D.C. DanceWatcher

Formidable Feminist

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on March 9, 2020

The Eve Project
Martha Graham Dance Company
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
March 5-7, 2020

Martha Graham Dance Company_Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham's 'Diverson of Angels'_Photo by Brigid Pierce

On the eve of the day we learned that we still can’t elect a woman as qualified as Elizabeth Warren president, the Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with The EVE Project, an uncompromisingly feminist program of works showcasing women as creators, intellects, thinkers, and warriors. In an era where girls and women still have to lay claim to the #MeToo mantra, Graham’s works were equal parts inspirational and instructive, aside from being exquisitely danced by a formidable company of 19.

Modern dance was founded by freethinking, independent women — Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis preceded Graham, but with her independent spirit, boundless creativity, instinctual eye for art, design, high fashion, and her era’s pop culture zeitgeist, Martha is our Ur mother of modern dance. Her lengthy career was marked by multiple masterworks that literally set the course for mid-century modernism with her preference for both mining emotional landscapes and letting the body speak her own inner psychological narratives.

At 94, the Graham company is the country’s oldest continuously performing dance company. When Graham died in 1991 at 96, the company faced some difficult years when the works looked shopworn and the dancing was only passably Grahamesque. Presently, under the astute direction of former Graham dancer Janet Eilber, this legacy American troupe is now in top form.

Eilber has brought together a cadre of exquisite dancers who have not only mastered the lifeforce of Graham — the power of the pelvis and the expulsion of breath that create that richly physical expression of emotion, the contraction and release. But other Graham staples include the torque of the body, mainly in the oppositional pull of the shoulder against the push of the hip. These dancers, too, are streamlined, though still able to access the weighty, solid groundedness Graham technique demands, they can soar and stretch endlessly. Both earth and air inhabit their realm.

These days, we talk about the body’s core as the center of strength and power. Graham accessed that vital lifeforce a century ago by experimenting with her own body in the 1920s and ’30s. She based an entire movement language on harnessing the pelvis and the breath, contraction and release to both propel the body and collapse it.

A wonderful video montage titled “Eve Forging” by Justin Scholar set the stage for a program meant to celebrate women and the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. At center, Graham dances in “Frontier,” one of her iconic Americana works. Before a wooden fence she gazes outward on a vast landscape, her leg cocked up on the railing, swings in an arc. Around her photographic portraits of twentieth-century female changemakers come into focus — Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, Sally Ride to note a few. These are women who, like Graham, made a difference and left an indelible imprint.

Martha Graham Dance Company_Photo of Xin Ying and Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s Chronicle by Melissa Sherwood

“Diversion of Angels,” from 1948, is both an abstraction colored with painterly brush strokes of yellow- and red-costumed dancers and a meditation on love in its three stages:  adolescent flirtatious love, romantic love, and mature love. As the flirts, Charlotte Landreau, clad in a yellow torso-defining full-legged jumpsuit (design by Graham), and Lloyd Mayor, chase each other with skipping leaps. He whips her in a lift around his waist and up on his shoulder where she balances on a knee, her leg behind in arabesque. In red, So Young An zooms across the stage in slashing runs. Lloyd Knight scoops her up, cartwheels her and they melt into splits circling one another on the floor.

As the mature couple, Natasha Diamond-Walker uses her powerful centered stillness to command attention and the company of dancers often seems to orbit around her. When she and her partner Alessio Crognale embrace,they reach for the other’s face, cradle in arching lifts. The men also become a Greek chorus, heel stepping and balancing in wheeling arcs. I love, too, how the women reach their arms above head and one shoulder juts out before they run off; this stylistic Graham initiation is so wonderfully highlight by this company of dancers. “Diversion of Angels” beautifully evokes many of these essential Grahamisms, reminding us how vividly she allowed the body to speak and sing.

The evening’s oldest work, “Ekstasis,” is a solo from 1933 that clarifies Graham’s use of the torso as central to everything she created. Gorgeously performed by Anne Souder, the work is a study in angles and curves as she cocks out one hip and cantilevers her torso in the opposite direction with sensuous power. Shoulder and hip tension build up oppositional forces in the body. The result? Stunning, as is the torso-hugging shift dress Graham designed, simple, elegant and suitably elastic. Most surprising about this study, with choreography “reimagined” by Virginie Mecene, is how downright sexy Martha must have been performing this.

“Lamentation Variations” is an ongoing choreographic experiment that Eilber has honed from a 2007 one-off into a purposeful way of forging the company’s future-looking path. Graham’s seminal 1930 solo — it’s the one where she’s seated on a bench swathed in a tube of purple fabric, oozing psychic pain with every gut punch and elbow jab. Eilber invites choreographers to react to a 1943 film capturing Graham in the role, with a few rules: just 10 hours of rehearsal, public domain music or silence, no sets or props basic costumes and no longer than four minutes.

Martha Graham Dance Company_Photo of PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s Ekstasis by Brigid Pierce

For the Kennedy Center, choreographers Aszure Barton, Liz Gerring, and Michelle Dorrance were enlisted and music included George Crumb, Michael J. Schumacher, and Dorrance and Jaco Pastorius, respectively. Each brief study had serendipitous moments that spoke to either physical, emotional, or dynamic manifestations of the work. Barton’s duet was so stunningly silky and slightly morbid if felt like a suspenseful trailer danced with utmost liquidity by Laurel Dalley Smith and Anne O’Donnell. Gerring’s lunges and falls, and walking patterns drew from a post-modernist playbook, while Dorrance’s — no surprise for the tap genius — parsed out rhythms with walks pauses, kneels and rises for a group of 10 dancers. Later for “Untitled (Souvenir),” of-the-moment modernist Pam Tanowitz set in motion a number of quirky skitters, scoots, jumps and asymmetrical groupings of eight dancers clad in fashions by TOME (Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin) set in motion to longtime collaborator Caroline Shaw’s strings and sound composition.

With anti-war and feminist tropes, “Chronicle” packed a powerful punch, showcasing the company’s 10 women in a rousing call to solidarity and, need it be said, still? — revolution. The work, which premiered in 1936, was created between the two world wars, just 16 years after women gained the right to vote. Built in three parts, it was Graham’s response to fascism. The previous year, she had been invited to perform as part of the 1936 Olympics in Germany. She refused and made “Chronicle,” which, she noted, is not an “attempt to show the actualities of war” but evokes “war’s images.”

Stunning and fearless Leslie Andrea Williams, clad in another Graham-designed costume, a black fitted dress with a voluminous scarlet-lined skirt, rests on a platform, Sphinx-like in profile, but ready to pounce. As she rises, her hands cupped like a Graham contraction, her body tilts off-kilter, the sweep of her leg whipping the skirts. The dress becomes a shawl, a shroud, and with the crimson showing, Williams drips with blood. This is “Spectre – 1914.”

As “Steps in the Street” opens, a company of black clad women enter, slowly, individually, one by one. Each has one arm bent, elbow at the shoulder, the other tensed at the hip, with their bodies torqued, their slow backwards steps, it’s as if they’re bearing a burden — a basket, a child, the weight of the world itself resting on their shoulders.

All angles — elbows, knees, flexed feet and wrists — the women form a regiment, traverse the stage in linear paths, carving space in unison. Wallingford Riegger’s music has urgent drumming and pressing horns and the women clench their fists, raising their arms up. Lunging and gouging gestures, a foot-tapping walk performed with march-like precision and sturdy sure moments of repose build into larger locomotion, jagged stag leaps, cartwheels and another singular dash across the diagonal. These women don’t just stand their ground; the swallow space asserting their power with tense determination. The closing section, “Prelude to Action,” ends on a high note as the company of 10 walk with a slight stagger forward, stare down the audience, a flexed palm pressing to us.

In a current political climate when women’s rights, women’s bodies and women’s spirits are being challenged, this was both a cri de coeur and a call to action. Graham never gave up. Her choreographic voice has made a lasting mark and changed the course of 20th-century art. We should continue to heed her example. As she said, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that the others are behind the time.”

 

Photos: top, Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau, Martha Graham Dance Company, in Graham’s “Diversion of Angels.” Photo by Brigid Pierce.
Xin-Ying and Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s “Chronicle.” Photo by Melissa Sherwood.
Peilju Chien-Pott in Graham’s “Ekstasis.” Photo by Brigid Pierce
Photos courtesy John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’
This review was first published on DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished with kind permission. 
(c) 2020 Lisa Traiger

2019 Danced: A Year of Watching

meredith monk cellular sounds

In a year of shutdowns and quid pro quo, #metoo and they, fake news and brutal losses in journalism, migration and detention, drain-the-swamp and impeachment, dance was a salvo and an appeasement in light of the incessant and depressing 24/7 news cycle of 2019.

But the good news prevailed: curtains still rose, lights continued to shine, choreographers created, dancers still danced, and audiences came and applauded. For all that, I am thankful.

My own 2019 dance year contained a few personal bests, including an invitation to take part in the Kennedy Center REACH opening programming on National Dance Day in September. For the free outdoor stage, I curated and narrated what was called a “D.C. Local Dance History Program.” In hindsight, a better title, perhaps “D.C. Dance Luminaries” or stars, would have made it sound sexier. I was fortunate to bring together under a single umbrella The Washington Ballet — performing an excerpt from choreographer Choo San Goh’s signature piece, the sleek neo-modern “Fives” — and Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. I even got a quick photo op with TWB AD Julie Kent and Jones-Haywood AD Sandra Fortune Green — probably a first. I was moved to bring Melvin Deal and his African Heritage Drummers and Dancers to a Kennedy Center stage for the first time.

Beyond that, I published a 2,500-word piece on the history and increasing popularity of Israeli contemporary dance artists around the world for Moment magazine.

And I continued to watch and write on dance. Here are my highlights from a year of highs and lows.

Orange Grove dance photo @evangelinaa_g

2019 began and ended with two of the most intriguing — and artistically different — programs featuring locally based choreographers. January 26-27 at Dance Place, Orange Grove Dance left me intrigued and wanting more from its evening-length Waking Darkness. Waiting Light. Filled with momentous moments of mystery, of dreams, of haunted memories and profound reflection, the four performers, including choreographers Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves, fill the work in ways that make this tightly knit piece feel expansive. With washes of light and hand-held coffee-tin spotlights, designed by Peter Leibold, and an atmospheric yet musical sound score by Dylan Glatthorn, along with Mark Costello’s projections that give the evening a noir-ish feel,  Waking Darkness. Waiting Light is both physically and emotionally athletic in parsing the netherworld of half-remembered dreams and unforgettable nightmares. The visceral approach to movement by Krogol, Reeves, Jonathan Hsu, and Juliana Ponguta let this work resonate deeply.

Another local best, also on view at Dance Place came late in 2019: tap dancer extraordinaire Baakari Wilder and director/choreographer Kerri Edge brought the searing REFORM: Racial Disparities in American Criminal Justice to Washington, D.C., November 23-24. Though still under development, the evening-length piece is a polemic — in the best sense — on the legacy that slavery and racism has wrought on our beloved United States. Featuring tappers Omar Edwards, Abron Glover and Joseph Webb joining Maryland-native Wilder, along with live jazz from the Dom Ellis Trio, REFORM is the type of piece on would expect in a year of so much political and social upheaval. This is a piece that aims to change audiences’ perspectives on race, racism, incarceration and institutional prejudice. Intermingled with live solo and accompanied tap numbers are torn-form-the-headlines or -history video clips: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Yusef Salaam, one of the young men accused of being a “Central Park Five” member.

Baakari Wilder photo-Michel Leroy (1)I heard chatter in the lobby after the show that tap was not an expressive medium to carry forth the heavy message this show imparts. But tap is exactly the appropriate genre to pull back the curtain on America’s long-standing racist and hate-filled roots. With its heavy-hitting footwork by Webb and Edwards, its lighter more nervous tremors from Wilder’s solo performed in prison stripes, to the chorus line of leggy beauties from the Divine Dance Institute, tap is exactly the right means to express the anxiety, fear despair and hope these men represent as they parse through the history of slavery, racism and discrimination in America. REFORM, in ways, reflects and moves past some of the methods and materials in the groundbreaking 1995 musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, of which Wilder is an alum, but REFORM feels more like a sequel, taking audiences further by immersing them in the ramifications of black-men’s actions that are still statistically more likely to land them in jail or dead, than their white counterparts. REFORM is difficult to watch and doesn’t leave audiences with much uplifting. Rather it’s a call to both acknowledgement — particularly for privileged audiences, white or otherwise — and action.

Two other works in 2019, too, left me feeling a sense of urgency to step forward and do something. At Dance Place February 16 and 17, Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women’s Hair & Other Stories, crafted from personal narratives from a wide-ranging tour of kitchens and living rooms, beauty shops and church basements, that demands audience members to ask who they are, where they stand and, ultimately, will they take a stand. With text, spoken word, narrative vignettes, video sequences and participatory sections, over nearly two-and-a-half hours, Hair & Other Stories becomes both a celebration of resilient black women and a challenge to outsiders. Co-choreographers (and UBW associate artistic directors) Chanon Judson and Samantha Spies lay out plenty of provocative concepts through song and dance, narrative and lecture, stylists’ props like pomades and combs. The performers’ rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and raised fists draw from the lexicon of Africanist movement. And along with the equal purity of stillness and work gestures like sweeping, brushing, and stirring motions a variety of embodied cultures are braided into the choreographic language. As in any UBW concert, the audience is asked to stand, come down to the stage and move with and alongside the dancers. that draws from deeply planted roots. We’re told, and reminded, that this isn’t merely a performance: “This is the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.”

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated its 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a glitzy opening night featuring hip-hop master Rennie Harris’s “Lazarus.” It was the company’s first two-part piece and the work is a companion, really a sequel, to Ailey’s masterwork, “Revelations,” which mined his own “blood memories” growing up in the African American church. While “Revelations” is a journey from slavery to renewal to a celebration of freedom in church, that tracks African American history, “Lazarus” picks up where Ailey left off, dealing forthrightly with the U.S. history of racism, the nation’s original — and ongoing — sin. Harris draws movement motifs from Africanist body language and the searing recognition of the continuing struggle — and triumph — of being black in America. For more see my review here.

AAADTs Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik2

February also brought New York-based Zvi Dance to Dance Place February 9-10, performing his 2012 Dabke, previously seen in the area at the late American Dance Institute. In fusing the Arab folk dance typically performed in lines with hands clasped or arms around shoulders with contemporary dance, Zvi Gotheiner sets his dancers into patterns of complex rhythmic stomps, fierce and barefooted. Lines and groups play off and against each other, and groups and solos merge and fade, as snakelike lines intersect and disperse. There’s a harshness of attack that’s both thrilling and disconcerting and subtle, barely-there gestures a raised fist, steely gaze, the throwing of stones, or chest-bumping confrontation, suggest sparring, even uprising. That the Arab-born dabkah, merged into the bouncier less earth-bound debke in the Israeli folk dance community, also tells a story in this dance about cultural convergence and appropriation.

Beyond hometown presenters, a new work presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s signature Ballet Across America program intrigued me. The pair of programs May 28 – June 2 in the Opera House brought together Dance Theatre of Harlem and Miami City Ballet on separate evenings, and then, together, the two companies shared the world premier of Pam Tanowitz’s quirky, enigmatic, yet engrossing “Gustave Le Gray No. 1.” DTH offered up one of its classics, Geoffrey Holder’s sunny-hued Caribbean-inspired “Dougla” along with a presentable “Valse Fantaisie” by Balanchine. Miami City Ballet brought the little-seen Robbins/Tharp “Brahms/Handel,” smartly and lovingly performed, along with a sunny but slight work by Justin Peck, “Heatscape,” which probably plays well in sunny Miami.

Tanowitz’s “Gustave,” though, took ballet into the realm of post-modernist ideas. The spare piano score by Caroline Shaw, played by fearless Sylvia Jiang, set the four dancers, clad in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s silky red tunics and pants. Shaw’s score was named for 19th-century French photographer Gray and it pings with staunch chords and equally staunch silences, then tinkles with a touch of, is that Chopin? The dancers are set on a cerebral course, there must be a written set of instructions somewhere detailing their squiggles, shakes, walking patterns, and formations as the four — Renan Cerdeiro, Lauren Fadeley, Anthony Santos and Stephanie Rae Williams — make their way across the stage. And, soon, the piano, and pianist, too, get in on the crossing. Yes, the dancers themselves push the piano across the stage — and, yes, Jiang continues to pluck out notes and chords, and once in her new spot, on the other side, one of the men carries out a piano bench for her to perch upon before the four gather ‘round like they might share a song to her accompaniment. When the curtain closes, it’s with a sigh of wonderment and regret, for, “Gustave Le Gray” was a piece d’occasion, likely never to be seen and wondered on again.

The Washington Ballet continued, under artistic director Julie Kent, to seek out new works for the ballet repertory. Its April 3-7 program at the Harman Center brought three, respectable, but not likely important new works to the stage. (Alas, I missed the fall program of new repertory.) Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” with its glimmery sheer costumes and music for orchestra and recorded tracks by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates, already elevated the work. The balletic-based movement is clearly executed but it’s the far more subtle interactions that make this a piece to be seen again. Along with the eight dancers, two principal roles — the Observer, Javier Morera, and the Outlier, Katherine Barkman (the evening I attended) — suggest a story or at least a relationship, with meaningful looks and glances. Let’s hope this one gets another viewing to parse the piece.

Dana Genshaft Wash Ballet Gian-Carlo-Perez-and-Kateryna-Derechyna-900x516.png

And a mid-summer treat brought Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble to the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian, presented by the Hirshhorn Museum. Performing Cellular Songs: Concert Version, Monk, in her signature brown braids, was joined by three other voice artists and Allison Sniffin on voice, violin and keyboard. With Monk on keyboard and voice, the ensemble created rich sound sculptures along with a moving kaleidoscope of video scenarios designed by Monk and Katherine Freer. The all-female configuration of voices felt as if Monk has built an alternative society, damn the patriarchy. And as the singers, all clad in pure, crisp white, maneuvered around and across the stage in various geometric configurations, seated, standing, walking and pausing, they became a metaphor for being, a human kaleidoscope. There’s great mystery — even subversively so — in the way Monk builds on the beauty and significance of the voice — here solely female — in rising, alliterative, contrapuntal and choral rushes and diversions. Together with bodies and background videos moving together and in tandem Cellular Songs builds and subsides. And in the lingering hum of the final sung notes, before the audience applauds, there is enough air space for a collective breath. A sigh. Is it responding to the disappointing year we’ve had, or, maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign that everything might be all right. At the very least, that’s one way to move forward in the coming year.

Finally, I spent three weeks at the Dagara Music Center near Accra, Ghana, in July and August, studying African dance, drumming and gyl, African xylophone. This unforgettable and challenging experience emphasized for me that technique is highly valued in African dance, particularly from the Dagara people — the region the DMC emphasizes. The technique has little to do with body placement, turnout, leg and arm positions and head placement, athleticism or virtuosity — even when those values are often expected in African dance. Instead, musicality and rhythm are the key to technical proficiency and that was much, much harder than I anticipated. Staying on top of the beat and clapping on four-one, rather than one-two or one-three, took me a while to assimilate. Additionally, living in the DMC compound and going on excursions throughout the country enabled me to see the physicality Ghanaians embody in their daily lives: cooking, chopping, pounding, harvesting, carrying — anything and everything on their heads from baskets to once a sewing machine — sweeping, brick making, starting fires to cook on coals outdoors, pounding and grounding nuts and gourds. These work motions and gestures become the choreography. It was a beautiful ad unforgettable lesson on how beautifully bodies speak through and of culture.

 

Photos: Meredith Monk’s Cellular Sounds, photo Richard Termine
Orange Grove Dance in Waking Darkness. Waiting Light., photo @evangelina_g
Baakari Wilder in REFORM, photo Michael Leroy
Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris’s Lazarus, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, photo Paul Kolnik
Tendayi Kuumba in Hair & Other Stories, Urban Bush Women, photo (c) Hayim Heron
The Washington Ballet’s Gian Carlo Perez and Kateryna Derechnya in Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” photo Victoria Pickering

(c) 2019 Lisa Traiger, published December 30, 2019

Sergeant Pepper-mania

Posted in Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 7, 2019
Pepperland

Mark Morris Dance Group
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 14-16, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night. Images by Gareth Jones

The choreographer takes his inspiration from music. In his 40-year career as a dancer and dancemaker, he has created more than 150 works. Music has been his constant impetus and companion in his creative process. In performance, he insists on bringing his own music ensemble to accompany the dancers.Mark Morris dances are emphatically watchable, easily digestible, eccentric, and smartly witty. He so proficiently pairs music and dance, costume and set — with a cadre of collaborators — that it’s hard to have a bad night at a Mark Morris Dance Group performance. This is most often due to the deep musical and creative bond he has with long-time musical collaborator Ethan Iverson.

From his gorgeously lyrical masterpiece (L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato ) to the archly sardonic (The Hard Nut, his version of The Nutcracker) to wildly dramatic (Dido and Aeneas), the musically glorious (Falling Down Stairs), the intellectually bracing (“Grand Duo”) and the wicked fun (his very early “Lovey” danced to the Violent Femmes), Morris’s best pieces compel the body to sing, and the movement, steps, formations, phrasing appear as if they were born just for a particular piece of music.

Thus, when he was approached to make a piece to the Beatles, he didn’t play it straight and just set dancers in motion to the sterling and singable recordings of the Fab Four. The commission offered by the City of Liverpool asked for a dance to commemorate the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2017. The hour-long work, now on a North American tour with the choreographer’s eponymous Mark Morris Dance Group, is currently on stage at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, where it’s awash in accolades from a boomer audience that can’t get enough of the idea of high-brow dancing to the Beatles.

And the vividly colored, smartly cut early 1960s costumes, thanks to designer Elizabeth Kurtzman, and Johan Henckens’ bronze crinkled mylar set — a nod perhaps to Warhol’s “Silver Clouds,” which populated Merce Cunningham’s “Rainforest” — allow Morris’s clean, simple choreographic choices to shine.

In fact, not once is a recorded vocal from John, Paul, George, or Ringo heard. Iverson has rearranged several of the album’s iconic songs — the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” — for an ensemble of six playing sax, trombone, piano, keyboard, percussion, and the electronic space-agey theremin. If you know the album — and anyone born before 1967 must know at least some of it — you’ll hear baritone Clinton Curtis sing a few standards in a mostly non-Beatlesque way. The others? You just have to sing along in your head as the music plays.

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland_Photo by Mat Hayward (3) 

On additional sections of the score, Iverson riffs on musical ideas of the period that may or may not have influenced the Beatles. Iverson’s musical addendums peppered into the 13 sections include an adagio; an allegro drawing from an offhand trombone phrase in “Sgt. Pepper”; a scherzo inspired by Glenn Gould, Petula Clark, and a chord progression from the album; and a cadenza that reflects the Beatles’ references to European classical music. They are a nifty way to avoid treacly nostalgia while still honoring the innovative band’s contributions.

The opening notes of the piece strike the final chord on the album, a familiar sound for those who have listened to it. The opening choreography features an unwinding clump of dancers that spirals outward filling the stage with a jumble of bold jelly-bean colors — vibrant yellow, tangerine, aquamarine, grape, and hot pink tailored sharply into mod slacks, skirts, turtle necks, and jackets. A little skip-hop step with the arms carefully placed reflects a walker’s gait — the walk across Abbey Road maybe? The company of 15, plus five apprentices, imbues these introductory phrases with a heightened naturalness as their legs pierce the air, arms slicing, palms outward, opened to the audience.

After that initial unwinding moment, the “Magna Carta” section introduces historic figures who make an appearance on the colorfully iconic album cover — from Albert Einstein to Marilyn Monroe to bluesman Wilbur Scoville to boxer Sonny Liston — at each name, a dancer jogs in and takes a pose suggestive of the personality of the figure.

Morris cares little for traditional virtuosic tricks. In fact, his technique is closer to that of founding mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan’s runs, skips, jumps, and hops than the codified virtuosity of either ballet or mid-century moderns like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. His early training in Balkan folk dances also shows in circle formations, hand-holding pairs, and short lines of dancers, linked and maneuvering in unison.

In Morris’s works a sense of humanity prevails. Yet, the company has changed over time, from a mixed-bag bunch of highly proficient dancers of various heights, body types and backgrounds, to today’s company, which is not necessarily less diverse, but its members are far more similar physically. Everyone is trim, with long legs and an aesthetically pleasing dancerly quality, you can see their ballet backgrounds in the less weighty earthy attack. It makes for a more uniform, although far less interesting looking company. Morris still prizes dancers who are fully themselves on stage and who strive to emulate the human condition in performance.

The evening — like much of Morris’s choreography — plays astutely with theme and variation. Morris enjoys having dancers hold hands, link arms and march or walk in mini regimental rows, four abreast, a nod to the Fab Four. In a series of lovely adagios, one partner in a male-female or same-sex couple lifts the other, whose legs stick straight down in a modest straddle, toes pointed. It’s a simple but distinctive motif. Other repeated phrases include some small traveling skips, skitters and leaps, a big bursting jump with arched backs — cheerleader-y — and some simple turn sequences. Morris shuffles and reshuffles these motifs in ways that make the viewer feel smart — “Oh, yes, I saw that before. I see what you’re doing here” — using a different structure, formation, number of dancers or even sequential or canonic counts.

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland_Photo by Robbie Jack

Morris also winks at the psychedelic era by putting his dancers in mirrored sunglasses on occasion — those “kaleidoscope eyes” from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and with some moments late in the work, he lets them loose for free form movement. But the work is conscientiously structured, not improvised. Late in the piece, as “Penny Lane” — not on the album, although originally written for “Sgt. Pepper’s” — plays, the dancers enact an old-fashioned pantomime to the lyrics — getting into a barber’s chair, driving a car, offering a queenly smile and wave, etc. Audiences enjoy the humor and again see the Morris style at work. Other references he throws in might be less obvious such as the mudra, or Indian hand gesture of thumbs up used in the Indian dance form bharata natyam. But for Morris it reflects his love for and study of Indian classical dance. There are plenty of other “Easter eggs” in any Morris work; Pepperland is no exception.

Interestingly, as tuneful and musically interesting as Pepperland is, especially if you read the composer’s program notes, the piece doesn’t come close to a Morris masterwork. The choreographer must love the music completely to attain such a sublime aesthetic level. He’s created dances to Mozart, Britten, Purcell, Bach, Prokofiev, as well as country music, punk rock, Indian ragas and Azerbaijani mugham songs, to name a very few, so a bit of Beatles is no stretch for his rangy musical tastes. But Pepperland simply doesn’t sing in the way his best works can. It doesn’t feel like Morris is all-in. Choreographically, the work is as adept as any of his most recent, showcasing the strengths and talents of his well-honed company, his unparalleled skill in structuring dances that move easily. While it’s unfair to expect a masterpiece every season, Pepperland feels more like an assignment completed: Liverpool wanted a Beatles ballet? Well, Morris went ahead and delivered one.

Finally, for all the bright colors and the tuneful Beatles songs, the oft peppy, upbeat dancing, the whirl of shifting musical and costume colors, Pepperland emanates a surprisingly sober, even somber, tone behind those mirrored sunglasses the dancers wear. The initial opening clump, turns back in on itself at the end, the dancers collapsed, exhausted, overcome as the music rumbles. When asked why he had sad sections in the piece during the post-show discussion on opening night, Morris was, as usual, sharply glib: “Well, it’s a fucking sad world, that’s why.” Then he waved goodnight, tossed his scarf over his shoulder and swanned off.

 

Photos courtesy The Kennedy Center, top by Gareth Jones, middle by Mat Hayward,
bottom by Robbie Jack.
(c) 2019, Lisa Traiger

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

 

 

Centennial

Posted in Modern dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2019

Merce Cunningham at 100
“Beach Birds” and “BIPED”
The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 3-5, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

Merce Cunningham at 100_Beach Birds_Robert Swinston -Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers_Photo by Charlotte Audureau

What a pleasure to celebrate the centenary of modern dance master Merce Cunningham with a pair of works that demonstrates his formidable vision for dance, imbued with clarity of form and generosity of spirit, allowing each viewer to draw individual interpretation and meaning.

Cunningham, a one-time student and dancer with redoubtable mid-century modernist Martha Graham, died a decade ago and left a legacy plan that sent his eponymous company on a world tour then closed it down. A selection from his more than 200 choreographed works is now available for companies around the world to acquire, and most often the dances fall into the hands of ballet troupes, like The Washington Ballet, which last season did a valiant job of Cunningham’s duets, but, alas, they’re not modern dancers with the training to fully do the pieces justice.

And it isn’t easy for dancers to get the Cunningham technique just right. As elegant and balletic as it may appear, with fleet footed footwork, elongated arabesques and variable port de bras or arm positions, there’s also the use of the back and spine in ways that many dancers haven’t finessed — curving and tilted torsos with cantilevered legs and arms and quick changes of direction and weight make Cunningham dances particularly challenging.

This past Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, former Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancer and rehearsal director Robert Swinston introduced his young troupe of dancers from Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine—Angers, who are training in the technique.

The pair of works on the program — “Beach Birds” and “BIPED” — are from late in Cunningham’s career, 1991 and 1999, respectively, and they show an artist fully immersed in his aesthetic.

As the curtain rose on “Beach Birds,” the white backdrop glowed in pinkish orangey hues of a sunrise. Eleven dancers in silhouette, perched on two legs, hovered in their white body stockings splashed with black from fingers to arms and shoulders. Swinston remarked in the pre-performance chat that he thought they resembled penguins. For me, they looked like seagulls in flight, the black suggesting the darkened shadows underneath their wings. They twitch or tremor, barely perceptible movements — a head cocked, a wrist flutter — then they all plié — bend their knees — as if preparing to take flight. “Beach Birds” unfurls like an airborne flock of birds, constantly in motion, yet seemingly still as they soar, catching an air current. A pair or trio of dancers come together for a moment, break off, regroup, like birds alighting.

There’s an elegance in the dancers’ outstretched arms spreading wing-like, then bending an elbow. Complicated catch steps, small jumps and glides allow the dancers to rearrange themselves in the space accompanied by “Four3,” John Cage’s fluidly environmental sounding score. Played live by Gavin Bryars, Morgan Gott, Audrey Riley, and James Woodrow, the score suggests water and rain, surf and sand, in its shimmery rattles, gushing strings, percussion, and most significant, its pregnant pauses.

IMG_6881Both Cage and Cunningham valued silence and stillness and in “Beach Birds” those moments of quietude for the ear and the body are deeply reflective of the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic — any sound or no sound can be music and its corollary, any movement or no movement can be dance. And in these moments of pause, of quiet stillness — after the ongoing continuity of rippling and slicing arms, zigzagging and rushing feet and legs — “Beach Birds” comes to life. For a Cunningham dancer, stillness is the exact opposite of deadness; in fact, the bodies are enlivened and hyper-alert in these moments that serve as respite just as the beach does for those fortunate enough to spend a day amid sand, surf, and birds.

Ever the experimentalist, Cunningham collaborated with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar using motion capture technology to create “BIPED.” As the name suggests it’s in its most basic sense an exploration of the biped, the ambulatory two-legged body.

But, particularly in Cunningham’s latter works, there’s a tremendous amount of depth and richness in the confluence of the technological representation of the body in space set against the living breathing bodies of the dancers.

Eshkar and Kaiser place a scrim in front of the dancers on which they project a moving décor of lines and patterns. At first, the vertical and horizontal lines suggest the old fashioned staticky lines on a TV screen with bad reception. Here Cunningham’s sometimes quirky, sometimes rigorous technical demands on dancers — bending and curving torsos and complex arm and leg patterns — attain a lovely elegance. The 15 company members, ensconced in body-hugging iridescent gold costumes, stretch and bend themselves into beautiful configurations. The arabesques here are elongated, the torso not forced upright against the lifted back leg, so there’s a stretchy, reaching quality there as well as in leaps that are clear and precise but don’t allow for pyrotechnic trickery.

Gavin Bryars’ score combines pre-recorded elements with live playing by the ensemble on acoustic instruments and provides a rich, warm setting with some nearly aching symphonic suggestions in the instrumentals. A sense of mystery and spirituality imbues the work, especially with the black-draped stage that allows dancers to slip on and off as if by magic. One moment when a line of five dancers suddenly comes into view feels supernatural: how did they appear? And the entrances and disappearances along with the musical scoring lends an elegiac mood to the work. Dancers slip away as others continue the choreography, unnoticed, but remarkable nonetheless.

Central to the continued intrigue of “BIPED” is the tension between the real and the unreal or surreal or otherworldly evident in the start linear movements of the projected “bipeds,” motion captured dancers reduced just to the lines and points that appear and disappear on the scrim.

While “BIPED” was created in 1999, it feels prescient today, as we’re all wedded 24/7 to technology, living our lives virtually rather than IRL — in real life. It feels as if Cunningham anticipated the technological takeover and, in “BIPED” he was wrestling with what dance would mean and become when technology usurps inherent physicality, living, breathing, sweating bodies. “BIPED,” it seems, could have been his response. Here the live bodies, as beautiful and interesting and even imperfect as they are, are overshadowed and overrun — literally, the scrim is in front of the dancers — by the computerized simulations of dancers.

Merce Cunningham at 100_BIPED_Robert Swinston -Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers_Photo by Jef RabillonThe dancers of CCNDC—Angers were mostly up to the challenge of finessing the demands of Cunningham technique, the elegant, swift legs, the often-non-sequitur arm and leg and torso combinations, the speed and stillness, the rigor and quirks of his movement modalities. Missing, though, from CCNDC—Angers was a preternatural alertness and attack, of which Cunningham was a master. He had an ever-so-slight cock of his head in advance of a big movement moment, or an ability to stay hyper-alert when still, ready, like a tiger, to pounce.

As a master dancer, choreographer, and creative spirit, Cunningham, with his process-breaking ideas about including chance and being open to the moment during his creative activities, continues to influence generations of contemporary dancers. What a lovely gift the Kennedy Center has given dance and arts lovers in celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth with a company that is imbued with the Cunningham spirit.


Merce Cunningham at 100, “Beach Birds,” with dancers of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Jef Rabillon
Merce Cunningham at 100, “BIPED,” Dancer Matthieu Chayrigues of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Charlotte Audureau 
Merce Cunningham at 100, “BIPED,” with dancers of Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, photo by Jef Rabillon

 

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission

 

 

Past and Future Share Stage: Ailey Company’s ‘Revelations’ and ‘Lazarus’

Posted in Hip hop, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 8, 2019

A cough, a gasp, the sound of a heartbeat. A sudden flash in the darkness. These sounds and images begin “Lazarus,” the brand-new work from hip hop master Rennie Harris, which opened a glitzy celebration of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The roiling evening presented the company’s first two-part ballet – throughout his career, Ailey called his decidedly modern works ballets. The combination of “Lazarus” and the “blood memories” of “Revelations” took the well-heeled audience on a journey through the hard and heartless history of being black in the United States, where slavery and segregation remain our nation’s original sin. At the close, though the audience roared its approval, those first gasps and the searing images of suffering remain. And both are as integral to the Ailey essence as to our American tale.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Bathed in dim light by James Clotfelter, the Ailey dancers toggle between an exaggerated slow walk, a quick-footed buck-and-wing, and stark stillness. The dancers stand, their shoulders hunched over, heads drooping.

And suddenly, a vision of the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies hanging from poplar trees elicits a gasp, this time from knowing observers. This is how “Lazarus” works its magic: Harris maneuvers his shifting movement tableaux calling on embodied images of the wretchedness of being black in America. From the agonizing image of Eric Garner, cuffed and gasping for air, crying “I can’t breathe,” to snapshots of hunched bodies, doubled over from exhaustion, physical and spiritual, to the Hollywood-ized visions of a “happy Negro” singing and dancing for his supper, Harris has collected the visual atlas of the immoral subjugation of a people.

A Philadelphia native who grew up on the rough streets of North Philly, he has spent decades bringing vernacular street dance forms to concert stages around the world with his own renowned company, making hip hop theatrical and imbuing it with messages of despair and hope. Harris knows his history, of course, but he knows, too, how to capture in movement images the harsh and inscrutable essence of being black in America.

This is the heart and soul of “Lazarus,” which the Ailey company commissioned as a tribute to its founder, Mr. Ailey, who lives on through the choreography he gave his dancers and through a now powerhouse dance organization. The piece, too, serves as a rejoinder to Ailey’s own seminal choreography, “Revelations,” which takes viewers on a similar spiritual and historical journey from slavery to renewal to revival in its three well-known sections.

“Revelations” has been the company’s bread-and-butter for decades, enticing audiences in for the reverence of this finale, and giving them a swath of newer works that toggle between contemporary modern dance, curated by current artistic director Robert Battle, and Ailey classics, some still resonant, others a bit faded. The much-admired company’s 60-year history can, in part, be attributed to the popularity and influence of “Revelations,” which sparks whoops, nods and clap-alongs for the familiar gospel songs and spirit-infused dancing entrances audiences year after year. Akin to ballet classics like Swan Lake, “Revelations,” it seems, never gets old. Alas, it is not always expertly performed. Opening night, it felt a little subdued coming right after the far heavier dramatic arc that “Lazarus” rides. Perhaps the dancers were spent after throwing down their hypersensitive and kinetic performance of the two-parter.

When seen next to “Lazarus,” with its far more trenchant — and realistic — look at the African-American experience, “Revelations” feels more than a little old-fashioned. The near-ancient Graham technique — contractions of the pelvis as the back curves, either smoothly or percussively — lateral side tilts, and running triplet steps, looks quaint next to Harris’s more sophisticated fusion of street dance coupled with modern techniques and gestural references.

That’s not to say Ailey’s masterwork should be retired. To the contrary, the two works serve as instructive companion pieces when seen together. In fact, Harris is filtering Aileyisms into the work right alongside his sly references to the Dougie, the Nae Nae, and the Dab. In “Lazarus,” Harris seems to be wrestling to uncover not just Ailey, the choreographer, but  Ailey the man, who put his heart and soul into his choreographic ventures and navigating the world as a black man amid the peak of the Civil Rights movement and into the 1970s and ‘80s.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

In “Lazarus,” Harris, like Ailey before him, alludes to Biblical elements. The story goes that though dead for four days, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, the miracle foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. In “Lazarus,” though, the struggle, the agony of oppression, is told in grim, gritty segments of movement montages. A group of women harvest an invisible crop, drawing sustenance from the earth, tucking it into their bundled aprons. Another clump of dancers falls to their knees, hands clasped in prayer, trembling — for salvation from God or man? Bare-chested men, their pants held up with a cord of rope, collapse, others drag these lifeless bodies off stage.

Harris shows us the burden of history, the weight of living — and dying — black in America. The piercing cries — ululations — punctuate Darrin Ross’s wide-ranging score, along with other equally harsh sound effects including gunshots, screams, and weeping. This first part of “Lazarus” pushes viewers beyond the dichotomous earth-and-heaven pull of Ailey’s first sections of “Revelations,” “Pilgrim of Sorrow.” Alas, in Ross’s sound score, the earlier voiceovers are almost indecipherable over pulsating underscoring. Some of the words are Ailey’s own, others are from Harris.

Harris takes the simplified slavery-to-freedom narrative of his progenitor and reflects on it with a more jaded 21st-century mindset. Harris doesn’t take us to the water, he takes us into the mud. As dancers lay prone, their arms undulating as so many rows of corn or wheat waving in a field, one dancer navigates through this thicket of bodies. That image ends part one and begins part two.

On their return, the dancers are no longer in early to mid-20th-century streetwear — A-lined skirts, slacks, overalls, or sweaters of muted earth tones. Their bare feet are now ensconced in black sneakers, while they’ve donned costume designer Mark Eric’s purple and burgundy club wear. The heaviness of Act 1 lifts with a song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as prone bodies rise from that reedy bog. Their hands beseech in prayer, and tremor with hope or trepidation. As drums pound out a samba-style beat, groups of dancers, first men, then women, catch the heat of the beat, heads bob, hips twitch, feet shuffle in swift kick ball changes. And as in all Harris works, the dance becomes a spirit-filled experience.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

This is where Harris finds soul and purpose, letting the dancers loose to deliver a free-flowing, dynamic sequence drawing allusions to prayer, church and praise dancing in a raised arm, a hand waving, hunched shoulders giving way to uplifted faces. Top-rocking shuffles crisply done pound the sleepy ground awake beneath the dancers’ feet. It’s a churchy revival of 21st-century proportions and sentiments – baptisms beside the point. Purification, cleansing comes from the dance itself, bodies pushing, reaching, flinging, falling, roiling with Harris’s trademark hip hop. Men cartwheel one-armed up from the floor and women tangle up in pretzel shapes, then skitter.

The tension releases. We’ve been waiting for these few powerful, spirit-filled moments the entire evening. We just didn’t know it. While the 16 dancers power through eye-catching mini-solos that feel improvised (but likely aren’t), the audience is encouraged to clap along. In our red velvet seats, we’re momentarily part of the circle — in hip hop terms, the cypher — ready to take a turn with a cool spin or fancy kick. They’re not dancing for us, they’re dancing us.

Harris leads his dancers and onlookers almost to the metaphorical mountaintop, but not quite. A sudden break — it felt like a false ending — gives pause. The stage darkens. The dancers gather close, then one lone man, in silhouette, walks away. Is it Ailey resurrecting? Is it Lazarus? Ailey’s distinctive recorded voice reminisces about what compelled him to create — those “blood memories,” recalling what it was like to grow up black, poor but God-fearing, in small-town Texas.

“Lazarus” does not sugarcoat. Harris’s celebratory sequences feel more real than the easy climax of Ailey’s church-infused “Revelations.” In contrast to the historical images wedded into the collective unconscious of even the most modest student of American history, this homage to Ailey, the man and the creative force, focuses an unforgiving lens on the realities of being black in America today. That was Ailey’s story and his wellspring. Side by side, “Revelations” and “Lazarus” converse about despair and hope, past and future, tradition and innovation. And, of course, the indomitable spirit Alvin Ailey carried, which is now lighting the way to a new generation.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.

Photos: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus,” photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Kennedy Center.

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on April 29, 2018

Goldberg Variations — ternary patterns for insomnia
Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
April 26, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia __Photo Credit Hugh Carswell (3)Making the extraordinary ordinary appears to be a notion we can’t shake. If it isn’t dumbing down, it’s taking down, mashing up or just plain copying. Thursday, April 26 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” ceded center stage to the Swedish dance troupe Andersson Dance. The result? A take down of high art.

Bach’s 30 variations, composed in 1747, together are at once a soaring example of compositional excellence, playing variation after variation off of theme, and a musical Mount Everest to which classical musicians aspire. Originally meant for harpsichord but now most frequently played on piano, mastery of the work is a sign of prodigious technical and artistic prowess. Scottish Ensemble, under the artistic direction of Jonathan Morton, played fearlessly and wholeheartedly using the Sitkovetsky transposition for strings as they traversed the Eisenhower stage.

Joining them, and occasionally upstaging them, the five dancers of Andersson Dance skipped and goofed, wiggled and galloped, playing with found-object props and lights, and as often as not moving against the musical themes, rather than dancing with them in expected fashion. This collaborative effort provided a meeting of high classicism and iconoclastic post-modernism. It was a clash of cultures and artistic temperaments. A meet-up and a take-down.

The result? At times the meanderings and off-the-wall antics of the dancers proved funny, odd, frustrating, intriguing, boring, ridiculous and arbitrary. The music and musicians? They kept the performance on track, more than holding their own amid the tyranny of dance non-sequiturs. (Really, can anyone with consequential training and commitment ruin or put to shame the transcendent score?) The choreography? Let’s just say, it’s not a work for the ages, but seems to suit some segment of an audience that doesn’t want too much of highbrow sentiment.

During the program’s 75 minutes, one of the best things about it was the continuing evolution of music and choreography. If something displeased — like the klieg light in the, perhaps, sixth variation that shone directly in my eyes — wait two minutes, and something else happens. Maybe a dancer will gently nudge the elbow of a violinist as he strokes a final note, or a male dancer will strip down to his t-shirt and underpants, or another will straddle the top of a ladder and silently pontificate atop it as violins, violas, cellos and double bass continue to make beautiful and compelling music.

Orjan Andersson’s Stockholm-based pick-up company of three men and two women deconstructs the variations as they are being played with a self-conscious sense of quirky seriousness. Clad in a miscellany of street wear on the gray scale palette, the dancers wiggle, jiggle, jostle, stretch and rebound and though they’re not dancing with the music, they are dancing to it, just as I might dance crank up the radio in my kitchen and let loose. While these moments might feel improvised, Andersson stated that the majority of the choreography is set and does not change. The casual, though often not technical attack, recalls the flingy, loose-limbed release technique, which had been much in vogue in some modern dance circles in recent years. Though on the Eisenhower stage, there is little intimacy, while the dancers are taking turns in singles, pairs and trios performing Andersson’s task like invocations of movement, the instrumental ensemble remains standing, at times walking in mundane person on the street fashion. The violin and viola players remain standing, while the cellos and double bass mostly stay seated closer to the back of the stage.

Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia __Photo Credit Hugh Carswell (3)While the choreographer has gifted viewers with some witty moments — the most compelling choreographic moments are the silences, some rather lengthy between movements. Like musical rests, they imbue additional meaning, at times even gravitas. Early on some of the variations are introduced with pity statements announced by a dancer. But soon the variations are played straight through. especially telling is that they often come in the first half when the initial variations are introduced with a short announcement and explanation. Here and there a smattering of chuckles indicates some in the audience get the self-consciously post-modernist regard Andersson has usurped. Others might just be left scratching their heads. Sometimes the dance action on stage looks like a handful of unruly toddlers got loose and there’s no one to pick up their toys.

Most interesting were moments when Andersson used both ensembles, mapping out paths for the musicians to navigate en masse with everyday pedestrian walks. Later, two instrumentalists put down their instruments to move. They use their bodies to make sounds — play music — by clapping, rubbing their palms together, snapping even taking heavy breaths. The sounds aren’t symphonic, but the performers, both women, are committed to exploring this extracurricular aspect of classical music.

“Goldberg Variations” self-consciously takes down high art. The final sections feature a stage that has filled up with flotsam and jetsam — objects “borrowed” from their Stockholm theater — a quartet of sofa pillows, a clothes rack with sundry dresses and tops, a pair of bowls, a single wedge shoe. The performers — musicians and dancers — are assigned to gather and make “one-minute sculptures” — assemblages of found objects. In that Andersson acknowledges his debt to Dadaism and Dada’s philosophical and artistic hero Marcel Duchamp — he of the pissoire, his 1914 museum exhibition piece “Fountain.”

This oddball confluence of classicism and post-modernism features a group of lovely dancers. Andersson, a one-time soccer player who came to dance late, lucked out with Jozsef Forro, Eve Ganneau, Paul Pui Wo Lee, Javier Perez Perez and Stacey Aung. They can appear serene or goofy as they soar and squat, stretch and melt with equal aplomb. They’re dexterous, eager and fluid even in the quirky touches Andersson uses to punctuate his notions of the flexibility of  Bach’s score.

“Goldberg Variations” is a touchstone work. This version — subtitled “ternary patterns for insomnia” — makes a play on the composition’s origin story (perhaps apocryphal): the work was commissioned to help assuage Count Kaiserling’s sleepless nights, when he would call for his harpsichordist, named Goldberg, to play him to sleep. For those non-math folks, ternary refers to groupings of three (I had to look it up). While trios and other evolving groupings occur, the reference is a mathematical and musical conundrum.

It’s hard to tell if Andersson is paying homage to the Judson Church movement’s avant garde dismantling of virtuosity and technique, or if he’s just playing using these borrowed principles for his own pleasure — and notoriety. Either way, there are clear connections — even an additive solo of repeated uninflected gestures that feels a little too much like Trisha Brown’s historic work “Accumulation.” In 1965, another dance post-modernist, Yvonne Rainer, penned her now-famous “No Manifesto,” which proclaimed: “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make believe.” It was a fervent statement of its time. A way to break away from and break down the status quo. Andersson has perhaps found new relevance in snubbing virtuosity for the pedestrian as a reaction to a new 21st-century normal. He’s thumbing his nose at the highbrow and bringing Bach down a notch. Guess what? Bach can take it. His compositions have been hanging around for a couple of centuries and aren’t going anywhere. Andersson gave it a valiant effort, but Bach still wins.

Photos: Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia by Hugh Carswell, courtesy Kennedy Center
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published April 28, 2018

 

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