear in that historic aural snapshot the pianist’s own vocal exclamations, at first almost jarring, then simply sweetly human. Lopez Ochoa found inspiration in this musical contrast and Jarrett’s virtuosity tinged with a lively humanness. Her choreography swirls, winding and unwinding, changing tone and color — even the costumes evolve from severe black turtle necks, biker shorts and black socks for the men and jewel-toned high/low dresses for the women, to black and sheer leotards with gloves and spidery designs. The smoothly easygoing nature early in the piece, following a rather severe, but eye-catching opener featuring a trio of athletic men, shifts into more splayed, edgy motifs — elbows and knees emphasized rather than straightened, fingers splayed. Lopez Ochoa interrupts this tensile and jaggy choreographic landscape with static poses: the group of dancers clumped, a leg or arm shooting out of the mostly grounded formation. And then, the work shifts mood again, the dancers circle and become a community in retreat, swaying, stooped, backs to the audience.

Webre’s State of Wonder premiered on the company a decade ago, and its return is welcome. Set to Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations, the work highlights the infinite possibilities Bach explored in his own thematic variations. The 30 short pieces, purportedly commissioned by Count Kaiserling to help sooth his insomnia, may have been played by a Goldberg, a 14-year-old pianist. For the ballet, pianist Ryo Yanagitani plays much of the work on a movable white platform, and he is later joined by harpsichordist Todd Fickley, on a second wheeling platform, which the dancers maneuver around the stage. There’s much to like in the brief choreographic variations threaded together by the 30 short piano pieces. Webre plays with couples, groupings and a few lovely solos. What stands out are the broad and sweeping variations for men, both solos and groups. There’s a Paul Taylor-esque sense of attack imbued in some of the space engulfing leaps and runs and the athletic allusions – at one point six men look like hunky lifeguards posing on a sunny beach, then two are lifted prone and “surfed” off stage.

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

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

Another section features some high-kicking and karate-like punches, as if Webre channeled Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid for his quartet of men. Liz Vandal’s costumes also feature jeweled tones. At some points the men are bare-chested, while the women wear swingy lycra-like dresses. One section clads the men in modified 18th century skirts, while the women wear modern-looking cutaway topcoats — a subtle gender switch. While State of Wonder is not one of Webre’s flashiest works, it offers fine ensemble dancing with careful attention to beautiful musicality from the company members.

The first time I saw American-born choreographer William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, featuring a crashing, booming, scratching techno score by Thom Willems, I was blown away by the boldness, the bored audacity, and piercing stares of the dancers, not to mention the steely attack of the Frankfurt Ballet — once Forsythe’s company. It was the late 1980s or early ’90s. Contemporary ballet was in a state of evolution. Many American ballet companies still considered Balanchine’s neoclassical leotard ballets cutting edge, even as his many ballets became modern repertory classics.

In the Middle … begins with a bang, literally. An electronic, cymbal-like crash and bam startles as harsh, fluorescent-like lights etch the dancers in a relentless eerie glow. Clad in green leotards and bare legs, two women glare out into the darkness of the audience. As dancers enter and exit, arms and legs pierce and slash the space. Forsythe deconstructs the primacy of the stage — pushing choreographed moments to the sides as dancers are half-hidden by the curtain, or they turn their backs on the audience, as if we matter not at all in this futuristic universe.

Hanging about halfway above the dance space are a pair of golden cherries (though they look like apples to me), ironically alluding to the title — In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The work is a literal and mental workout — the women’s pirouettes spin around like whirring drills driving into the floor. They unfurl their legs in ear-grazing splices, their torsos teetering off kilter, but perfectly posed. The men leap and topple off balance, bold and bloodless in their hard, edgy conquests of the bare, black stage.

Nothing loose or easy-going happens here. The entire work is attacked as if the dancers are teetering on the edge of a precipice, with a sense of both abandon and accuracy — one wrong move and the whole thing could tumble into nothingness. The work demands unparalleled muscularity and a sense of urgency that celebrates a harsh pent up energy bursting force. Forsythe’s choreography when his work premiered on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 altered the way many ballets were made thereafter. He is, indeed, a successor to Balanchine, who in his day pushed classical technique to new levels. Forsythe did the same here and with his succeeding body of work, making the classical ballet fundamentals relevant for the new world of the late 20th-century. Today, nearly three decades after its creation, In the Middle … remains as starkly relevant and engaging as it was then. Thirty years ago, when The Washington Ballet was still working to finesse some of Balanchine’s more complicated works, it would have been hard to imagine the company could come so far. Under Webre’s direction his dancers are not only technically adept, they are adaptable — able to tackle the loose jazziness of Ochoa, the complex, occasionally quirky, partnering Webre so frequently favors, and, most refreshingly, the highly stylized sharp and relentless attack Forsythe’s choreography demands.

This review was first published February 27, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with permission.

 

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

 

Sacred Ground

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on February 1, 2016

Dance Place Reunion Celebrates 35 Years

Dance Place Reunion
featuring choreographers Jan Van Dyke, Eric Hampton, Helen Hayes, Alvin Mayes, Lesa McLaughlin, Cathy Paine, Carla Perlo, Deborah Riley and drumming by Steve Bloom
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.

January 30-31, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Carla Perlo.

When Dance Place marks a milestone, invariably by the evening’s end its Founding Artistic Director Carla Perlo has more people on stage than in the audience. This happened Saturday night January 30, 2016, as Dance Place marked 35 years with a retrospective program highlighting many of Washington, D.C.’s important choreographers from the past three decades. Full disclosure: I, too, was called to the stage and noted for my work as the first full-time manager of then-young Dance Place back in 1985. Since that year-long stint, I have spent the greater part of these past three decades watching dance there, ranging from children’s summer camp shows to major figures in late 20th-century dance, including choreographers Joe Goode, David Parsons, Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Bebe Miller, and groups like Eiko and Koma, Blue Man, Streb, and more than 700 other artists who shared their works there.

The evening was also a moment for Perlo to say thanks to her forbears as the concert was dedicated to seminal Washington, D.C. teacher and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, who died this past year in North Carolina, where she settled after leaving Washington. Many other dance teachers, among them Perlo’s early teacher Jefferson James, and local dance leaders were acknowledged.

Van Dyke founded Dance Place’s precursor, Dance Project in 1974 in Adams Morgan. Perlo and Co-Founder Steve Bloom, took over the second-story studio/theater near 18th and Columbia in 1980, renaming it and reimagining Van Dyke’s vision. Five years later as the neighborhood gentrified, Dance Place moved to the then sleepy Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington, purchasing its own building. Over the years Perlo and Riley built a state-of-the-art dance studio and theater while committing to bringing arts to local neighborhood children and families as well as presenting world-class dance almost every weekend.

The rolling rhythms of “Thunderhead,” co-founder Bloom’s drum solo played on a daf, a large-headed Persian instrument, opened the program with a clarion call to be mindful of both the pounding beats and the subtleties. In a 1992 solo, “Flight of Time,” dancer Triana Brown captured the steely determination of  choreographer Perlo’s personality with fearless balances and slicing diagonal reaches that later softened into more gossamer lightness.

It was moving to see “And Back Again,” Van Dyke’s final work, choreographed last year and rearranged for the stage, the program noted, in her last rehearsals. The women’s quartet relays Van Dyke’s austere but clarion approach to movement. She valued precision, control and specificity with a mathematician’s or architect’s eye, and here the quartet maneuvers in and out of highly designed patterns and rows, yet, then each dancer, clad in flared geometrically patterned dresses, gets a little release for a solo while the other three pause and watch.

The program closed with an earlier Van Dyke work from 1989, “Full Circle,” a trio featuring one of her favorite accompaniments, Turtle Island String Quartet. Again watching the dancers parse through the technical, specific leg and arm gestures — so out of character in light of today’s more emotion-laden or loose-limbed release techniques — it was easy to imagine Van Dyke dancing along, her cropped hair and prim presence presiding.

The program also featured “While Waiting” from long-time choreographer and educator Alvin Mayes, a heartfelt solo dance by Adriane Fang in memory of a friend and arts lover, Tuckey Requa. The late Eric Hampton’s Jane Austin-like comedy of manners for three women, “Saudades,” featured three dancers from the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Studio Company in an excerpt staged by former Hampton dancer Harriet Moncure Fellows. Ronya-Lee Anderson danced Riley’s “Shadows” from 2014 with a lushness that was meltingly romantic with its dips, reaches and arcing leg fans all set to a Chopin prelude.

Longtime dance educator Helen Hayes made a surprise appearance with her high-school aged dancers from Joy of Motion’s Youth Dance Ensemble in her first group work, a swirling water-y ballet from 1996 called “Whirlpools.” And a former Dance Place director Lesa McLaughlin revived her edgy 1984 solo “On Look” for her 13-year-old son, Chris Mateer. The piece plays on the tension between feminine and masculine roles and expectations as a dancer — back to the audience — dons a man’s dress shirt, tie and jacket, but not until a turn forward is it clear whether it is a male or female. McLaughlin came to dance late, as a college student, and there was a wildness and awkward gawkiness about her dancing and choreography that was equally intriguing and captivating. Her son has more grace and control, he doesn’t teeter in off-kilter balances with the same abandon, and at 13 is, perhaps, too young to match the sexual tension and androgynous interplay inherent in the work.

Cathy Paine, an early teacher and resident choreographer at Dance Place, returned to the stage after many years absence with a gorgeous and heartbreaking solo “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” A graceful and liquid performer, Paine moved with silken textures, fingers tickling the air, arms softly whispering on unseen currents. Then she melted and rose, rolled and scooted again and again into the floor and out like quicksilver. Her improvised spoken narrative — a popular feature for a generation or two of DC choreographers — was both a personal recollection and reflective testament to her forbears. As the title suggested, Paine drew inspiration from the arcane yet famous Shakespearean stage direction in his The Winter’s Tale. Paine, who noted after the performance that she just celebrated her 65th birthday earlier in the week, was simply ageless, and the meaningful and evocative journey she traveled in the course of the piece, from past to present to future generations proved the evening’s singular moment. Her charge to all in the space as she caressed a small spot of center stage: “This is sacred ground so take care of it” beautifully summed up of a 35-year legacy of creating a place to dance in Washington.

Photo: Dance Place Co-founder Carla Perlo, courtesy Dance Place
Published February 1, 2016. This review originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016

The 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.

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

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

Samita-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

BalletX: Entering the Talented Tenth (year)

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

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

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


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

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

All this and a world premiere

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

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

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

Originally published July 19, 2015

Beautiful Excess

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

Eifman Ballet’s Rodin
Choreography by Boris Eifman
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
May 29-31, 2015
By Lisa Traiger
Rodin1Boris Eifman is a choreographer critics love to hate and audiences simply love. In fact, in his 2011 opus, Rodin, detailing the loves of the great French sculptor who chiseled the art form into the modern age, Eifman creates a gaggle of critics, clad in prim green suits carrying crimson notebooks and they maneuver around the stage and examples of the Rodin works recreated with living, breathing dancers. It’s as much a statement on Rodin’s relationship with the establishment art world critics as it is of Eifman’s. 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 with no worry, and leave all his flamboyant drama and sturm und drang for audiences to drink in with pleasure. Born in Siberia where his Jewish parents had been exiled, Eifman graduated from the ballet and choreographic school of the Leningrad Conservatory and founded his own independent company in 1977, when Soviet ballet was a product and property of the state. Eifman was bold enough to hang out his own flag yet to mostly work 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 early 20th century Ballets Russes touches dabbed into the eclectic mix. Eifman’s company been treading into hyper kinetic and dramatic waters with “oh, so Russian” high strung pieces for more than three decades. His wheelhouse is remaking literary classics or artistic biographies in what he calls “the language of movement.” His lurid bio-ballet Tchaikovsky made a local stop in the District in 2003.

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

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

I wonder how Martha Graham, with her powerful woman-centric approach to the classics, would have re-told this story. Absolutely without the misogynistic undertones Eifman suggests – from those sexed-up but mad insane asylum inhabitants to the often nearly degrading crotch views he (and many other male contemporary ballet choreographers) favors for his two lead women. What proved most interesting in this Eifman oeuvre – and much of his choreographic output is fully theatricalized in the most heightened sense – is his quoting of the Rodin sculptures. His dancers took easily to the challenge of shaping their bodies with an uninhibited plastique into stage pictures suggesting works like “The Age of Bronze,” “The Gates of Hell” and, even, I think, “The Burghers of Calais” (of which we have a version here at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden). There were also actual sculptures, a sculpey like model that Claudel manipulated, a pair of lovely cupped hands Rodin sculpted that appeared a few times. Then, of course, that passionate marbleized “The Kiss,” on stage came to life in many a pas de deux between Claudel and Rodin, for this is, first and foremost, a ballet of unbridled passion. The love story is tragic – ending, Nijinsky-like, with Claudel broken from her affair with Rodin and committed to an insane asylum. There are no small gestures, no subtleties in an Eifman ballet. And audiences love the grandeur, the bombast, the emotive excess of it all. It reeks of Russian melodrama and that Russian mindset that, too, 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.

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