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Erotic

Posted in Burlesque, Contemporary dance, Dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on January 8, 2017

Antithesis: Dance Place Practice
Gesel Mason Performance Projects

Conception and choreography by Gesel Mason
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
January 6, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

mason-antithesis-2017-pc-kelly-shroads-photography-1252-2
Since one of her first independent performances in Washington, D.C., at Dance Place, dancer and choreographer Gesel Mason has been navigating the taboo and the titillating. She has put a bold face on works that wrestled with race, racism and its deep-rooted role in American history in her A Declaration of Independence: The Story of Sally Hemmings (2001), as well as her ongoing “No Boundaries” project, which gives voice to African-American choreographers in a series of commissioned and revived solos. Mason also has a biting wit: one of her signature solos, How To Watch a Modern Dance Concert or What the Hell Are They Doing On Stage? takes down the sacred cows of 20th-century modernism and post-modernism in dance, with the choreographer’s tongue firmly planted inside her cheek. And, finally, and more than for good measure, Mason has often used her own text and poetry, including the searing “No Less Black,” as accompaniment to her choreography.

On her return to Dance Place, the nation’s capital’s most popular dance performance venue, she converts the black box studio theater into a post-modern burlesque house for her evening-length inquiry into the erotic, and the exotic, of embodied female sexuality. It’s a daring endeavor for Mason, who early in career was a company member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange until forming her own project-based troupe and production company, Gesel Mason Performance Projects. Over nearly two decades, the dancer/dancemaker has tackled the profane and provocative before in Taboos and Indiscretions (1998) and her later Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t (2010), when she collected the stories and movements of District-based sex workers for a piece that gave voice to often well-hidden and ignored female stories.

So it was interesting that Mason names her latest work with a less provocative and more academic title: Antithesis. Developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is now an assistant professor, it continues her explorations into personal and public sexuality, the role of the female in society and, an oft unremarkable theme in much American modern dance, personal expression and self-exploration. The piece features a cast of ten, including burlesque dancers Essence Revealed, Peekaboo Pointe and Love Muwwakkil, as well as more traditionally trained modern — or as Mason refers to them, post-modern — dancers (Ching-I Chang Bigelow, John Gutierrez, Kayla Hamilton, Kate Speer and Rita Jean Kelly Burns are among the cast), with a cameo by Mason’s mom, Andrea Mason. The work, in development for nearly three years, brings together these two worlds where the female body is on display, either in the dance studio and concert stage for the modern dancers, or in the strip club and burlesque stage for the pasty-clad performers. In Mason’s purview, it’s a chaotic collision.

With a stripper pole prominently displayed before the studio mirrors, the show begins. Clad in a silky bathrobe Mason serves as emcee, introducing the audience, seated on all four sides, to the ladies. There’s Peekaboo, the taut bleached blonde with an Ultrabrite smile, in her patriotic g-string and pasties. And Love, a virtuoso of the pole, caressing, climbing and sliding on her apparatus like Simone Biles on the balance beam. But there are other more prosaic dancers, whose talent for, say, Quickbooks, savings accounts and bank account reconciliations is lauded as vigorously in Mason’s biting narrative. And on that note it becomes clear that for the next hour the audience is in store for more that so-called tits and ass. Mason has constructed a probing critique of a slice of contemporary eroticism.

Informed by poet and literary critic Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Mason set out to understand the female body as it is seen and used, empowered and comodified, in various public spaces in the 21st century. For Lorde, the erotic isn’t eroticism, particularly not derived from the male gaze that has made women’s bodies objects to be stared at, re-shaped, manipulated, and appropriated. Lorde views the erotic as harnessing female power — that vital physical and spiritual lifeforce that imbues creativity of all kinds on individuals. Eroticism, then, is about knowing oneself truly, and it’s about embracing the chaos of life and living.

Antithesis pursues that idea by mediating between the patriarchal view of the erotic — the specific kinds and shapes of women’s bodies on display for male desire and pleasure. But instead, especially the burlesque dancers demonstrate complete comfort and confidence in their bodies. They own their eroticism, their physical power and the hold they have over the opposite sex in particular. And they revel in it. They perform their unique identities for their own pleasure; the audience is merely along for the ride. The pasties and g-strings? Sure they’re hot and sexy, as are the burlesques and strip teases. But removed from a gentleman’s club or a strip joint and located in a typical concert venue, the performative nature of the dance is transformed from eroticism into commentary on the feminine, the female, patriarchy and wholesale comodification of bodies, whether its pasties or Quickbooks.

Mason then traverses the divide between women in modern and post-modern dance and women who publicly display and sell their bodies. Is there, ultimately, a difference? Aren’t we all for sale? Is there always a price? Is one art and the other commerce or objectification?

One dancer, barefoot, clad in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, rolls on the floor, releases her weight, shifting her dynamics with limber ease, her face an expressionless mask. Then on comes Peekaboo in her stilettos and pasties. She parses through the same movement phrase, her firm, sensual body on display, her bored look recalling a pin-up girl. Context is everything. A fan-kick or split is merely a piece of choreography. It becomes meaningful in performance. It’s the question of who … and where. And, as Mason noted in a post-performance talk Friday evening, each time Antithesis is performed, she considers it site-specific. At home in Colorado, it has been shown in a church, in a strip club, and in someone’s private home. Its re-staging at Dance Place is, she said, unique.

While plenty of female flesh and embedded discourse on the erotic filled the hour, ultimately it felt like Mason and her performers didn’t push far enough. Most believable and most comfortable in their bodies and skin were Essence and Peekaboo and Love. Much was said about how the process challenged the rest of the performers, who worked to allow themselves into new territory, physically and psychically, erotically. As the dichotomous sets of performers merged, late in the show, clad in silky vibrant orange, slacks, dresses, and tunics, Mason returned to her microphone, calling cues for the dancers to physicalize: “hidden,” “surrender,” “play,” “joy,” “chocolate,” “pleasure.” Counting up to ten, the dancers strove to embody in free-form movement those words and ideas, but, like many improvisations, it ended up looking more like moving wallpaper than personal transformation. The dancers, particularly the modern dancers, were still acclimating themselves and their bodies to this new way of thinking and moving — this new erotic consciousness.

One of Lorde’s definitions of the erotic is the “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” That final apotheosis, the melding the dancers into a singular unified force, reached for a semblance of utopianism within chaos. And, yet, as this collision of cultures, of bodies, of dancers, that has been occupying the space and lives of its participants, needs to still push further. Mason, her dancers, and dramaturg, Deanna Downes, have described the work as “messy, gritty, tactile, growling, chaotic, passionate and tender.” Antithesis is, in various measures, each of these, for many in the audience. But, no longer the independent artist of her earlier “taboo” days, Mason is now ensconced in the university, and that has taken a toll on her independent, compelling voice. She appears, alas, to have reigned herself in, becoming more self-conscious. Throughout Mason’s career as a choreographer, provocative, even taboo subjects have been an important part of her body of work, most especially wrestling with and coming to terms with identity issues. She has lost some of her youthful boldness, though, in striving to fit into the academic realm (as many independent choreographers have been doing in recent years). Mason’s latest feels trapped in theory: Lorde’s essay and philosophy has too much hold on her.

 

Photo credit: Kelly Shroads
© 2017 Lisa Traiger
Published January 8, 2017

 

 

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Time

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 8, 2016

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour
“Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie”
November 11-14, 2015
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

DEMO: Time
Curated by Damian Woetzel

November 15, 2015
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp's "Yowzie"

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp’s “Yowzie”

Twyla Tharp was everywhere during the fall 2015 season. On the occasion of her 50th year as a choreographer her 13-member company set out on a 17-city tour — stopping in Berkeley, Austin, New Orleans, Chicago, Bloomington, Ind., to name a few, before finishing up at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Lincoln Center. She was interviewed on radio, featured on TV, blogged in The New York Times, and made the cover of Dance Magazine.

Now 74, Tharp didn’t look back to mark her five choreographic decades by pulling out a retrospective. No revival of “Push Comes To Shove” or “The Catherine Wheel.” No look at historic pieces like “Fugue” or “Eight Jelly Rolls.” No resurfacing of her iconic pop culture pieces “Deuce Coupe,” her Beach Boys ballet, or “Sinatra Suite.” Her Broadway work — the less successful “Singin’ in the Rain” or hits like “Movin’ Out” and “Come Fly Away” — and groundbreaking choreography for television were also passed over.

Instead, Tharp looked ahead, crafting a pair of new works, which, she said, paid homage to some of her forebears — those she has named include Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, and those notably absent, like Paul Taylor, in whose company she danced briefly after college in 1963.

A poster child for post-modernism’s adage “everything counts,” Tharp long ago reeled herself in to craft viable, even popularly loved, choreography for the ballet, modern and theater worlds, making a name for herself. But she still gets her way with her post-modernist roots in merging ballet and Bach, bebop, jazz, pop and ballroom, sharing and intermingling across concert dance styles and genres. The duet of dances she made for this 50th anniversary tour is, ultimately, as much an homage to her own tenacity, creative drive and choreographic signature as it is to those dance icons she publicly acknowledged. In light of the occasion — 50 years of creative output in the oft-unforgiving dance field — Tharp created a pair of fanfares, prologues of sorts, to open each half of the program. These little pieces d’occasion bleed into the full works — Twyla keeping the audience guessing.

Each half of the program was heralded with trumpets, composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet Society). “First Fanfare” featured dancers dashing across the stage, the men in gold-toned slacks and shirts; the women, in demure ballet skirts, leap and are caught. Momentarily Tharp fans flash back to the spectacular and indelible ballroom catches of “Sinatra Suite.” The same energetic busy-ness that is a Tharp trademark in pieces like “In the Upper Room” and “Surfer at the River Styx” fills the stage as the fanfare blends into “Preludes and Fugues,” with its staunch settings to Bach. But, the choreography is anything but. Tharp dissects the music, inserting into the metronomic and fugue patterns jazzy runs, lovely ballroom dips, a polka, some Broadway slides and, even a little balletic batterie of supremely precise footwork. Once again she proves to be master of all concert dance styles and her perspicacious eye has culled a group of gorgeous dancers who can ease into a slouchy slide and prick out a chain of pique turns with equal finesse.

The physical jokes in play include gamesmanship with size, pitting the “too tall” girl with the shorter partner, or lining up the petite dancer with company compatriot who towers head and shoulders above her. It’s gimmicky, not trail-blazing, but, like many Tharpian fillips, it works. Tharp’s 1970 work “The Fugue” dissected the musical form with mathematical precision. That trio is described as “a 20-count theme which is developed into 20 variations. The theme is modified through a number of reversals, inversions, retrogrades and repetitions, re-sequencing and rhythmic manipulations.” Tharp’s return to the Bach fugue today is not nearly as stoic, though I’m sure another look would not call it less structured, but her new fugue has an open danceable feeling contained within its musical structure rather than her more rigid approach in “The Fugue.” The dancers, and audience, revel in the aura of the music, and the choreographic surprises: little hiccoughs of quick stepping patter, a couple of jovial shoves here or there, a silly walk or two, some highly technical Balanchinian moments, and some easier on the eye, though no less challenging, nods to Robbins. As the piece winds its way to closure, a growing sense of collegiality builds as Tharp brings the dancers together, their  paths converging, small duos and trios melding into larger ensembles. Tharp knows how to hold an audience and here she does it with that most succinct and simple of dance forms: the circle. When the dancers converge, Tharp draws that lump-in-the-throat moment — for all the riff-raff and penny ante joviality, the cut ups and the show offs, the Einsteinian musical dissections, in the end, this dance — all dances in Tharp’s world — are about community, bringing the many together as one.

“Yowzie,” dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto, is a more lighthearted romp set to American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Opening with another fanfare, this time the dancers play behind a scrim, showcasing silhouettes, Pilobolus-style, with outlandish headdresses and distinctive clothing cuts. There’s a filmic sensibility to the fanfare, played — or danced — under James Ingalls’ crimson lighting and scrim. This is a rowdier, more easy-going piece, lots of 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 hi-jinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like New Orleans Second Line. There are comic riffs — dancers walking away with exaggerated slumps, a barker-like figure, a pair that nearly resort to fisticuffs, but then little Rika Okamoto gets the upper hand and — literally – kicks some butt. It’s lighter fare and the ending, parading off in couples, clumps, trios into the wings, is more of a fade-out than a final statement.

Together both works are ultimately Tharp paying tribute to Tharp: “Preludes and Fugues” is her more serious — with a wink — “Push Comes To Shove” piece, while “Yowzie” is her new “Eight Jelly Rolls,” serving up the fun and games of American musical invention. Tharp’s 50th year in choreography can be summed up simply as Tharp doing Tharp.

____

A still new artistic project, the curated salon-like evenings by retired New York City Ballet principle Damian Woetzel look back to earlier cross-over evenings with music, dance poetry, and more sharing a bill. Director of arts programs at the think tank the Aspen Institute, Woetzel also produces the summer’s Vail International Dance Festival. November 15 at the Kennedy Center’s upstairs Terrace Theater, he brought together a collection of artists from across genres for his latest project: “DEMO: Time.” The event featured dancers Tyler Peck, Robert Fairchild, Bill Irwin, and Carmen De Lavallade, along with poet Elizabeth Alexander, musicians Gabriel Kahane, Colin Jacobsen, Claire Chase, Jacqueline Bolier and Glenn Sales. Woetzel, wearing a suit and wielding a clicker for his PowerPoint slides, served as the lecturer-slash-emcee, providing tidbits, quotable quotes and moderately intellectual patter to introduce his overarching concept — time.

The Terrace Theater proved the right venue for this sold-out Sunday evening — small enough to feel intimate, yet the stage was large enough to not rein in the performers, particularly a quirky opening duet by Peck and Irwin. Titled “Time It Was /116,” the playful work contrasted the broad-brushed clownish physicality of Irwin against Peck’s delicate ballerina. Violinist Jacobsen played a measured Phillip Glass piece as the pair variously copied and compared their indelible movement styles. Irwin, ageless in his baggy pants, bowler and flat shoes, borrows exquisitely from the timeless grace of Chaplin in a free ranging jaunt across the stage. Peck was less daring and more staid – the comedic timing harder for her to grasp, but she eventually got some laughs and enjoyed herself. Comedy isn’t easy, especially physical comedy.

Ageless and grace-filled De Lavallade brought an excerpt from her autobiographical evening-length work “As I Remember It.” She begins with isolations, recounting a physical inventory of her body from wrists to toes, fingers, to backs, moving those parts and undulating in a close fitting leotard and skirt. She stands, hands on hips and remembers. As she does, a film clip of her dancing 40, maybe 50 years ago plays. It’s a rehearsal of John Butler’s choreography for a duet based on “Porgy and Bess.” She recounts her work as a female dancer of color during a time when the world wasn’t accepting of her beauty, grace, talent and skill. She shares a few sacred moments in her life, then remarks, returning to her physical inventory — knees, back, shoulders, “Once I was beautiful. That’s how it goes with us.” Once and always, de Lavallade’s beauty in body and spirit remains untarnished, even with age. Time, indeed, stood still for her.

The program closed with a Balanchine-Stravinsky duet, and it became clear that time was its essence. “Duo Concertant,” originally created for Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins in 1972, was dance by Fairchild and Peck and after an evening of song, poetry, music and dance exploring facets of time, “Duo Concertant” felt fresh and timeless. Pianist Glenn Sales released into the knotty score at first while the dancers stood, listening, before taking up the music. And there it was, time, as Fairchild behind Peck, her arm outstretched like the minute hand on a clock, tick away at the receding moments of time. The rest of the duet was beautifully danced, Fairchild especially making the stage feel too small as he swallowed space. Peck more delicate, but no less accurate in her accounting. Time refreshed, enlivened, became a moment to savor in an evening that came together with mixed but mostly fruitful results.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of print-only magazine Ballet Review. What? You don’t subscribe? Visit Ballet Review.

Serving Food for Thought … and Cake

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Dance, Jazz dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 13, 2016

“Happy Hour”
Monica Bill Barnes & Company 
Terrace Gallery, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
March 10-11, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center 1

Monica Bill Barnes and Ann Bass, courtesy Kennedy Center

In life some things that are easy look hard and others that are hard look easy. That’s also the case for choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, whose party-cum-commentary on masculinity and femininity, success and failure, connection and anonymity, among other things, brightened up the drab Terrace Gallery setting, upstairs in The Kennedy Center March 11. The small but mighty Monica Bill Barnes & Company has taken it upon themselves to spice up people’s lives with playful but pointed in-jokes that provide layers of depth and insight. What on the surface seems like simple off-the-cuff unplanned sequences, is far, far deeper.

Barnes and Ann Bass, her associate artistic director, fellow performer and partner in crime, champion the underdog while culling from a tastefully curated selection of American dance styles, mainly jazz, theater dance, tap and a tad of ballet and modern thrown in. But it’s not so much the steps and choreography — which are themselves often a hoot, smartly selected and dazzlingly performed — but the way they attack the movement. There’s a sense of going all out and over the top, of dancing for life itself. Sometimes Bass’s neck strains, or Barnes’s eyeballs pop, as droplets of sweat form on their brows and they fling themselves completely into quick, goofy phrases that look so easy yet are anything but. They’re working their hardest for our pleasure. You can’t help loving them for their all-out effort, especially in a workaholic town like metropolitan DC, where the only right answer to “how are you” is “busy, way too busy.”

Happy Hour starts with the conceit of the title. The Terrace Gallery is set with 30 cocktail tables. The company reportedly ran out and bought $200 worth of snacks – microwave popcorn, a box of Cheerios, an extra-large size of gummy vitamins, mini candy bars and a tub of pretzel rods. The room is decorated in a baby blue balloons and crepe paper streamers hung like a six-year-old’s birthday party. Robert Saenz de Viteri acts as the MC and maitre d’ for a “pre-show” that is as much a part of the performance as the dancers, handing out snacks from a rolling production cart artfully labeled “Production Cart” in glitter. He works the crowd getting to know his audience, milking them for self-deprecating laughs. A karaoke machine stands at the ready waiting on the brave few in the audience ready to take a turn with pop classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” There’s a raffle, someone is celebrating a birthday, another couple is visiting The Kennedy Center for the first time. This happy hour is a real piece d’occasion and Saenz de Viteri works it with finesse.

Unexpectedly, after the buildup and the snacks, Barnes and Bass slip in, decked out in well-fitting menswear – crisp white shirts, sharp suits black (for Barnes) and gray (for Bass), their hair slicked back. They’re mobsters maybe or madmen. Their shoulders squared, jaw lines taut, when they walk there’s a touch of masculine swagger, their hands pushed deep into their pants pockets, a look of bored indifference darkening their faces. They proceed to parse through a playlist of 20th century pop hits, from John Mellancamp’s “Hurts So Good” to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Judy Garland singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and to Nat King Cole smoothly covering “Smile” (when your heart is breaking).

As the music elicits nods of recognition in the audience, Barnes and Bass attack the songs with a variety of jazz and tap and show business-y moves layered atop emotional moments read clearly on their faces. There are homages to the tap dancing greats the Nicholas Brothers, and to the smooth and easy going Gene Kelly, and suave sophisticate Fred Astaire, each subtly drawn in the quick steps and lanky runs, the syncopated step-ball-changes and the vaudeville like kicks performed with exaggerated smiles. There’s military precision and honor in the way these two attack their phrases, they look simple but are complex rhythmically and technically — quick little steps packed together all in a row. They’re dancing at the top — nay, over the top — of their game.

But what’s most riveting are the small vignettes — the emotional moments — where these women, dressed and behaving as men, interact, try to pick up women from the audience, cheer each other on, muddle through tense moments, hug and make up. Bass has a habit of pulling a silver flask from her pocket and taking a swig. Barnes is the more sensitive one, the underdog, who pulls out a deck of cards and tries and fails at card tricks. No matter, they serenade each other, applaud one another on, gin up approval from the audience then take elaborate bows, accepting bouquets of flowers, like Olympians or Russian ballerinas.

1Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center (4)It all looks ridiculously simple, but every moment, every movement, each twitch of an eyebrow or tug at a shirt, is planned and telescopes meaningful messages about friendship, gender, heartbreak, and perseverance, not only in the face of failure, but also, even more important, in the face of ordinariness. Happy Hour is about elevating the ordinary to high art. Buying supplies at the local drug store for a performance at The Kennedy Center, taking old steps and making them fresh and new, culling from pop classics but finding new statements or highlighting their meanings in new ways — this begins to get at the depth of Happy Hour.

So Happy Hour breaks all the rules of theater, including that fourth wall into the audience, and it offers not merely terrific entertainment, but more than a measure of poignancy, a sense of loss even amid the fun-and-games.

Unexpected life lessons told in subtle and magnified gestures reveal striving, doing one’s best, understanding the desires of the opposite sex and more. As much as this daring and dynamic duo want to be heroes, become the life of the party, their eyes and their physical hesitations show us that painful poignancy of not living up to ideals or dreams, either one’s own or those imposed by others.

But MC Saenz de Viteri finally brings us down to earth and back to reality when he returns with a huge birthday sheet cake, inscribed to the audience member with the birthday. It’s a surprise, a deux ex machina if you will, and, finally, a sweet moment after the heavy duty food for thought that Barnes and Bass served up.

(c)  Lisa Traiger 2016
Published March 12, 2016

Photos: Monica Bill Barnes & Company, courtesy Kennedy Center

This article originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

wheeldon1-460x325

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2015: A Look Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – 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

Stepsisters and Swans

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

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

It was a fortuitous spring for ballet lovers in Washington, D.C. American Ballet Theatre celebrated both its 75th anniversary and its long relationship with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March with a revival of Ashton’s Cinderella. Then the home-town team, The Washington Ballet, hit one out of the park with its first production of Swan Lake, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack (among other leads) – likely making history as the first African American Odette/Odile and Siegfried in a major company.

ABT’s Kennedy Center season was bittersweet, though, with the leave taking of homegrown ballerina Julie Kent, who retired after 29 years from American Ballet Theatre, making her own history as the longest serving dance in the company’s history.

copeland mackAlas, Kent, who was scheduled to dance her last time in Washington in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, March 28, 2015, had to pull out due to injury. Instead Gillian Murphy substituted, her crystalline technique punctuating the achy Prokofiev score. The muted tones of the music and Ashton’s first act choreography were highlighted by Murphy’s portrait of the put-upon, abused sister in a household of mean-spirited and grasping women. The step sisters, en travesti roles for Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin asserted their mean girl status in Thursday’s opening with a thick schmear of high ridiculousness. Cinderella’s father, Clinton Luckett, was a berated depressive in this dysfunctional fairy tale family. Murphy’s broom-sweeping solo in act I ached with yearning romanticism. Her transformation, at the hands – and wand – of Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, also on opening night, was not quite magical. Part, regal and distant, is a chilly ballerina, an ice princess and later, in the act III apotheosis, Murphy, too, accompanied by her prince, James Whiteside, show her classical demeanor with little of the warmth or fluidity of her earlier characterization. Here she becomes queenly, precise: bouree-ing and spinning like a music box ballerina.

The Ashton production is not without its moments – comic bits of business by those outlandish stepsisters, or a ridiculous caricature of Napoleon as one of the ball’s guests – but even with David Walker’s lavish sets and costumes, it felt subdued, a bit deflated. The sparkle was missing. Perhaps it was the loss of Kent’s performance. Her bow to Washington came after the curtain dropped; Kent stepped on stage a wisp in her street clothes, for one final curtsy to her hometown audience.

The much publicized debut of ABT’s now principal ballerina Misty Copeland in The Washington Ballet’s first full-length Swan Lake occurred five weeks later, in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater. Heralded as a history-making first for its pairing of Copeland with TWB’s Brooklyn Mack, also African American, the media frenzy and public interest was high and ticket sales brisk. A smart marketer at the ballet screen printed t-shirts that proclaimed: “I Saw Misty and Brooklyn” across the back.

Artistic director Septime Webre brought in Kirk Peterson, who himself had an illustrious 17-year career as a principal at ABT. The former artistic director of Hartford Ballet and one-time assistant artistic director to Washington Ballet, then under the direction of the late founder Mary Day, Peterson’s expertise in restaging full-length classics shone brightly here. Webre also wisely connected with the small, but lively Evermay Chamber Orchestra, which has grown from an ensemble of five into a modestly sized but highly adept mini orchestra, here under the direction of Nabil Shehata. With just 20 full company members and three apprentices, TWB filled out its swan ranks with its 13 dancers from the Studio Company along with additional support from senior level students from the company’s professional training program.

Peterson’s production was finely wrought, well danced and equally well acted. Most notable – and gratifying – was his return to many classic mime passages that are hardly seen, at least not on American soil. He delved into Nicholas Sergeyev’s research on the 1895 original Petipa/Ivanov production following Vaganova’s 1933 Sadler Wells staging in London, which made many Sovietizing adjustments to the work. So it’s possible – or at least believable – that Peterson’s research has returned the ballet to a purer original stage – though of course we’ll never know. In any case, the mostly contemporary dancers of TWB handled the complex mime passages and dramatic sequences with ease and finesse. My favorite is the reintroduction of the passage when Odette tells Siegfried about the curse on her mother and the lake she and her swans inhabit, which was made from her mother’s tears. Equally notable: the lovely and energetic the corps de ballet, particularly in the Lev Ivanov white acts. They were not a unified singular body, but, oh, how they danced with vigor and liveliness.

The main question on most readers’ minds, though, remains, “How did Misty do?” Admirably well considering that Odette and Odile aren’t really her roles. Copeland is a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong dancer, a formidable powerhouse of a mover who can take up space and radiate personality. What she’s not is a classical princess, nor is she, as Odile, a determined seductress. Copeland has the technical chops to knock many roles out of the park. But for Odette, she lacks an abiding sense of fragility and litheness. She understands the physical musculature necessary, for example for her arms to undulate like a bird’s wings, but she doesn’t yet – and may never – have the languid, free-flowing fluidity to make me believe she could in fact take flight. As Odile, of course, beyond being a seductress with an ulterior motive, she has to whip out those beloved and despised fouettes. Alas, for a ballerina of her power and steadiness, it should be an effortless task, one that is barely noticeable, but there was a glitch, she didn’t hit her mark or the count.

As for Copeland’s partner, Mack, who completed his sixth season with the company in the spring, and received some of his training in Washington, D.C. at the Kirov Academy, was an adequate Siegfried. He was not, though, fully believable as a prince. He’s a romantic, but with a more modern sensibility. I’ve seen him expertly and suavely woo a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What he is not, or at least not yet, is a fully classical prince with that sense of elevated self importance, but also that sigh-inducing reverie, that soul-searching quest ever at hand. He has the power to let loose the big jumps and stage engulfing leaps, but he didn’t discover the intense emotional connection with his partner, Copeland, that is necessary for Swan Lake to soar. Alas, they both remained more prosaic than passionate. Now that Copeland has attained the status of principal, there are more classical roles in her future. Time will tell as to whether she can truly attain the classical realm in her dancing. Physically she has the ability; it’s a matter of becoming fully immersed in the drama and emotional life of her role that will make Copeland a true classical ballerina.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2015 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

Photo: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, by Theo Kossenas

 

Tantalize and Tease

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on October 3, 2015

“Stripe Tease”
Choreography by Chris Schlichting, in collaboration with performers Dolo McComb, Dustin Maxwell, Laura Selle Virtucio, Max Wirsing, Pareena Lim and Tristan Koepke
Music by Jeremy Yivisaker and Alpha Consumer, featuring JT Bates and Jim Anton
Design and Installation by Jennifer Davis
Lighting by Joe Levasseur
Costumes by Chris Schlichting
American Dance Institute, Rockville, Md.
October 2, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

stripe tease 1Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting’s “Stripe Tease” feels both intimate and expansive, drawing on his knack for specificity in inventive movement phrasing and his love of interior design and costuming, the piece evolves in organic and intriguing ways. As his layers build to full-blown climatic kineticism, the finely crafted hour-long work teases out lovely passages crisply performed accompanied live by the fabulous three-piece ensemble Alpha Consumer. Schlichting and “Stripe Tease” made a metropolitan Washington, D.C. area premiere October 2 and 3 at American Dance Institute, one of three commissioning partners through the National Performance Network.

Beginning in silence, two men draw a line in the air, then in tight unison relish a series of complex gestural phrases they deliver with uncommon grace and femininity – wilting hands, melting elbows, sloped, rolling shoulders. There’s an unspoken subversion of masculinity – or is it usurping of femininity – in these men languishing in seemingly womanly motifs, which remains a subtle theme throughout the piece. With a softness and uncommon delicacy, this indulgent beauty and oozing liquid grace multiplies as additional dancers enter, singly and then in pairs, a structure that becomes a motif throughout the evening. The six performers, clad in couture-level black shorts or slacks, tops with slashes, visible zippers, fine pleats and high necks (all designed by Schlichting), relish the opulent, choreographic phrasing that allows for undulations contrasting with saber-like slashes or occasional audible stomps.

Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker’s accompanying music, played live with drummer JT Bates and bassist Jim Anton, provides a rock-inspired and yet easygoing pop inflected foreground on which the dancers parse out their exquisitely evolved phrases. What sings in the piece as it develops are the juxtapositions among the choreographed sections – swift, semaphoric gestures that look like a protolanguage not yet translated – and the building drama unveiled from visual designer Jennifer Davis with an assist from lighting designer Joe Levasseur. At first a study in black, soon that backdrop rises to reveal a sea of color-school stripes in multihued fluorescents and foils. Think late 1960s, early 1970s, bathroom wallpaper and you’ll get the idea. Levasseur’s lighting, too, has a throwback feel, with his sometimes moody, sometimes hot fluorescent choices that open up the performers’ space into the audience.

Promotional image for use in marketing materials for the upcoming performance of: Chris Schlichting, Stripe Tease. World Premiere/Walker Commission Feb 19-21, 2014. L-R: Jennifer Davis, JT Bates, Dustin Maxwell, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Krista Langberg, Laura Selle-Virtucio, Max Wirsing, Tristan Koepke, Mary Ann Bradley, and Mike Lewis.

Playing with duets, danced in close unison side by side, but never truly partnering – there are no lifts, holds or supports in the piece – Schlichting relishes his own expressions of formalism, unleashing his dancers like indie fashion models for a take-no-prisoners fashion house like Rick Owens’ – their tough, hard stares intimidating one moment, then their eye scans an invitation the next. At one point the dancers become bored cat-walking models, pacing the stage in a broad loping gait, then mounting the steps into the audience, to pause and pose. Off to the side in an exit alley, a duo performs small sidebar movements, hands and forearms swiveling and waving like little handkerchiefs whipping in the wind. As the Schlichting with Ylvisaker’s musical support builds a crescendo into the work, the stage design elements have their own fashionable reveal. Stage hands, smartly dressed in black with vivid belts, draw back curtains and later side panels in each wing to reveal two tigers painted in fluorescent stripes of neon tape glowing orange, green and pink. Have all the choreographic movement markings been a tease for the stripes – or vice versa?

No matter. How easy it is to get drawn into Schlichting’s world, where a dancer finger tracking a line in space early on then eggs forward into a rich collection of intricate and ever-evolving hands, arms shoulders looping in circles, cupping hands, full-blown and half-way there. Meaning and story here are, of course, subverted for the pure beauty and delicacy captured by the six fine performers: Dolo McComb Dustin Maxwell, Laura Selle Virtucio, Max Wirsing, Pareena Lim and Tristan Koepke. The work is far more than a tease, it’s a tantalizing collection of treasures with rewards for the patient and caring viewer.

Photos: top, Bill Cameron; bottom, Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center
Published October 3, 2015
© 2015 Lisa Traiger

War and (Hope for) Peace

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Performance art, World dance by lisatraiger on September 21, 2015

Eleven Reflections on September
Written and directed by Andrea Assaf
Choreography by Donna Mejia
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
Washington, D.C.
September 15, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Donna_Mejia 11 reflectionsOne of the most powerful antiwar statements of the 20th century remains Pablo Picasso’s stunning 1937 oil on canvas, “Guernica.” The painting conveys from its large canvas the atrocities, pain and suffering of war in graphic details of newspaper photojournalism, shifted through the surrealist lens of Picasso’s cubism.

“Eleven Reflections on September,” three-dimensionalizes the message of Picasso’s Guernica, using poetry, spoken word, original music, video and world fusion dance to bring this message that war garners no true victories into the 21st century. “Eleven Reflections” – part of the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival taking place this fall in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs – draws on the Arab-American experience both pre- and post-September 11. The result is a searing artistic statement of the troubling pain and displacement that occurs when the known world is over taken by the unknown, the uncertainties, the indignities and inequities that happen in war and uprising.

Beginning with a haunting violin and low call of the didgeridoo, flames flickering on the backdrop, poet and spoken world artist Andrea Assaf’s words tumble out. She begins at that brilliant and horrible moment in 2001 when the world changed. The planes and towers were down. Chaos reigned in lower Manhattan and Assaf speaks presciently: “everything that came before was over.” Now there’s a line, a division, a before and after, a moment where Americans in particular realized their vulnerability on the world stage. She speaks of the “smoke of memory” as video captures horrific images of twisted, collapsed buildings.

When black-clad dancer Donna Mejia enters, shoulders bare, skirt full and flounced, hair twisted into a topknot, the violin, played by Eylem Basaldi, shimmers, the doumbek played by Natalia Perlaza provides the syncopated beat. And Mejia’s head and shoulders roll, undulating to the beauty of the sound, replicating the wafting smoke alluded to earlier rising into the brilliant, blue sky on that once-gorgeous then horrific September day. Assaf talks of fruit trees, particularly the emblematic olive which takes generations before its pleasant yield can be harvested. Mejia’s arms reach like the branches, then reshape themselves into sharp-elbowed corners – trees cut down, towers downed, souls sacrificed in a split second of insanity and inhumanity.

Choreographically Mejia helps embellish Assaf’s text just as calligraphers often embelish Arabic script into curvilinear designs with graceful arabesques linking and winding into letters, words and verses. In a melding of dance forms referred to as transnational fusion, she draws upon tradtions from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and western modern dance. As letters and words collect on the backdrop in Pramila Vasudevan’s video, Mejia has gathered hip rols and shimmies, arm undulations and shoulder rolls, convulsive contractions of the midsection and torso and deep lunges, her supple body circling above.

Assaf brings forth a basin of water infused with bunches of mint – an act of purifying, of hospitality, of offering. Mejia seems to expand to a haunting wordless chanted call let forth by Luna, then later, she plants both feet firmly into the ground, her solid wise stance an act of ownership and defiance as images of uprising populate the backdrop. The reflections, drawing from the specificity of Assaf’s experiences reified in poetry form the basis for a soul-piercing experiences. While September 11 has had life-changing effects on many aspects of our society and government, “Eleven Reflections” personalizes the act of communal remembrance and also illuminates the specificity of the Arab-American experience.

Mejia’s choreographic contribution to the work allows the words to resonate more fully, underlining and highlighting moments when Assaf’s poetry spurts forward, quickly relentlessly. The dance moments, a shoulder tremor, a head roll, arms twisting, snaking, like the wrapped coils of Mejia’s hair. The elemental mix of these complex dance genres, and the richly evocative world music forms serve to broaden and deepen the viewer’s experience. “Eleven Reflections” with its richly collaborative contributions of singular women’s voices illuminates the antiwar message at the root of Assaf’s poetry. As the poet, clad in black, forges forward, leaving the stage, Mejia takes over. Suddenly her hips tremor and erupt at breakneck speed, the jingling coins of her hip belt punctuating the drum and violin. It’s not merely celebratory, but, more importantly, it’s life affirming.

Picasso overwhelmed viewers with the horrors of war in his politically driven “Guernica.” Assaf’s canvas is equally large and she is not immune to the politics of this moment in time and the resonance of September 11, concomitant uprisings and crises occurring in the Middle East, and beyond. But she and her collaborators don’t wallow in the destruction. In their 21st century multimedia “Guernica,” they recount war’s horrors and the politics of hate, but then push onward, beyond. Amid the death, destruction, protests, and prejudices visited in the piece, blood still courses through veins, muscles still flex, hearts still beat, poetry still rings out. Life, even in the unrelenting grip of war and destruction, goes on and that is the true message “Eleven Reflections on September” leaves viewers to ponder.
Photo: Donna Mejia, by Jen Diaz, courtesy La MaMa
© 2015 Lisa Traiger September 18, 2015

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.