D.C. DanceWatcher

Farewell

Posted in Ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on July 7, 2018

 

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Forever Balanchine Farewell Performances
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
December 7-9, 2017

By Lisa Traiger
farrell-gounode

Forever Balanchine, the program at the Kennedy Center December 7 through 9, 2017, heralded the final performances of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. It occurred during an ignominious moment for the ballet world: New York City Ballet, the company founded by Farrell’s artistic mentor, was awash in accusations related to the behavior of its artistic director, Peter Martins, Balanchine’s chosen successor — and a frequent Farrell partner during their illustrious performing careers.

Farrell built her ballet company from scratch, under the auspices of modest support, financial and otherwise, from the Kennedy Center, with the intention of preserving and resuscitating Balanchine dances not often performed. Over the company’s 17 years, there have been ups and downs in what has essentially been a pick-up troupe with an annual Kennedy Center run (typically at the smaller Eisenhower Theater) and little else — no significant touring, no new commissions, no permanent home for rehearsals. Some dancers kept their “day jobs” with other companies, while others put all their stock in Farrell, even though they only rehearsed and performed a couple of weeks annually in some years.

This set up often resulted in a rag-tag feel to the company. Time and again it wasn’t rehearsed quite enough to tackle the intricate physical and musical demands of some of Balanchine’s more obscure works. Audiences regularly suffered second-rate performances for a chance to revel in the aura of a brilliant muse and how she molded and shaped her selective repertory.

But the company pulled out all the stops for its final performances in the center’s Opera House, at long last living up to the Farrell-Balanchine legacy. The company of 43 dancers appeared well rehearsed, but more auspicious, they truly danced together, bringing breath and soul to the music — accompaniment provided by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the baton of Nathan Fifield. Both long-time Farrell dancers — Natalia Magnicaballi, who has danced with Farrell from the start, Heather Ogden, and Michael Cook, among others — and soloists and a corps de ballet of well-trained and finely tuned dancers would have, alas, during a different time, made this a company to watch, rather than one to eulogize.

As hard as it is to build a ballet company from scratch, no one had better materials than Farrell. She spent more than two decades as Balanchine’s muse, starting her career as a coltish teenager and maturing to a beloved embodiment of the Balanchinian aesthetic. Her notable musicality, her lithe line, her dramatic expressiveness, and her daring on stage captured the hearts of many. As artistic director, she made it her practice to revive overlooked Balanchine repertory. Among the ballets she reinstated, “Gounod Symphony” (1958) provided a glimpse at some less-seen but lovely patterns and steps-nestled-within-steps. Thirty dancers surround and weave around a central couple — Magnicaballi and Cook. The original pink and yellow costumes have been redesigned. Holly Hynes’s chic black or white strapless bell-shaped dresses give those kaleidoscopic floor patterns new vivacity: they’re clear, crisp and smartly modern and the black-and-white palette is an artful nod to the black-and-white practice clothes Balanchine sometimes used to replace tutus.   

“Meditation” was the first ballet Balanchine made for Farrell and she owns the rights to it — a gift to her from its creator. A love poem in movement and music (Tchaikovsky), the ballet begins and then ends with a man (Kirk Henning on opening night), alone on stage, his head in his hands. An apparition, the ballerina, enters. Elisabeth Holowchuk is not quite the visionary spirit the ballet requires, but as the brief work concludes, we get an inkling of the intense passion that Balanchine felt for his then-young muse who inspired this work. It’s a love unrequited, but not unexpressed, in this ballet. The dancing alludes to heartbreak as Holowchuk and Henning entwine, their hands clasping, then he supports her in arabesque. But, ultimately, she backs away into darkness; he remains, bereft.

The opening night program began with “Chaconne,” from 1976. At its premiere Farrell danced the duet with Peter Martins. Here Heather Ogden and Thomas Garrett took some time to warm to each other and to the audience. The ballet has a split personality. The opening corps de ballet section features eight women, their hair loose, wearing flowing skin-toned chiffon — resembling Grecian priestesses. The couple returns for a more formal duet, and the rest of the ballet is danced in sky-blue tutus. The ballet’s title alluded to French court dance, and the second part contains courtly underpinnings in its classical structures. Farrell first brought this work into the company repertory in 2002 and revived it in 2007. This performance showed a strengthened corps and soloists over prior performances.

“Tzigane” was also created for Farrell, but after her return to New York City Ballet in 1975 following a hiatus. No longer an ingénue, Balanchine showcased his mature ballerina with a sultry entrance: a slow walk punctuated with gypsy-like flourishes of her hands. Magnicaballi has the spice and verve to heat up the Ravel score, parse out some czardas-like steps and attract her partner Cook. It’s a brief work — just nine minutes — but watching Magnicaballi interpret the Ravel violin solo, then backed up by a corps of four women and four men, hinted at the power and sex appeal that Farrell must have imbued in the role. Magnicaballi was steamy and Cook stalked her with ardor, but moments felt more like embers than flames.

Over her long career as a dancer, educator and artistic director, Farrell has received numerous accolades and awards, but she had not received acknowledgement for her contributions to her adopted city, Washington, D.C. That came December 7, when the Pola Nirenska Award was presented to Farrell in honor of her lifetime achievement in dance. Born in Poland, Nirenska escaped the Holocaust and eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where she became a notable matriarch for modern dance in the region. The honor puts a stamp of finality on the 17-year presence the Suzanne Farrell Ballet had in Washington, noting her contributions to the cultural life of the city through her illustrious dancing, teaching and artistic direction. 

Above: “Gounod Symphony,” The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company, choreography by George Balanchine, photo: Paul Kolnik

This review originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Ballet Review. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review here

 

 

     

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Portraits

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on June 17, 2018

‘Portraits’
Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
June 15-16, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Burgess I am Vertical Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli high res (1)

The portraits hang solemnly, unmoving at the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery. Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess breathes life and movement into these two-dimensional works of art with a triptych of works he titled “Portraits” for the Terrace Theater stage June 15-16. The first choreographer-in-residence at the Washington, D.C. art gallery, Burgess has immersed himself in the galleries, finding inspiration from the paintings and photographs that hang there. The pieces were originally made for the gallery. The transfer from the less-than-ideal atrium space with its soaring, wavy glass ceiling that bridges the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery was an auspicious one. The choreography fares much better framed on a proscenium stage than in the more open setting, where site lines and cranky kids, muddy acoustics and no theatrical lighting marred the performance experience.

Burgess created “I Am Vertical” last year from a close study of the intimate single-room exhibit “Sylvia Plath: One Life.” And though the exhibit was small, displaying some of the poet’s self-portraits, along with ephemera like a typewriter, family photos and pages from her manuscripts, her inspiration proved monumental for Burgess in parsing this writer’s brief (she died a suicide at 30) but momentous life. “I Am Vertical” does a close reading of the relationship between Plath and her husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes. Hughes was both Plath’s great love and her destruction. Burgess shows us the multi-facets of a creative mind by using four dancers to represent Plath, and three perform as Hughes. Sometimes they move together, but sometimes they split into fragments of a personality. The stark but attractive set design by Kelly Moss Southall and Ben Sanders, with its black diagonal runway cutting across the white stage floor, and a writer’s desk at either end suggests the great chasm between Plath and Hughes. The choreography uses that black line to draw the two characters and also as a representation of the blackness of Plath’s suffering — she was diagnosed with clinical depression.

The women, robed in attractive burgundy dresses by Judy Hansen and mid-20th-century hairstyles, begin with a tad of jitterbug to a decaying version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Their partners, clad in crisp gray slacks and shirts, bounce along, until they don’t, splintering off into their separate worlds. Burgess’s movement language here is specific — and parsed out succinctly, as Plath did with her words on the page. Each woman at times reflects what the others have done — one arm raised, the other to the side then one hand’s fingertips rest on the breastbone — suggesting tension between reaching out and turning inward. Plath’s life was a struggle between those two dichotomies. There are moments when a Sylvia and a Ted dance together, yet the various couplings among the four women and three men, never suggest ease. Rather a stiffness and formality subsumes these moments and, at times, a pair spars. He grabs a wrist. She turns away. And they both retreat to their respective desks, their alter egos silently observing. The soundtrack features some discomfiting strings, percussion and piano (Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen and Sophia Gubaidulina) and some archival interviews with Hughes and Plath. But most touching and telling are the segments when Plath reads her poem “I Am Vertical,” leading to the powerful, mordant ending: “But I would rather be horizontal” and “I shall be useful when I lie down finally” as each woman lies in down on the blackness in turn, the lights dimming.

Burgess I Am Vertical high res Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton (1)

Drawing from the exhibit “The Face of Battle: 9/11 to Now,” “After 1001 Nights” takes a subdued look at the battle scarred. Laid out like a chess match, the dancers, clad in drab tan slacks and shirts suggesting military khakis, move strategically in formation, initially on opposing sides. At center, two men — a veteran and a young soldier — shuffle oversized army men around a table, the dancers follow suit mimicking the formation in live form. Their lives have been rendered as insignificant as playing pieces on a chess board. The stoic, contained approach to movement suits the military setting, which later heats up with some hand-to-hand duets, but, like most Burgess works, emotions and choreographic choices are held in check. No one gets out of hand or out of line, even with John Zorn’s roaming klezmer-like score of horns and woodwinds. Burgess suggests that though war has damaged these men – and women, the scars remain buried. These veterans and soldiers remain stoic, uncompromised.

Closing the evening, “Confluence” provides a neat companion to “I Am Vertical” in look and sensibility. They both channel mid-20th-century sentiments, styles and sensibilities. Here Burgess took inspiration from a photographic portrait of one of modern dance’s iconic second-generation figures — Doris Humphrey — from the exhibit “Dancing the Dream.” A humanist in her choreographic vision, Humphrey founded a movement technique based on fall and recovery, though not much of that physicality is evident. The portrait, shot by Barbara Morgan, is all light and shadow, grays and blacks, with her subject’s pale skin pierced by deep-set eyes. The five women and five men channel introspection and angst in their chic black costumes — the women with sheer skirts over leggings and midriff-baring tanks, the men again in neat pants and shirts.

Some of Burgess’s favorite movements that arm pose — one up, one out (in ballet we’d call it third position) — and the touching of the breastbone repeat, along with some slashing side leg lifts and arms. Yet these choreographic “tells” are not quite unique enough to name them “signature” moves; they just happen to be favored moments in Burgess’s movement vocabulary. That said, the piece is attractively danced. In fact, the company appears technically as strong as I’ve ever seen it, with a marked improvement by the men, who have often been less adept than the women in prior years.

The accompanying score also channels a mid-20th-century sensibility, with Ernest Bloch’s sometimes nervous violin and incessant piano chords. “Confluence” comes together with a sense of grave purpose, a heaviness of intent that suggests Humphrey’s aesthetic — even her lightest and brightest works reflected a sense of importance and a notion of seriousness that made early and mid-20th century moderns high artists. Like Humphrey, though, Burgess’s works are always well-polished, and his never veer far from pretty. He favors clean, articulate lines and his dancers comply. You won’t find dark, gut-wrenching moments — no gut-wrenching contractions or contortions — and the dancers, even as soldiers and veterans slumped on the floor, maintain a sense of lift. They may give into gravity and fall, but they never collapse in heaps.

Beyond his residencies at the Smithsonian, Burgess, a full professor in the dance department at George Washington University, has toured his company throughout the world, often on the behest of the State Department. Originally founded to provide voice for Asian American dancers and ideals, this program in one among many that has moved beyond his founding mission as the company celebrates its 25th year in Washington, D.C.

 

Photos courtesy Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Top: “I Am Vertical,” Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli, by Jeff Watts
Bottom: “I Am Vertical,” Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton, by Jeff Watts
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published June 16, 2018
This piece originally appeared on DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission. 

 

 

 

 

 

Tapestry

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 23, 2018

Layla and Majnun
Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silkroad Ensemble
Featuring Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
March 22, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8151 (2)

A tapestry of poetry, chant, music and dance drawn from a swath of the ancient Silk Road has provided vivid inspiration for influential choreographer Mark Morris. His re-envisioning of Layla and Majnun, the ancient tale of star-crossed lovers with roots in Persia, Azerbaijan and other Silk Road locales, an ancient trade root which stretch across Asia from Japan to the Mediterranean Sea, fills a riveting 65 minutes. Morris’s acclaimed and beloved dance troupe has made a return Kennedy Center visit, and on opening night March 22 the full Opera House indicated that his choreographic vision continues to astound — and break down cultural barriers.

Modern dance and ancient Azerbaijani music? Yes, please, it works on multiple levels.

This cross-cultural collaboration, which premiered in 2016 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, knitted together celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s brainchild, the Silkroad Project, with renowned Azerbaijani father and daughter mugham singers Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, and Morris’s articulate dancers retelling a poetic tale of forbidden love. It’s no wonder the marketing material touted the work’s similarity to “Romeo and Juliet,” though the original tale dates back to the 12th century, about four centuries before Shakespeare penned his own star-crossed-lover tale of woe and tragedy.

Interestingly, the eight Silkroad musicians — beautifully clad in bold sunflower yellow batik prints — and the Qasimovs are placed right in the center of the stage on elevated platforms. In the five short acts the dancers maneuver around them, up and down the stepped risers performing on various levels behind the musicians or close to the lip of the stage in front of them. It’s a subtle nod to the importance Morris gives to the music and it’s also an acknowledgement that this East-West meeting of music and dance culture is not appropriating, it is emphasizing the ancient traditional singing an instrumentation. And with the late Howard Hodgkin’s gorgeous costumes evoking Central Asia, inspired by miniature paintings from Azerbaijan, and a striking backdrop featuring oversized brush strokes in deep green and strong orange, the work is more than dance, music or opera. I would reach back to Richard Wagner and call it gesamtkunstwerk — a mouthful that means a “total work of art” or a work that synthesizes allied arts — music, dance, theater, painting, poetry — into a singular piece. In dance, during the Ballets Russes era, dancer-turned-choreographer Michel Fokine also promoted this concept. Morris gently brings it into the 21st century.

For movement material, Morris delves deep into his early dance background as a folk dancer — think Greek, Balkan, Serbian, Macedonian — during his teen years and imbues the choreography with a crystalline simplicity that relies on concise arm gestures that stretch, reach and curve with a fine sense of plastique. His footwork, too, is spare, based on natural locomotor movements: walking, stepping, lunging, and, during a celebratory scene, hops, two-footed jumps and tiny mincing steps that could be balletic bourres. He uses the ballet arabesque shape as a decorative gesture akin to the curvilinear lines seen in Arabic calligraphy and art. Instead of a static geometric pose or pause, Morris’s arabesques flow with ease from a balance on one leg, the other lifted behind, into a deep lunge forward in continuous motion, like a calligrapher’s pen tracing elegant script.

The story unfurls in five brief acts, and in each a different pair of dancers play the doomed lovers, a doubling technique that Morris has used in previous works, most notably his 1989 Dido and Aeneas, where he split the central character into two roles — Dido and the destroyer — which he himself played at once. While the dancers are clad uniformly, the women in long tangerine-colored dresses, the men in sea blue silk tunics and white pants, they represent the universality and unity of the community. Out of the many, Leyla and Majnun are each distinguished by a scarf that gets passed on from act to act. As the acts proceed, from the first “Love and Separation” to “The Parents’ Disapproval” to “Sorrow and Despair,” “Layla’s Unwanted Wedding” to the final “The Lovers’ Demise,” the interchangeable couples seamlessly transform from the corps to the lead soloists. This sharing of the lead lovers lends an added sense of universality to the heartbreaking tale drawn from a Persian poem by Nezami Ganjawl, which, too, takes inspiration from older sources on the trade routes. Forbidden love, it seems, has a long and fraught history that continues to capture our hearts and catch in our throats.

The ancient narrative unspools to the plaintive chants of Qasimov and Qasimova and as their voices trill and cant, cry and tremble, you can hear the unrequited desire, the everlasting longing, the pain of separation and the inevitable choice to choose a poignantly beautiful death over a miserable loveless life. Structurally, Morris follows the musical and poetic scores in the work and remains respectful of the Muslim culture from which it derives. The dancers’ costumes are modest, though the women’s hair does flow freely — in the spirit of young love perhaps? — and there are gendered spaces, though Morris’s democratic ethos means that even when men and women are often separated by the center-stage musicians and the risers, they perform the same gestures and steps, in unison and canon.

Morris consciously nods to dance genres linked to the Silk Road — a paddle turn, one palm up and one down, recalls whirling dervishes and he lets the dancers recline on the floor, like ancient Greeks leaning on an elbow at a banquet. The livelier dances resemble pairs of folk dancers with quick little runs, shoulders ticking forward and back, or arms slung across shoulders as short lines of men travel in grapevines like so many central European dances. I also noted a reverence for early 20th century dance modernists — Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis in particular — who both sought inspiration from the art and culture of the Silk Road. In Morris, you see it in snaking arms, wide body tilts to the side, and crooked elbows and knees emphasizing angularity rather than smoothly pleasing body positions — think a sensual S-curve drawn from Indian dance, or a fleet-footed sculpture of Mercury, his lifted leg cocked behind him, ready for flight.

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8173 (2)

Most instructive of the Muslim roots of the story, Morris ensures that the longing lovers Layla and Majnun don’t touch until the end. And the momentary lingering of a hand on a cheek proves more effective and pure than a Hollywoodesque full-on embrace and smooch. There’s a lovely section where he, surrounds his partner with an open armed hug, but their bodies never meet, and then she returns the gesture, as the motif continues, again and again. These moments of gendered spaces meeting with the utmost restraint reveal the power in our over-sexualized society in holding back.

That, too, is the beauty of Morris’s choreographic vision in Layla and Majnun — that earthly love, while enticing, can only attain divinity when body, soul and spirit are sacrificed for eternal love. It’s a story that continues to live across cultures and centuries — conquering intolerance with love.

 

This piece was originally published on dcmetrotheaterarts.com, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 
Photos by Susana Millman, courtesy Kennedy Center.
Top: dancers: Lesley Garrison and Durell R. Comedy in Layla and Majnun
Bottom: Billy Smith and Nicole Sabella, Aaron Loux and Rita Donahue, Lesley Garrison and Durell R. Comedy

 

Published March 23, 2018
© 2018 Lisa Traiger

 

video: Mark Morris on the making of “Layla and Majnun” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7qldzZcuS4

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

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

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

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

cafe muller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

Dancing While a Black Man

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 25, 2017

 

Triggered
Helanius J. Wilkins
Terrace Theater, Millennium Stage
The Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
December 3, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Helanius bon coeur

Well before “Black Lives Matter,” the hatch tag and the movement, former Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Helanius J. Wilkins was making work that unapologetically demonstrated that black lives matter. It’s been 16 years since he founded his all-male, all-African-American company Edgeworks Dance Theater in the District. Created during an era when especially young black men in urban areas were besieged — and struggling for recognition, for respect, for racial equity, amid drug, gang and police violence, Edgeworks (2001-2014) pulled back the curtain on ignored aspects of black men — gentleness, graceful, loving, softness, intellect — that the press often neglected.

Triggered, a retrospective culled from a handful of Wilkins’ works, reveals the obvious: not much has changed in how black men are regarded in America today and back in 2001, when he began his choreographic explorations. Black male identity has long been Wilkins’ wheelhouse. Among his works, Risk (2001), Fearless (2003), the collaborative Extreme Measures (2004), Cold Case (2005) and Trigger (2011) all deal with issues relevant to black masculinity. His works traverse headline-blaring topics like gang violence, police brutality to less remarked on issues like homosexuality, homelessness, and identity politics. Sometimes he pushes back against the expectations audiences have of black men and black male bodies. He’ll show us two men in a delicately performed duet, their easy grace and lightness upending the stereotypical way black men are portrayed in the media.

Case in point is the three-part “A Love Crisis,” from 2006. The piece opens the program with Wilkins, clad in a loose silky white shirt, as he circles his torso with a Doris Humphreyesque breathiness and calm, his arms unfolding like freshly laundered sheets with an easygoing flow and waft. There’s a prettiness and lightness to his approach here that belies the lyrics of the Me’shell N’degeocello song “Wasted Time … On Luvin’ U”:  a bitter ballad of heartbreak, played out by Wilkins’ exit backwards his fist lowering in retreat. In “Bitter,” D.C.-area dancer Reginald Cole, bare-chested and muscular, continues the brokenhearted theme, which brings him into the floor, his head on a pillow of his hands, a collapse after his gentle strength has been spent. Wilkins returns for the final section, “To the One I … With Love,” featuring jazz singer Diana Krall crooning, “I can drink a case o you and still be on my feet.” Here he shows his balletic side, with arabesque turns imbued with the lushness of a ballerina. As ordinary as the arabesque image is on a dance stage, on a black male modern dancer it reads with a jolt, a bit of defiance even amid its loveliness. The forlorn ending of “A Love Crisis” is a study in loneliness, as Wilkins gives in, a physical retreat for his emotional ardor.

From the evening-length piece Cold Case, the duet “The Letter” includes a spoken missive from a father to his newborn son. It’s an eloquent and hopeful narration read on tape by Ayden Elder. “Dear Son, I write this letter in the hope that when you’re old enough to change the world the world will have changed.” It includes an ethical will of sorts — “You are a black man in America. You are in a position to be feared and loved. You are powerful and will have an opportunity to strike a blow against negative images …” — from a father who may not see his son grow to maturity. The searing words of the monologue overshadow the movement material, with its mixture of casual pedestrian feel and its muscular athleticism. An excerpt from Trigger, “Warning” posits the rejoinder to the letter-writing father’s hope to see a powerful, black son emerge into adulthood. Wilkins hasn’t often choreographed for women. Stacie Cannon imparts a portrait of a black everywoman. Seated in a chair, Cannon performs amid clamor of sirens, the theme song to a popular cop reality series and news reports of violence in the black community. Weighted and slumped, she exerts effort in revealing the demoralization and pain of women waiting for word on their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Her elbow cocked as if she holds a burning cigarette, Cannon’s shoulders roll forward, her head drops, bereft. “Warning” raises the unspoken question: who are the hidden victims of violence?  

“Media’s Got Me All Figured Out: Reloaded” provides a bit of a release from Wilkins’ older works, with their focus on race, crime, and violence. The trio, accompanied by recorded interviews and sound bites, a counterpoint to the broad brush strokes of the choreography, with its flinging arms, athletic jumps and push-up planks. The two men, Aaron Allen Jr. and Keith Haynes at one point catch Arneshia Williams. Later, the image is reversed, she’s holding up one of the men, collapsed in her arms. Among the aphorisms and epigrams shared in the voiceover, the statement “Racism is real. Racism is not dead” precedes a sobering roll call of names of black men who have been killed in police violence in recent years. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Freddy Gray. And on. And on. And on.

The 50-minute program, presented in the recently renovated Terrace Theater rather than the less accommodating Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center due to activities for the Kennedy Center Honors, concluded with a snippet from a work in progress. The excerpt from A Bon Coeur, the full work premieres in 2018, glimpses at the artist’s roots in New Orleans. A Louisiana native, Wilkins pays tribute in color, light, sound and movement to is beloved forbears and their city and its rich cultural heritage. But he’s not immune to the turmoil of the region and to its recent challenges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Featuring a text written and spoken by Wilkins and a video portrait of the city, shown through a video window projected on the stage backdrop, provides striking imagery and language. Beginning with stormy weather and a bouncy Second Line New Orleans brass band, the quickly shifting collage of video clips includes parades, gospel choirs, rainy streets and backyards. Wilkins choreography recalls his earlier athleticism, powerful and graceful, the choreography serves as a supplement, rather than the main course. He becomes a supplicant with prayerful hand gestures and outstretched arms, trembling, falling prostrate on the ground.

Later he pulls himself to standing, reaching, palms beseeching. Later he pushes forward, his arms suggesting a breast stroke, swimming against an invisible current. “I was raised in you,” Wilkins says, of his beloved New Orleans. A Bon Coeur is his paean to a city that has faced adversity but moves forward, a vibrant artistic and cultural gumbo. Interestingly, this latest work, is a fitting addition to Wilkins body of work. He spent two decades wrestling with identity, public and private, of black men. Now in Au Bon Coeur he digs deep into his roots. In all, though, Wilkins doesn’t allow his audience to forget, even for a moment, that experiences of black men in an America remain far from equal to their white peers.

Photo: Angelisa Gillyard
December 17, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

 

 

Percussive Family Reunion

Posted in Dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2017

Lotus, featuring Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Omar Edwards, Derick Grant, Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Baakari Wilder and the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet
The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 7, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Tap dancers are family. As family they gather together, catch up, trade stories, reminisce, honor their forbears and simply, yet profoundly, enjoy each others’ company. Saturday evening’s sold-out Lotus reunited a half-dozen dancers who initially connected in the rehearsal studios and on stage in the 1995 Broadway groundbreaker Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. The musical, conceived by director George C. Wolfe with choreography by Savion Glover, pushed the percussive dance form into the limelight, showcasing its deep and sometimes dark roots in the ignominious slave history that continues to haunt our nation. The young, then-unknown dancers at the time, were just discovering that tap could speak deeply of America’s racial bias and slave history.

Lotus tap Ken Cen

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick Grant and Omar Edwards front the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. Not shown: Baakari Wilder. Photo: Chris Stark, Stark Photo Productions

 

Today those dancers are at the heights of their careers. Lotus brought them together for one night, but the reunion wasn’t as much about looking back over the decades, but of forging ahead.

Joseph Webb, a Maryland native who most recently directed the American Embassy of Dance studio in Northwest Washington, D.C., brought his peers together as both a celebration and a meditation on the vitality and cultural import of tap. In the just-re-opened Terrace Theater — now wrapped in warm undulating wood — these six dancers hoofed their hearts out, drawing on the glorious tap dance history of their forbears — teachers, mentors, friends and family who supported their dreams and got them to this point in time.

Yet there was nothing reverential for too long. In the darkness, the call and response of the Hoofer’s Line, “Ho yeah, ho yeah ho,” got the 75-minute program off to a rousing start, each dancer entering in a rumbling tattoo of rhythms to the accompaniment of the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. The roar of paddle-and-rolls was a thrilling backdrop as each dancer showed their stuff — a taste of what was to come. This opening gambit reached its denouement as the six wound themselves into a close circle before whipping out a turn that went to blackout.

Tap, like many improvisatory dance forms, has a strong competitive streak and old school hoofers often issued a “challenge” to other dancers in the line or circle to try to best them. Here, these six took on the challenge with a sense of camaraderie, egging one another on with friendly encouragement. The result: terrifically complex rhythmic conversations, syncopated dialogues that speak of past, present and future all at once.

The six performers brought together for Lotus teemed with energy, their footwork a succession of fiery pyrotechnics and calmer meanderings exploring the rhythmic universe. Each exhibited distinctive traits and I’m willing to bet that with a bit more time, one could as readily identify them by their beats in the dark as on the warmly lit stage.

There was Omar Edwards, the showman of the group, radiant in his stark white suit. And Derick Grant with a knit watch cap atop his head, the workhorse of the sextet, in t-shirt and jeans. Joseph Webb, his man bun bobbling atop his head, a city-slicker scarf around his neck, exuded cool, calmness in his dark shades. An attractive combination of uptown and downtown, Jason Samuels Smith is the swell of the group, sharply attired in a three-piece blue business suit and shiny gold tap shoes, he can hit hard, and slum it, but also, demonstrate a lightness. The intellect of the gang is lanky, understated Baakari Wilder, another local, who co-directs the youth company Capitol Tap and teaches at Knock on Wood studio. In his trademark purple tap shoes he’s the deep listener, and when he puts foot to wood, it’s with a studied approach, his head cocked slightly to the left, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed. Finally, but most certainly not least, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards shows the feminine side of what can sometimes become a boys’ club of heavy hitting tap. But she’s no shrinking violet. In fact, she’s easily as fierce as the men, her waist-length braids whipping behind her, her upper body grace belying the power pumping from her feet. Occasionally in heels, Sumbry-Edwards recalls the popular adage: “Sure Fred Astaire was great, Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”

The evening incorporated voiceovers from some of the performers, talking about why tap was so vital to them and who they wished to credit as mentors and inspiration. These monologues were often quite moving — the only problem was at times it was hard to discern all that was said over the band and the taps.

Edwards’s recorded monologue spoke about his not always easy journey, but, he said, “it wasn’t as bas as it could have been … every day I love to hear the sound of metal hitting wood … and I still dream about tap dancing.” He also removed his white patent leather tap boots and, barefoot, paid tribute to his Liberian-born mother, who only received her first pair of shoes at 14. Shortly after, he grabbed a microphone and urged the audience into a clapping call-and-response, allowing those sitting in the dark a moment to trade rhythms with a few of this generation’s best tap dancers. Wilder, the most reserved of the six, spoke on tape about his support system — his mother, his family and his faith — and how he has slowly but steadily grown into his gift. Webb stated that for him tap is “a healing art form.” He acknowledged the gratitude he held for his master teachers, including Lon Chaney (the tap dancer), Gregory Hines, Diane Walker and others. Then his solo paid tribute in steps — the smooth Chaney-isms, the flashier speed of Hines, the lilt of Walker, the playfulness of Buster Brown. Webb spoke, too, about his admiration for the work of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who not only sought her own freedom, but helped many others escape the hardship of American slavery. Webb and his tap brothers and sister dance in the footsteps of those who came before.

The band drew selections from jazz and blues classics — Thelonius Monk, Cole Porter, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Gershwin brothers. More contemporary voices included Wilder’s solo danced to a piece by popular composer and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo and Sumbry-Edwards’s solo “Just Swinging,” by the dancer and Alison Miller.

Also beautiful about tap is that it is as much a musical form as a dance form. As the band played Branford Marsalis’s “Mo Betta Blues” longtime friends – they call themselves brothers – Webb and Wilder syncopated the piece with their quicksilvery taps. Samuels Smith sliced up rhythms like a birthday cake performing to Miles Davis’s “Joshua” and Lee Morgan’s “Ceora.” Webb followed trombonist Reginald Cyntje and trumpet player Joseph Jamaal Teachey on a sharply cut swath of light reminiscent of a New Orleans Second Line. And the rousing, and too short, closing number that brought the gang of tap friends together featured Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.”

Lotus tap Ken Cen (2)

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb and Omar Edwards with the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet, Photo Chris Stark of Stark Photo Productions

Each of these dancers had plenty to say about the form, their mentors and what tap means to them. They also let their feet and bodies do the talking. Edwards with high kicks, and Nicholas Brothers stunners like a flip into a jazz split. Grant followed a hard hitting section with some butterfly-like ripples on the floor. Samuels Smith brought a high-powered ease to his riffs and more than a little dazzle with some tricky balances, slides and rolls. Webb offered lighter flashy footwork along with his million dollar smile. Sumbry-Edwards could play the flirt, especially at the end in her sequined little red dress, but she did a stunning riff on time steps that could put a mathematician to shame with its numeric complexities. Wilder, the lightest of the dancers, sometimes recalled old time soft shoe in his easygoing lilt.

This format, which also featured projections of unnamed portraits — sketched, painted and photographed — of African Americans from the past, seems to have been drawn from last fall’s DC Metro Tap Roots program at Dance Place. This time with more dancers, it’s more fleshed out, but there’s still more to do, more stories and experiences to be shared. As the six dancers and the musical quartet stitched out their rhythmic patterns in shifting solos, pairings and groupings, the moment became one of tribute to the multitude of unnamed, and perhaps nameless, ancestors whose lives and struggles made this moment of celebration and homage possible.

Throughout the evening, tap aficionados nodded in recognition of steps, patterns, rhythms and riffs that drew upon the work of beloved tap masters, including the likes of Buster Brown, Lon Chaney, Gregory Hines, Diane Walker, Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, the Condos Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers and Jeni Le Gon, leaving out many more than I could name.

Webb called this evening Lotus to evoke the flower that, he wrote in the program “grows in the mud …. Tap dance, with deep roots and tradition in African dance, has not always been a just and beautiful experience in America.”

But it’s important to note that Lotus was not just an evocation of the past. It was a look to the future. These six dancers are at the peaks of their careers and they dance in acknowledgement of the lineage they carry in their muscles and bones, their sinews and souls, but they are ever moving forward, forging their own paths. It’s America’s story, told through dance, through steps in time, rhythms that speak of ancient tribal calls and modern hip hop stances. That is the story of tap dance — one of our prized indigenous American dance forms — that remains rooted in its past as it fearlessly pushes forward. Let’s hope these dancers and musicians can build this one-off into a touring production that would bring this vibrant generation of tap masters to further attention around the nation and beyond. Their voices and feet need to be heard.

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

 

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

 

 

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 the 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