D.C. DanceWatcher

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
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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

 

 

Inscribed

Posted in African dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on December 4, 2017

ink
Camille A. Brown & Dancers
The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.    
December 2, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

(L to R) Juel D. Lane and Beatrice Capote of Camille A Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christoper Duggan

Juel D. Lang and Beatrice Capote in Camille A. Brown’s ink, photo Christopher Duggan

In ink, choreographer/dancer Camille A. Brown’s final installment in her trilogy examining African-American identity, an entire history of a people is written indelibly on the bodies of her six dancers as well as her own. Their gestures, their postures, their interactions speak from the depths of centuries of lives lived with both vivid creativity and warmth and with the remnants of oppression encroaching a rich and elastic community.

Brown is far more than a choreographer of the moment. She’s one for the ages. She founded her company in 2006, following a career with Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, and stints with Rennie Harris Puremovement and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And, with Camille A. Brown & Dancers world premiere of ink  at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater Saturday, December 2, occurring the same week as the Broadway opening of the revival of Once on This Island, for which she created the dances, Brown is likely the most hardworking (and exhausted) choreographer of the year.

Her wheelhouse has been mining black identity and her works speak to the “woke” among her audiences, but even more important, they speak to the uninitiated teasing out questions, comments and realization from those for whom the depictions of intimate “souls of black folk” – to borrow a turn of phrase from W.E.B. Dubois – are outside their experience or understanding.

The hour-long evening presents a journey into archetypal moments in African-American culture through a series of personal solos and duets that call out to ancient African roots, like the bantaba — the circular space where village communities gathered to dance out their celebrations, rites of passage and mourning rituals. The journey, too, takes us to more personal moments — introspective solos and a post-modern pas de deux that provides a snapshot of a couple behind closed doors — loving, sparring, supporting, and playing. There’s even a tribute to the female backside, entitled “Milkshake,” which celebrates the Black female body and recalls Urban Bush Women’s piece “Batty Moves,” with its bold focus on women’s butts, shaking, shimmying and undulating with fleshy abandon.

Ink’s six sections, accompanied by percussion-driven original music by Allison Miller joined by a quartet featuring keyboards, hand drums, drum set and piano, drawn as much on the diasporic movement language as the musical language. Comprised of traditional African rhythms joined by jazz, swing, hip hop and go go, the score tells a parallel story of the evolution of the beat. Illuminated by Brown’s choreography and her dancers, the work is redolent with a wordless commentary that speaks volumes.

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)

D.C. native Catherine Foster in ink, photo Christopher Duggan

The evening opens with a piercing drum beat – a reference to tribal drum calls that brought communities together for news and events in rural African villages. Brown sits on an upturned wooden crate. She’s a wordless griot — a culture keeper and oral historian in some African cultures — conjuring silent stories with her expressive hands and body. A sweep of a palm, hands trembling, fingers flickering like dragon fly wings, a subtle cock of her head, a stirring motion, fanning, grinding and other task-like gestures speak of women’s work in an eloquently wrought and impeccably detailed tone poem. Later, one of the musicians begins a hamboning sequence, slapping out a rhythm on her thighs that electrifies the dancers into an edgy percussive movement sequence that melds into a go-go-influenced rhythm. And when Brown takes the stage, her petite stature belies her ferocity when she attacks movement with needle-point specific precision.

The duet for Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard and Maleek Washington has a cozy informality to it. They’re both lovers and friends, playful and stubborn as they weave themselves together, roll and snuggle on the floor, legs intertwining, bodies spooning each other. There’s simplicity and mundanity in Brown’s portrayal of this behind-closed-doors portrait that belies a tense undercurrent, revealed at the end when Dennard smooths Washington’s shirt collar to send him out into the world. An unspoken message hangs in the air, that outside their warm embraces, the world is cold, hard and maybe dangerous.

Later, Washington and Timothy Edwards spar with friendly competition in “Turf.” It’s a buddy tale as they leap and dive, shuffle and jog — maybe they’re on a playground or basketball court, but they’re relishing their strength. Initially the pair are innocents, like kids watching with wonder as a line of ants crosses the pavement. Later, the two display gestures to suggest a dice game, then comes the crotch grab and a hard stare out at the audience — both intimidating and comical. Their dancing remains free and fueled by muscle: one-legged balances, two-footed high-jumps, grounded scoots and slides. It’s a companion to Brown’s Black Girl: Linguistic Play, about girls’ interpersonal relationships told through playground games.

When all seven performers return to the stage for the final sections, “Migration,” past and present are channeled, in a call out to the spirit of the ancestors embodied by these young, beautiful, powerful dancers. Their semi-circle is a 21st-century Ring Shout, recalling past in movement gestures, but in a dynamic rhythmic amalgamation that sounds like old-new go go. Ink celebrates peoplehood, its joys, sorrows, dramas and games. Most important it honors a legacy in our nation that has been frequently overlooked.

Ink is the third in a trilogy that wrestles with African-American identity. Brown has culled from embodied history, drawing forth a rich blend of gestures,  some as recognizable and powerful as the dap — that cultural signifier, sometimes a raised fist or a fist bump or hand clasp, others that might not be read universally, but still speak of with evocative specificity. Brown has called on her dancers to dig deep to perform with a level exactitude that renders the unspoken into an at times enigmatic yet compelling movement language. Ink is, ultimately, embodied history that touches hearts and souls.

 

This piece originally appeared on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and is reprinted here with kind permission. 
Published December 4, 2017
© 2017 Lisa Traiger

 

 

Spice and Spitfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Change and Constancy

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on September 30, 2016

Martha Graham Dance Company
Alden Theatre
McLean, Va.
September 24, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Heraclitus may have said it first, but 20th century modern dance pioneer Martha Graham followed his dictum: “Change is the only constant.” The company the iconic dancer and choreographer founded in 1926 remains the oldest modern dance troupe in the world. In fact, the term “modern dance” was coined by early New York Times critic John Martin seeking a new name for the tradition-breaking choreography Graham began creating in New York in the 1920s.

graham-errand-into-the-mazeOn Saturday, September 24, 2016, the company presented a program of classic and new works at the Alden Theatre in McLean VA, showcasing the impeccable legacy that Graham company has preserved for generations. But, as Artistic Director — and former Graham dancer — Janet Eilber noted, the company can’t just be a repository for past works, no matter how important. The dancers and the Graham legacy need to reinvigorate with new choreographic pieces. Thus the program on the modestly sized Alden Theatre stage featured works from Graham’s creative heyday in the 1940s along with new works Eilber and her artistic associates have commissioned in recent years, including a recent premiere by Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg. The challenge for the Graham company — and many other single choreographer legacy companies — is how to balance the classics with new works — and how to showcase both the legacy pieces and new pieces on a single program without giving one or the other short shrift.

The classic works included Graham’s 1947 “Errand Into the Maze,” from the choreographer’s Greek period. Drawing from the myth of Theseus who journeys into the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur, the piece remains an allegorical study of the internal struggle we all battle in different ways. This stripped down version lacks the Isamu Noguchi sculptural set — a two pronged carved wood structure with a rope-like ladder — and Graham’s original costume designs — a dress with abstract ribbons of rope-like appliqué and the horned headdress of the Minotar. The costumes were lost in the flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Instead, dancer Charlotte Landreau stood firm and determined in a body hugging white dance dress, while overly tattooed Ben Schultz, as the Minotaur, was bare-chested, his arms entwined behind him around a wooden rod limiting his movements. The battle is an internal struggle and what better way to represent that than with the pelvis and spine-centered technique Graham created to tell her elemental dance dramas.

Yet, here and in other works on the program — an essential emphasis was missing in the power or thrust those pelvic contractions can contain that render Graham works metaphorical dialogues in deeply seated battles of life sustaining dimension.

“Dark Meadow Suite” distills highlights from the 50-minute work from 1946 that featured a Jungian inner dialogue and a rhythmically and dynamically complex symphonic recorded score  by Carlos Chavez. The abstract piece draws on images Graham collected from her time spent in the southwest. The work, with its spare and classic lines and staccato tremors of cupped hands, feels like a ritual of ancient and mystical purpose. We don’t know for whom these 10 dancers are dancing, but we feel they are dancing for life itself — its preservation and propagation. The men, bold, their bare chests broad as they fill the stage with space engulfing spread-legged hops and cartwheels that end in balanced tilts on one leg. The women are more delicate, their long skirts hiding the rhythmic skittering and stepping of their feet in lovely and complex patterns. If the floor had a layer of sand, the final moments would somehow reveal an exquisitely patterned sand painting. The birdlike flexion of the dancing women’s arms, and the way they hinge and tilt from their pelvic girdles, their bodies like seesaws, demonstrates the power and delicacy these dancers own.

The Graham technique, the once-famed and followed movement structure based on a contraction and release of the pelvis, has lost currency in the 21st century. While the company dancers exhibit the rock-solid abdominal strength, what’s missing is a passionate impetus initiated from an internal force rooted in the pelvis, an expulsion of breath that is felt as the movement grows out of the contraction. But, in truth, Graham has been gone for more than a generation. Modern dance has moved on into various other modes of moving and it’s likely a challenge to preserve something so visceral in a new era that demands different ways to dance.

Of the new works, Lidberg’s “Woodland” felt most finished, but least Graham-like. Commissioned specifically for a score by composer Irving Fine, it features a group of dancers gallivanting in a loose-limbed, very un-Graham-like manner, arms akimbo, torsos free to sway and undulate, breathe and relax, legs and hips sliding easily into the floor and back up to standing again. Most blasphemous of all: the dancers wore socks! A true Graham dancer (I learned from my experiences taking class with old-school Graham dancers back in college) should have enough calluses on the feet to need no footwear whatsoever in the studio or on stage. Barefoot dancing was one of the fundamental principles as modern dance asserted itself in the early 20th century.

“Lamentation Variations” has netted a dozen dances based on one of Graham’s early and most-important solos, “Lamentation.” The work premiered in 1930 and stunned audiences for its gut-wrenching expression of grief in every part of the body. The solo, which Graham and later her surrogates, performed on a wooden bench, features the dancer swathed in purple stretch fabric, contorting and extending her limbs and torso.

The work, projected in silent film clips, showed a young Graham yearning for freedom then allowing herself to be swallowed by her pain in wrenching clarity. The three works drawing inspiration from “Lamentation” included a quirky duet for Anne Souder and Xin Ying, which included physical quotes of some of the memorable moments — a turned in foot, a flat hand wiping an unseen tear from a cheek, outstretched reaches — but ultimately made its own choreographic statement.

lamentation-variations-sonya-tayeh-photo-by-christopher-jones-1024x768Richard Move’s solo for Konstantina Xintara proved the sparest of the three, allowing the dancer to almost imperceptibly cross the stage with a series of reaches and smallish footsteps. Here the choreographer strove for simplicity and constriction of the stage space to just a frontal path, akin to the original’s bench-centric placement. So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s contribution, a group work with a whispered score, proved the most inscrutable and relied almost exclusively on technical tricks included complicated lifts and maneuvers of the female dancers by their male supports. Frustratingly, as much as these pieces were meant to take inspiration from an American classic, none of the works were able to convey any sense of the all encompassing pain of grief that Graham did so succinctly 86 years ago.

The program closed with one of Graham’s most beautiful and soaring works, “Diversion of Angels,” created in 1947 to a score by Norman Dello Joio. The work features three distinctive women’s parts, meant to represent three ways we can express love. Leslie Andrea Williams was steadfast as the woman in white, while Xin Ying switched her hips and tilted, her leg raised well beyond her ear, the seductress as the woman in red. Laurel Dalley beamed with happiness and her leaps soared as the woman in yellow.

Throughout the dancers managed ably on a small stage in the intimate Alden Theatre. The last time the company was in the region at the Kennedy Center, we saw far more expansive and passionate dancing; perhaps the dancers felt constrained by the tight space for these grandiose materials. Because there is nothing small nor incidental about even the slightest movement or moment in a Graham choreography. Her clear-eyed vision, her technical demands of a perfect and present body — the dancers’ lines as etched as cut crystal — remind us of the breadth of her contributions to the artistic conversation occurring among dancers, choreographers, poets, composers and painters of the mid-20th century. And it reminds us of what a treasure it remains that these works are still lovingly maintained while the company strives to find new 21st century voices that echo Graham’s clarion call.

Photos: “Errand into the Maze,” Martha Graham Dance Company
“Lamentation Variations” by Sonya Tayeh, photo by Christopher Jones

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Time

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

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

DEMO: Time
Curated by Damian Woetzel

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

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

Sacred Ground

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

Dance Place Reunion Celebrates 35 Years

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

January 30-31, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Carla Perlo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015: A Look Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

Published December 31, 2015

Tantalize and Tease

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Homage: Liz Lerman’s Choreography in Wartime

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Modern dance by lisatraiger on April 5, 2015

“Appalachian Spring” with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Gildenhorn Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Md., May 4, 2014

“Healing Wars,” world premiere at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre, Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, Washington, D.C., June 6-29, 2014

By Lisa Traiger

For decades now, initially as founder and artistic director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, now as an independent itinerant artist, choreographer and public intellectual, Liz Lerman has been pushing dance outside of its traditional boundaries. She has choreographed in train stations, at a naval shipyard, in art galleries, and in the red-carpeted grand foyer, the women’s rest room and the loading dock at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Her dancers have long upturned expectations — ranging in age from their early 20s to well into their 70s and beyond. Some have been trained in dance techniques from ballet to Graham, Cunningham, and release; others are neophytes, maybe young children or residents of a retirement home who haven’t had a minute of dance performing experience. No matter, Lerman is a master of choreographing for a diversity of bodies, experiences, ages and expertise. She has a knack for making everyone look their best by allowing for gradations and careful pruning of movement material, often down to the simplest of gestures that speak volumes.

This past spring, two new Lerman works brought her back to her long-time home turf in Washington, D.C., and the Maryland suburbs, three years after she walked away from the company she bore and built beginning in 1976. The Dance Exchange remains active at its Takoma Park, Maryland, home on a more localized level than under Lerman’s guidance. On her own, Lerman has found more time to experiment and to delve deeply into projects that matter for her right now.

Her second collaboration with an orchestra, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, proved a fruitful follow-up to the lovely, spare and unapologetically rigorous rendering in 2012 of Claude Debussy’s prelude for Afternoon of a Faun. There Lerman, along with the collaboration of conductor James Ross, pulled the chairs out from under the players and crafted movement sequences, groupings and even a few balletic steps that the instrumentalists could master while simultaneously playing the score to fine effect. Initial comments prior to experiencing this newly realized setting of an orchestral score, amounted to snide questions about violinists and cellists being equated to marching band musicians (who, by the way, are no slouches in either musical proficiency or embodied movement).

"Appalachian Spring" with choreography by Liz Lerman for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra

“Appalachian Spring” with choreography by Liz Lerman for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra

This past May 2014, Lerman and Ross tackled a 20th-century American classic: Aaron Copland’s vibrant score for Appalachian Spring. Of course, much historic resonance accompanies the work. Copland’s commissioned work, scored for a chamber-sized orchestra, premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944 with Graham’s choreography. This piece of Americana, which blends national values of independence, manifest destiny and the communal spirit, could not have been more prescient coming out as the United States was entangled in World War II, with its native sons stationed across three continents from Europe to the Far East.

Copland titled his 30-plus minute dance score Ballet for Martha, while Graham took inspiration from Hart Crane’s poem “The Dance.” Lerman’s take on the work includes homage to the Graham original, an acknowledgement of its inherent American melodies and rhythms and, most distinctively, a deeply contemplative regard for the mystery and reward of artistic inspiration. It’s as if the ballet has riffed on itself and on the juicy and productive thought processes of its original creators – composer and choreographer Copland and Graham – in seeking a higher level of inspiration and communion.

In Lerman’s piece, Copland’s work opens with soft arpeggios and the musicians, freed from their chairs, enter; first a chamber-sized group walks and plays the clarinet, oboe and other instruments contributing to Copland’s thematic material. Clad in denim and khaki, shades of blue and beige, some players barefoot, others in sneakers or boots, they walk, sway, skip, dash and fall into formations.

A quartet of string players lifts their bows into the center of a circle as they suggest a living carousel. The cellists have their instruments strapped to their shoulders so they can still maneuver the steps of the Gildenhorn Concert Hall stage. A bass player hoists his instrument high above his head a few times during the piece. There are nods to Copland’s Americana themes: do-si-dos and allemands without the hands, lines and circles weaving in and out like a reinterpreted square dance as the instrumentalists play and maneuver.

The work’s centerpiece though, both visually and morally, is long-time Lerman associate Martha Wittman, who possesses more than a half-century of dancing, teaching and performing experience. She sits initially at a small desk, channeling the creative artist in her element as she simultaneously pays an homage to both Copland and Graham, the two highly opinionated creative forces behind this quintessential American work. And Wittman with Enrico Lopez-Yanez, a graduate student in conducting, serve as the work’s drum majors or pied pipers, leading lines and circles, spirals and whirling vortexes of string players and woodwinds, brass and drums around the stage, which has been carefully and lovingly lit in evolving shades of cool blue and warm yellow to compliment the mood and tenor of the musical passages.

Lerman also pays a sense of tribute to the staunch and angular canvas that Graham crafted in telling her tale of a frontier marriage and the complex psychological forces that spurred her inner turmoil. In Lerman’s hands, though, the movement loses this mid-century modernist gloss for something far more lyrical, democratic and (Lerman’s calling card for decades now) easy to read and render, by dancers and non-dancers alike.

Lerman, with creative co-choreographic input from Vincent Thomas, another former dancer in her now-defunct company, has drawn upon multiple talents of these mostly graduate school-level musicians. Not only can they play, but some (a violinist at one point) can play bars while dancing a jig, a flutist can skip upstairs and not miss a beat, and a trio of men can lift up a bassoonist on another student’s back in a circus-y moment that underlines the sense of play that Lerman has drawn from these otherwise serious musicians.

lerman app spring 2

Thomas (who has a perfect background as a choreographer for college flag teams) and Lerman have been able to draw out a surprisingly rich, varied and daring palette of movements from these budding orchestra professionals. The risks they have taken to play and maneuver do not seem to have taken much toll musically on the Copland score. And if there were glitches from time to time, they were more than made up for by the liveliness and intensity of commitment these musicians had for the project.

Once the piece arrives at the “Simple Gifts” theme, with its moderatos and crescendos, it’s hard not to be sold on this project. Then in a final act of spiritual offering, as the theme wanes and returns to its sparest melodic lines, the musicians step to the edge of the stage and place their instruments – flutes and French horns, clarinets and basses, violins and oboes – lovingly on the floor before stepping back and leaving the final notes to the clarinet and xylophone and final movement to Lopez-Yanez and to Wittman. Wittman recapitulates a simple hand gesture: her open palm held aloft, balancing and tossing the unseen.

Wittman has held the orchestra and audience in her thrall. Within that softly executed moment is a world of creativity. It’s the magical life force of how music and dance, poetry and song, come into being. Lerman’s Appalachian Spring gifts us with the drama of the creative force itself in all its glory, mystery and spirituality.

Among Lerman’s ongoing creative projects is her continuing experimentation in what she has called “non-fiction dance” or “non-fiction choreography.” Many of her works spanning her more than four decades of dancemaking have drawn deeply from her personal experiences, along with those of her dancers (whether professionally trained or not) – her chief collaborators. In complex, multifaceted evening-length works she has addressed the mapping of the human genome (Ferocious Beauty: Genome), the origins of everything (The Matter of Origins), the harrowing Nuremberg trials (Small Dances About Big Ideas) and the massive reach of Russian history (Russia: Footnotes to History), to name a few of her large-scale, intensively researched pieces. Lerman’s latest work deals – emotionally, viscerally, practically and historically – with war and its aftermath on individuals.

Healing Wars, which made its world premiere in June 2014 at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre in Washington, D.C., alternates both effectively and ineffectively between two American conflicts: the Civil War and the present-day wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Lerman’s directorial influence, these events, separated by history and 150 years, are both equated and contrasted so that in an 80-minute evening, the build-up of concepts and ideas becomes overwhelming.

At times it’s easier to shut down than take in one more sound-bite, revelatory confession or factoid about war, medical advancements, healing and return home. One way Lerman accomplishes this is by examining and exploring the smallest of details – the incremental overrides the universal. One doctor’s story of a surgical incident, one soldier’s experience with the ramifications of an exploded IED, one woman’s tactics to survive on the home front, knowing her partner is far from home with danger close by, are told and meant to be instructive and didactic in result.

Lerman’s biggest pieces work through accretion – the additive nature of these vignettes; narratives performed in words and gestures; images, ideas, confessional passages; choreographic tidbits; and other viscera she accumulates. They often finally overwhelm, yet simultaneously they unfurl, with effective and salutary results. Dance, movement, narrative, individual experiences are universalized and by documenting them they become something greater than the one. In Lerman’s hands they become representative of the man, and universalize (in this case) our (and others’) experiences of war and its aftermaths.

She does this with the able choreographic assistance of one of her long-time affiliates, dancer Keith Thompson, as well as co-artistic collaborators Heidi Eckwall creating lighting; Darron L. West, contributing sound; Kate Freer providing the multimedia and video elements; and David Israel Reynoso crafting the unobtrusive sets (including the most compelling, a chandelier-like mobile of hanging military cots) and the simple but effective costumes that draw on Civil War and modern military garb.

As much devised theater as it is dance, the performance begins before the audience even enters Arena’s most-intimate space, the Cradle. Led in the back way via the stage door in groups of about 12 to 15, one walks through a museum-like collection of life-sized, living dioramas, each populated with a performer recreating a moment from the Civil War era or from today.

There’s Alli Ross, perched on a high stool-like bicycle seat, a woman disguised as a Confederate soldier. She is glimpsed through a broken window, a closed room with an off-kilter bed hung from the ceiling (foreshadowing Reynoso’s set). And Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, properly clad in a hoop skirt, portrays Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, as she sifts through thousands and thousands – 63,000 according to a museum-like placard nearby – of letters requesting information about missing Civil War soldiers.

Ultimately, the final vignette both dramatically and morally becomes, the centerpiece in the 70-minute work. Hollywood actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day) shares a bench with Paul Hurley, a former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate and graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. They chat casually about Hurley’s wartime experiences. I overheard his telling of an epic bar fight between Australian, German, Dutch and Greek soldiers. The Aussies started it, he claimed. Unspoken, at least in the snippet I heard, but later revealed, is the narrative detailing how Hurley lost his leg in Bahrain and how he faced an arduous recovery.

As the audience files into their seats, Samantha Spies meanders the stage, lantern in hand, her rough-cut burlap dress indicating her slave caste – but her presence more otherworldly spirit and angel than downtrodden slave. Her guise provides an elemental and earth-centered connective thread to root African movement traditions, while suggesting to an ephemeral spirit’s presence. Spies helps the viewer switch between present and past, between realistic and otherworldly realms, between the Civil War and Afghanistan and Iraq, between modern-day operating room and deathbed. It’s hard to misconstrue her true role once she completes her monologue – she’s an angel leading characters to their deaths, gently or gruesomely.

Actor, and here monologist extraordinaire, Pullman serves as the work’s core: he’s both guide and example, playing a military surgeon who lectures before a group of patrons back on the home front. In Hollywood films Pullman has played an American president, so his authoritative demeanor almost steamrolls some quieter, less specific moments. But the evening’s centerpiece arrives when Pullman and wounded vet Hurley converse. Hurley removes his prosthesis and performs a duet giving himself over to dancer Thompson, who has crossed over from Civil War to today as a supportive partner in the wounded man’s healing. The compelling moment – undeniably, ultimately self-sacrificing and draining — demands that attention be paid.

Our wars – American wars – are fought in distant lands. Lerman’s goal with this project was to bring the present-day wars and their aftermath home, just as, in its time, our nation’s largest and most divisive war, the Civil War, touched nearly every household and life as citizens witnessed battles and the tragedy of the wounded and dead in their midst.

Lerman’s work in drawing together these disparate but not dissimilar moments of history, along with the science, medical advances, politics and, of course, personal experiences, forces contemporary audiences to pause and consider that as individually painful as war traumas are, the suffering that results is our nation’s burden to bear. Lerman, here, through the compelling forces of dance theater, underscores the gravity of that burden.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

This review originally was published in the Spring 2015 print edition of Ballet Review (p. 20-23). To subscribe, visit Ballet Review.