D.C. DanceWatcher

Archaic/Modern

Posted in Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 21, 2017

“Cave of the Heart”
Martha Graham Dance Company
Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Washington, D.C.
March 3, 2017

“Archaic/Modern” is not only the title of the estimable exhibit of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi mid-20th-century works at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Archaic/modern describes the archetypal and incalculably influential choreography of Martha Graham, one of our nation’s iconic founders of modern dance. Friday evening, in conjunction with the Noguchi exhibit, the Martha Graham Dance Company gave a riveting performance of the iconic Cave of the Heart, one of Graham’s Greek tragedies told from the woman’s point of view.

cave-of-the-heart-ben-schultz-charlotte-landreau-jump_1000The 1946 work is imbued with coiled energy, heightened passion and jealousy restrained until bursting. Based on the myth of Medea, a sorceress in love with Jason, she is awaiting his undivided attention after he has gained the Golden Fleece. Instead, he betrays her with King Creon’s daughter. Graham begins the 30 minute work as Jason returns from his battle. Distilling the complex mythology into a four character ballet, elemental emotions of jealousy, betrayal and revenge are laid bare.

Noguchi’s iconic set with its naturalistic shapes, stepping stones, an amoeba-like green stone snake, a large throne-like centerpiece of black basalt-like material and the formidable spiky spider dress. Distilled to four characters, Graham’s ability to bare emotions through sharply etched contractions of the torso and stylized hand gestures allows each character to speak dynamically through the choreography. Medea, the exquisite compact powerhouse Xin Ying, is like a pot ready to boil over, her energy barely wholly contained. Broad-shouldered Ben Schultz epitomizes a Greek god and as Jason, he’s a typical Graham male lead: with his body-builder’s muscles and pervasive tattoos he fills the stage with heel-stabbing arabesques, and deep lunges his arm cocked as if to stab the air with an arrow.

Creon’s daughter, The Princess, the lovely Charlotte Landreau,  gets carried, suported, lifted and straddled by Jason. The contrast between the two women, Medea, who asserts her strength and holds her ground and The Princess, who acquiesces and follows Jason across the stage on Noguchi’s stepping stones, representing the islands he traversed on his quest.

Blonde hair flowing and draped in a short white tunic, Landreau paints The Princess as a carefree converse to Medea’s edgy sorceress. But Landreau is not wilting, she exhibits her power through her flirtatious jumps and girlish skips, still assertive in their space engulfing Grahamesque manner.  It’s clear this Princess has her eyes on the stunning Jason, wearing briefs and black straps suggestive of bondage across his chest.

The choreography remains consciously specific to Graham’s eye-catching movement language. As if peeling this ancient tale of lovers jealousy and betrayal from antique Greek vases, Graham maintains the flattened two-dimensional quality in some of her movement motifs, most particularly Jason, who seems more a stereotype of muscular machismo than an archetypal warrior. For Medea, a role Graham created for herself, she allowed nothing to rein in the burning rage that lies of a cuckolded woman. While Ying is provocative, in the way she splays and tumbles to the floor, drawing a red ribbon from her heaving chest as if spilling out her guts before devouring the stage space with a series of hip thrusting contortions of the waist.

Graham’s choice to begin this ballet — yes she called her pieces ballet, even at the dawn of modern dance — at the moment in the myth when Medea discovers Jason’s betrayal, provides a gut-wrenching reversal. The commissioned score by Samuel Barber builds to a climax of pulsing, sawing orchestrations that raise the pulse and clarify how growing anger might sound, like itchy strings that accelerate into a grand orchestral gesture as Medea becomes overcome by her unrelenting rage — her eyes narrowed to slits, her fingers splayed like claws, her torso contorting as if she is being eaten from the inside out.

The one calming force in the work appears in Graham’s conception of the Greek chorus, here danced by a one woman, the role serves as both the soothsayer and penitent. She warns of sorrows to come her arms stretched wide, or one hand cupped against her mouth as if calling to calm the impending rage. Leslie Andrea Williams is a lanky and soulful dancer as she spreads her limbs, her fingers trembling, her foot cocked in an angular flexion, that simultaneously heightens and assuages the building tension. There’s a stoic statuesque demeanor to her character that contrasts to the relentless rage that fills Medea and the vapid trust of The Princess.

Cave of the Heart provides a stunning example of the deep and fruitful collaboration between Graham and Noguchi — working on 21 pieces together. They both drew on ancient and archaic elements — Graham in Greek tragedy, Noguchi in natural carved formations — reinventing them for their era. Crafted amid the turmoil of World War II, this highly dramatic psychodrama that delves into the dark and vengeful passions of love at its most destructive, there is much that remains captivating about this 71-year-old work. This most recent rendering in the intimate  shows that the Graham company continues to breathe life into its mid-20th-century classic works, with exacting stagings that capture the elemental emotions that captivated Graham and became central to so many of her works over her more than 70-year career. It was wonderful to hear the dancers breathing for breath lies at the core of Graham’s dance technique: an expulsion of the breath contracts the pelvis and sets the body in motion. Cave of the Heart lives on in the very lungs, bones, blood and sinews of this new generation of Graham dancers.

Ben Schultz and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart, photo Brigid Pierce.
This review was originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted with kind permission.
(c) Lisa Traiger 2017
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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.

 

Erotic

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

Antithesis: Dance Place Practice
Gesel Mason Performance Projects

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Change Maker

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Dance theater, Jazz dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on November 18, 2016

What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice
Choreography by Vincent Thomas
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 12-13, 17, 19-20, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Walking into Dance Place for the world premiere of choreographer and dancer Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice, an homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s. But the piece is more than a bio-dance commemorating Gaye, it’s akin to a 21st century piece of agit prop. No one should leave the theater unchanged or unmoved for it’s both a celebration and lament. Dancers — barefoot and clad in white — and audience gathered in the lobby for a little warm-up trivia led by Thomas in his soothing voice. Of course, it wasn’t long before the whole crowd was dancing — a little home grown D.C. hand dancing then a full-on electric slide. We danced our way into the theater, and the grooving didn’t stop for two hours.

vincent-thomas-whats-going-onAnd yet, amid all that festivity, there was also deep introspection. What’s Going On is a look inside to reveal where we are — as individuals, as a community, as a nation and a global village.

The festive atmosphere reached a high as onlookers took their seats at Dance Place, and the dancers took to the stage with soul-pumping and heart-racing dances drawing from African roots. With choreographic assistance from Sylvia Soumah or Mama Sylvia, D.C.’s undisputed queen of African dance, the group of 17 dancers and drummers captured the essence of a celebratory communal dance, with cheers, hollers and friendly competition, shoulders rolling, hips shimmying, knees pumping, arms slicing and winding, torsos pulsating. This semicircle of dancers recalled the profound embodied language that remains an elemental part of the African-American community, from its churches to its social clubs to its unparalleled performance aesthetic to its family and communal gatherings.

This was the world Marvin Gaye was born into, deeply religious, rooted to the past, but looking to the future. The son of a Pentecostal minister, who preached at a strict House of God church, he grew up singing, encouraged by his mother. He chafed, though, under his father’s restrictions. Gaye came of age as the Motown sound was evolving and three octave vocal range and a body of unforgettable songs left an indelible mark on American popular culture.

Dancer/choreographer Thomas was inspired by one of Gaye’s hits, What’s Going On, to look back at the singer’s life and his legacy and to delve into today’s current events, forcing viewers to pose a rejoinder — “what am I going to do about our current state of affairs.” Two years in the making, how could Thomas know how timely and prescient this piece would be just four days after the most contentious election in recent memory. Continuing ideas and structures he explored in his 2014 evening-length work, Occupy confronted ripped-from-the-headlines issues including stagnating economic opportunities, disparities between haves and have-nots, and the globalization of the economy. What’s Going On treads similar territory but in a further fleshed out and meaningful manner. Here Thomas actually invites the audience to respond, interact, consider their own next steps.

A moving, heartfelt solo, danced by Thomas, who stretches and spirals his torso and lanky arms, in search of something — comfort, connection, a higher power — features a movingly sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And this, like the many vignettes in the work, is preceded by a slide featuring quotes by and about Gaye.

Looking back to Gaye’s era, and the mobs of teen and adult fans who were touched and changed by his music, Thomas takes us to a typical 1960s or ‘70s house party — featuring low lights, mod furniture (in a video backdrop designed by Sujan Shrestha, couples and groups of dancers bobbing trucking, flirting and embracing. But the dance gatherings were more than a fun night out. Thomas notes, via slide, “this social dancing was their social justice.” It was a way African Americans could connect with and proudly own their cultural heritage, amid the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war era and the post-war disenchantment of the 1970s. And Gaye’s voice became their own.

On the old-school record player, spinning LPs, “Hitch Hike” blares and the dancers again turn to celebration. Here their moves echo those featured in the African segment of the show, but they’re smoother, jazzier, more showy, to allow for teasing. They dance — as everyone does — to celebrate youth, beauty, joy, love, but they also dance to connect. The eight company dancers, in pairs, small groups and as a company, show off their moves and stamina to classics like “Funny Valentine,” an achy solo full of inconsolable reaches and stretches and tremoring hands fluttering over the dancer’s heart. Then they stage a Motown revue — lip-syncing of classic numbers, recalling Al Green and The Supremes, among others — with plenty of step-ball-changes, fan kicks and jazzy moves. It’s fun unencumbered and rather slight, although the men’s trio has some high power leaps and spins.

Before intermission or a “social interlude,” as Thomas called it, placard-bearing dancers entered the audience, their signs asking: “Where are your community’s celebrations?” and “What are the concerns in your community?” Audience members were encouraged to fill mini-placards with their thoughts and and responses before What’s Going On turns to far more discordant 21st century territory. Here Thomas includes slides of historic 20th century moments and icons — Martin Luther King, Jr., Equal Rights Amendment marches of the 1970s, Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and others. The dancers, now clad in muted taupe, no longer dance freely and joyfully. Their body language is muted and pained, filled with grasping, deep, despondent sights, and of-the-moment symbolic gestures – performed before a video of Gaye singing the national anthem in 1983. Raised “black power” fists — the dap — and wrists held together behind the back are as telling as a dancer kneeling and another, fully prostrate in a Muslim prayer-like bow.

Thomas returns to again speak to the audience, allowing them brief time and space to voice their own concerns — among them fear of a Trump presidency, clean water, classicism, rich people who don’t pay taxes, job opportunities and more. Diversity, new life, unity, freedom, respect and Dance Place were called out for celebration. Then Thomas — like his mentor, Liz Lerman, who made her name in combining dance and community activism — turned the question around, asking, “How can you turn your concerns into celebrations?”

As the company converges to dance together in a tight-knit clump, the screen projects today’s images: Syrian refugees, police shootings of black citizens, Somali refugees, poor, impoverished masses, close-ups of wounded children from various conflicts. Each photo compels us to do more than watch. What’s Going On is a necessary reminder that there is more work to be done to repair the world.

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

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Grit and Resilience

Posted in Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 9, 2016

The Blues Project
Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIG Lovely
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
October 5-6, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

If you want to know how America dances, don’t tune in to those kitschy television competition shows So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars.

Check out Dorrance Dance in The Blues Project. This is how America dances: with fervor and ferocity, humor and intensity, grace and fluidity, intelligence and an eye on where our people have been and where we are going.

dorrancedance_2013christopherduggan-26-960x600The Blues Project digs deeply into our nation’s indigenous dance and music forms — tap and the blues — parsing its taproots in African dances and rhythms brought by slaves to American soil, Irish step dance performed by immigrants, and a culmination of fusing syncopated rhythms, stringed instruments, which evolved from West African kora to banjo, to all-American guitar and bass, and adapting heartfelt storytelling sung in ballads, spirituals and blues. The result is an astonishing and uplifting 65 minutes of grit and gumption told through body, voice, instrument, heart and soul.

On a darkened stage, the first sounds are a beat, pounded out in footwork, the sharp hit of a tap against wood, singularly and then collectively as nine dancers gather in a layered expression of body music. It’s joyful and elemental, for the beat is always reminiscent of the internal life-force: the heart. Even in the large, less-than-intimate space of the Eisenhower Theater, the performers, both dancers and musicians, manage to pull the viewers into their world, one where rhythm takes hold and leads you on a journey.

Dorrance, lanky and lean, clad in a blue-checked shirtwaist dress, comes forward last among her company of eight fine tap dancers (Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Starinah “Star” Dixon, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, and Nicholas Van Young) . Among them her co-choreographers Derick K. Grant, an original company member of the Broadway cast of the instructive and propulsive tap musical Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who coached Michael Jackson in tap over an 11 year period and lists Broadway credits on her resume.

Also on stage, the exquisite powerhouse singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon. Daughter of legendary Washington-based folk, blues and spiritual song leader, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the a cappella “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” Toshi Reagon mines the aural history of America with her blues-infused rock, funk and ballads, that parses the sonic sounds of America’s roots in music.

From boldly and unabashedly spiritual forms like the Ring Shout, which dates back to slavery, to gut wrenching blues and sultry funk, Reagon carries the inflections and voices of generations expressed in their songs of oppression and hope, of slavery and freedom, that continue to resonate today.

Dorrance grew up in her mother’s ballet school in Chapel Hill, N.C., and on the soccer fields where her father coached — he led the 1991 Women’s U.S. team to the World Cup. Her combination of grace and athleticism mark her tap, but she isn’t an old school hoofer. She dances with a 21st-century sensibility and attack, knowing when to get down and hit the floor and when to lightly scuff it and caress it with staccato trembles. Her ear for the rhythmic journey and its counterpoint is impeccable. It’s hard not to notice her, even tucked into her ensemble. Unlike tap great Savion Glover, she doesn’t hide her face or turn her back on the audience, you see her ferocity of concentration as her forehead scrunches up and her eyes focus hard.

In his solo, co-choreographer Grant slyly at first throws down an old school time step. It becomes the basis for his dance rumination that meanders through a distinctive rhythm tap vocabulary while still feeling entirely of the moment to an untrained ear.

Co-choreographer Sumbry-Edwards takes her solo in a different direction, easing into it and playing off of Reagon’s guitar and bluesy and revelatory singing. Their interplay shows the necessity of having instrumentalists on stage — the four-piece ensemble (Adam Widoff on electric guitar, Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, and Allison Miller on drums) plays on a raised platform across the back of the stage. Sumbry-Edwards channels both pain and joy in her cascading hits and scuffs, slaps and shuffles, until she can’t hold back and it becomes a rush that brings her to a hard-won end. It a reckoning with the origins of tap as a way to preserve rhythms of outlawed African drums outlawed, but maintained in the body through dance and percussion called hambone.

Dorrance has incorporated her ensemble into the work in masterful ways, playing two dancers against three, a single dancer against an ensemble, quartets and trios building on layered rhythmic sets that track the evolution of tap, jazz, blues and funk. It’s a wondrous journey taken in loving recollection of America’s past. Dorrance and her eight dancers, along with Reagon and her four musicians, have let loose an evening of unfettered footwork, drawing from the most primal beats that have been kept alive for centuries to tell our true American story.

Our nation’s 19th century poet Walt Whitman wrote a song of his America, mountains, hills, valleys, workers of every stripe who built this nation. Dorrance and Reagon together sing a 21st century song of our nation’s struggles, flaws, triumphs, and hopes.

The Blues Project is exquisite embodied poetry of resilience.

Photo: Dorrance Dance by Christopher Duggan

This review was first published October 7, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished 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 print-only magazine Ballet Review. What? You don’t subscribe? Visit Ballet Review.

Serving Food for Thought … and Cake

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center 1

Monica Bill Barnes and Ann Bass, courtesy Kennedy Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c)  Lisa Traiger 2016
Published March 12, 2016

Photos: Monica Bill Barnes & Company, courtesy Kennedy Center

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

 

 

 

 

Beauty Realized

Posted in Uncategorized by lisatraiger on January 29, 2016

The Sleeping Beauty
American Ballet Theatre
Staging and new choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
January 27, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Scene from Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Alexei Ratmansky’s newest staging of the great classical ballet The Sleeping Beauty feels like that moment in the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz when the scene goes from black and white to Technicolor. Ratmansky has returned color, style and detail to the warhorse 1890 ballet, which, has, over succeeding decades, lost its identifying roots. Ballet, of course, is passed down from generation to generation orally, from retiring dancer to young dancer, from teacher to student, so like a game of telephone, sense and details can get lost, dropped or simply ignored because fashion and stylistic preferences change.

For American Ballet Theatre’s 2014 production, presented at the Kennedy Center Opera House January 27-31, 2016, which premiered two years ago in Costa Mesa, Calif., the beauty is in the details, the small moments, the living tableaux stage that Ratmansky paints. The ballet is both outsized and restrained in stager Ratmansky’s sure hand. The Russian-born and trained artist in residence at ABT is known and loved for his contemporary works, but he’s also an historian, a ballet sleuth, and for this production he searched the archives at Harvard University and  in St. Petersburg, Russia, to suss out what the ballet could have looked like in 1890 at its premiere in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, or a generation later in the early 1900s when Diaghilov’s Ballets Russes acquired and performed the work.

The story, at least its bones, is nearly universally known, if not from storybooks then from Disney. But this version is more than simply a fairy tale retold. Created for the Russian czar’s court, the world of the ballet models the social and economic hierarchy of that era and tells us much about the workings of the upper class, the 1 percent if you will, amid the storybook unfolding of the prologue and three acts.

Most frequently lost in classical ballets, particularly when they made their way west to North America, has been the mime, which is essential for the narrative and dramatic elements of the classical ballet canon. Without the story and mime, it’s all merely divertissements — pure dancing, and for a time that’s what audiences wanted. But these days, the trend it back to narrative. Ratmansky, with the assistance of his wife Tatiana, has resuscitated mime passages that have been rarely if ever seen in recent decades, illuminating the story in new ways. We see a conversation between King Floriestan (Roman Zhurbin) and Catalabutte (Alexei Agoudine), his chief minister, that helps us clearly understand the hierarchies at stake in the royal court. A little later in the prologue, when the uninvited evil fairy Carabosse enters, there is a snippet of mimed dialogue where the good Lilac Fairy asks her evil counterpart why she’s so angry. Carabosse answers — a bit of mime I’ve never seen — then begins plucking out hairs of Catalabutte.

The dancing, too, has a renewed vigor, though present-day audiences will find few grand and virtuosic tricks. The women don’t raise their legs to ear-grazing heights and the men don’t soar in sweeping leaps and 540 degree barrel turns. Equilibrium restores moderation and attention to the details of smaller, complex footwork are what brighten and color this ballet. While we often think that ballet technique has advanced in the past 100 years, there are elements that have been lost.

Marius Petipa, the French-born émigré to Russia responsible for much of the classical ballet canon from Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake to The Nutcracker and Raymonda, apparently had specific ideas and distinctions he practiced on the placement of feet and legs. Ratmansky has uncovered those to great effect.

In this setting, the legs rarely go above 90 degrees, lending a greater notion of geometric purity to the way the body moves and poses — particularly the female body. There’s an abiding sense of restraint and purity to the women’s solos. And the partnered balances, especially the famous “Rose Adagio,” where the princess plucks a rose from each suitor’s hand before sticking a breath-catching balance on one leg, is less outlandish and more queenly and staid here. As well, the foot, particularly the woman’s foot, is not just pointed or flatly bearing weight. There are times when weight is borne on the metatarsal, dancers call it demi-pointe, something little seen in modern ballet where emphasis is on highly defined pointe work. And the bent working leg, especially in pirouettes, doesn’t always rise to the knee here — sometimes it remains held at the ankle or at mid-calf. These are not mistakes but conscious choices uncovered in the Petipa notes from Ratmansky’s research.

Aside from the ballet geek details, the larger scope of this production is one of courtly grandeur. The backdrops and sets of castles and palace interiors by Richard Hudson are grandly austere, a bit less colorful than the hundreds of costumes — accented by wigs and shoes — also by Hudson but inspired by the Ballets Russes costumes of Leon Bakst. There are no short classical-style tutus a la the pancake-like circle of netting popularized in Swan Lake. Instead the ladies’ tutus are bell-shaped in the Romantic style and hover just above the knee, again adding a sense of grace and restraint. The score, Tchaikovsky’s of course, is played well by The Kennedy Center’s orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins. And the gaggle of local children, dancing as pages, courtiers and the like, have been beautifully rehearsed by Maryland Youth Ballet teacher Rhodie Jorgenson.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Scene from Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

The dancing, of course, matters most for audiences here and the opening night cast did not disappoint. Stella Abrera replaced Veronika Part in the important role of the Lilac Fairy on opening night. Russian-trained Part is a cool and staunch ballerina and would have brought those qualities to the role. Abrera brought a sense of openness and even joy to her pivotal portrayal. Though not overly elegant, and sturdier than Part, she carried off the nearly god-like demeanor demanded of the latter acts when equilibrium is restores the courtly order, for it is her spell that causes the young Princess Aurora not to die at the spindle prick but sleep 100 years awaiting the kiss of her prince charming.

As Princess Aurora, Isabella Boylston exhibited both joy and restraint, not terribly girlish, but she was kind and gentle. Her prince, Desire, danced by Joseph Gorak on Wednesday night, was attentively steadfast and, as noted, he doesn’t have many show-off moves, but his footwork, particularly the fleet foot beats, was admirable, if not perfect.

Marcelo Gomes’ evil fairy Carabosse relished being equal parts conniving and lustfully malicious. Stooped and Disney-scary, he played the bad witch with relish. As notable in Petipa’s Beauty are the many variations for the attendant fairies and, in the final act, the fairy tale characters — Little Red Riding Hood, the Bluebird, Puss and Boots, Cinderella, etc. — each has a noteworthy variation with lovely steps specific to who the dancer is portraying.

American Ballet Theatre typically does a run-of-the-mill job with the old school Petipa classics. It mounted a ho-hum Sleeping Beauty in 2007 with staging by its Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and  her husband Michael Chernov. Ratmansky has returned Beauty to, it seems, a previous glory and grandeur.

The ABT dancers have tackled the challenges of the more restrained and pure technique and have acclimated themselves wonderfully to the specificity of the mime. As a whole the dancers have a sturdy, solid look, both corps de ballet and principals, which works impeccably well, rather than the gaunt, idealized thinness of late-20th century ballet dancers (here I’m thinking of the Mariinsky’s 1999 revival). The ABT dancers stand and move on solid ground. They may struggle or wobble in a balance, but they are human beings. Yes, they’re playing fairies and kings and courtiers, who are all striving for a godlike elegance, that’s a distinction that makes this ballet, for all its restraint and detail and historicity, a most satisfying evening.

Published January 30, 2016, originally appeared in DC Metro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016

 

Long History, Deep Roots for DC Contemporary Dance Theatre

Posted in Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized, World dance by lisatraiger on February 9, 2015

‘Deep Roots, Wide World’
DC Contemporary Dance Theatre/El Teatro de Danza Contemporanea
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
February 7, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

“Long title and long history,” said Dance Place co-director Deborah Riley to introduce DC Contemporary Dance Theatre, which has also worked under the moniker El Teatro de Danza Contemporanea. Its founder and artistic director Miya Hisaka Silva founded the troupe 30 years ago and yesterday’s celebratory program marked the troupe’s longevity: three decades of making and sharing dance here in Washington and in El Salvador and beyond. The company’s calling card since 1982 has been diversity in its dancers, its choreographers, even its favored genres. The anniversary program, for example, featured contemporary jazz, a balletic pas de deux danced on pointe, hip hop and African-infused jazz and modern dance.

Company co-founder Adrain Bolton, who currently directs a dance ministry in Atlanta, Ga., had two works on the program: 1986’s “Ballet Jazz”  and 2013’s “Here and Now.” Both pieces were solid examples of Bolton’s specialty, inspirational jazz technique — the splayed-fingered jazz hands, swooping fan kicks, switching hips, rolling shoulders, arcing bent-legged leaps — with a smattering of balletic influence in amplified arabesques and some classic ballet class footwork braided into the works. Both were sunny, feel good dances, the first featuring the music of Jean Luc Ponty, the second, Luther Vandross — and both were adequately though not spectacularly danced.

Maurice Johnson’s hip-hop infused “When the Day Comes,” for Johnson and six dancers, showed off the dancers’ high-energy, fist pounding, heart pumping skills in breaking down and drawing the most out of Johnson’s movement sequences with pulsing hips, pumping contractions, snake-y body rolls and booty shakes. Reviving Mexican choreographer Gloria Contreras’s challenging pas de deux from 1995 to Mozart’s ‘Adagio K622′ proved challenging for dancers Max Maisey, the evening’s strongest male partner, and Chika Imamura, who lacked both the turnout and the ruler straight balletic line that the choreography demands.

The program’s centerpiece, and the only world premiere, Felipe Oyarzun’s “Amores Secas,” proved the most interesting and layered work on the program. Dance Place’s Deborah Riley also spoke of the company’s bilinguality — its seamless ability to navigate two nations — the United States and El Salvador — and two cultures. It also tests itself with  a multiplicity of embodied dance languages from modern to ballet, jazz to African dance, hip hop to lyrical. There’s an Aileyesque bent to the works and the dancers, not surprising as Hisaka Silva herself has roots in the rigorous Ailey training.

Chilean-trained Oyarzun, currently a graduate student in dance at George Washington University, fuses a vibrant mix of Latin forms in “Amores Secas,” which translates as “Dry Love.” The work is playful, stylish and infused with sensuous tango moves and poses and here the dancers look the most well-rehearsed and comfortable in this playful game of boy-girl tag Oyarzun has set up for five women and three men. One duet unspools when a man in an oversized red sweater encounters his partner and, ultimately, they fuse — each with both arms in the sweater until he parts from her. Will Hernandez has the comic task of valiantly and vainly carrying a plastic rose (which lost its top Saturday night) to woo a partner. The appealing mix of heartfelt love songs, ballads and a zesty up tempo number, all Spanish, added spice to the piece.

Closing the evening Francisco Castillo and Danilo Rivera’s “Restazos de Vida,” featured six dancers in a high energy, glossy study of the African-Latin root dance forms. With a heavy reliance on percussive snaps, contractions and earthy floor work “Retazos de Vida,” which translates as “Fragments of Life,” brought the program full circle, hearkening back to both the company’s jazz and Latin roots. In dance-company years, thirty practically amounts to a lifetime. Founder Hisaka Silva has been a driving force for multicultural dance in the District and beyond, especially in El Salvador during the post-war reconstruction years, by building a company that doesn’t simply create flashy and fun dances but also works of substance that represent the pain-filled stories and difficult histories of El Salvadorans. It was a shame that none of those works, especially “Y ahora la Esperanza” (“And Now for Hope”), a memorial to El Salvador’s 80,000 war dead — even in excerpt form — were included in this anniversary program, because that’s the lasting legacy that DCCDT and El Teatro de Danza Contemporanea should be known for.

This review appeared originally on DCMetroTheatreArts.com.

(c) 2015 Lisa Traiger

Global Cooling? Nordic Cool Heats up Washington

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Uncategorized, World dance by lisatraiger on August 6, 2013

Nordic Cool: Iceland Dance Company, Danish Dance Theatre, Carte Blanche, Tero Saarinen Company, Goteborgsoperans Danskompani
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
Feb. 27-March 16, 2013

By Lisa Traiger

Carte Blanche in Sharon Eyal's "Corps de Walk," photo Erik Berg

Carte Blanche in Sharon Eyal’s “Corps de Walk,” photo Erik Berg

Arriving at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the end of a relatively mild winter, the dance of Nordic Cool provided sharp, crisp, mind-clearing glimpses of what our northern European compatriots are experimenting with in the dance world. The center has become known and beloved for its multi-arts international festivals: previous years included Arab nations, China, hyper-technology from Japan, and music, dance and arts from India. Under president Michael Kaiser, who leaves the center at the end of 2014, the halls, theaters, galleries, restaurants, terraces and lawn have been filled with music, art, food, poetry, textiles, painting, fabricated objects, and new media. Nordic Cool was no exception, beginning with the oversized wooden moose mounted out front, to the glowing Northern Lights projected onto the white tissue-box like architecture of the building, to hallways filled with elegant clothing, well-designed tableware and furniture, a steam house and a display of Nobel Prize winners, to name merely a few.

Primarily the upstairs Terrace Theater, with its smaller stage footprint, was given over to dance companies from Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Evident from the outset, among all of these companies is the sharp contrast with American modern dance. The typical American sunnyness that particularly populates contemporary American modern dance – think Morris, Tharp, Taylor’s brighter pieces, Parsons, etc. – is foreign to the nature of at least these Nordic dancemakers. There’s a greater cool contemplativeness – not that American works don’t have their own depth and inner turmoil, but in general there’s a can-do, feel-good aspect of dance that dance can change us or influence change that comes through in much American-made dance that I didn’t find in the Nordic companies’ works. Yes, there are struggles, but Americans (see Ailey, Bill T. Jones, et al) more often overcome those struggles and rise above the pain expressed in their works.

Nordic dance takes a different tack. In Iceland Dance Company’s Frank Fannar Pedersen’s “Til,” a clothesline hung with collared shirts and a transparent barrier provide the emotional distance for a sharply etched duet that rises from some finely gentle moments into a flailing breakthrough with a mélange of music, including Sigur Ros and Philip Glass. The nine-member troupe’s centerpiece, “The Swan,” carried in its very title, of course, a heavy load of ballet history dating back to ballet forbears from Petipa to Fokine.

Choreographer Lara Stefansdottir has re-imagined her female swan as a powerful 21st century woman. Tall, with muscular thighs and eyes circled in dark shadows, this swan is no retiring beauty waiting for her curse to be lifted by a beloved prince. Ellen Margret Baehrenz’s post-modern net tutu looks more punk than Petipa. She’s joined on stage by a retiring male companion, Hannes Egilsson, curled up dreaming (echoes of “Spectre de la Rose”?) in a clear, egg-like chair from which he tumbles to the floor. Egilsson is no match for Baehrenz’s pursuit and she pushes, struggles and wrestles him into submission; he becomes the one with the aching beautiful arched wings and undulating shoulders in a reversal of the expected roles of a female submissive swan and her caretaker prince. Then a jarring switch to Prokofiev (the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” of all things) and a shower of snow signals a new reality: Egilsson makes his way back to his cocoon-like chair. This fairy tale is one of breaking away, gaining independence. A new swan for a new 21st century.

The Icelandic evening closed with a flashy, catchy work part urban street dance, part pop star video, “Grosstadtssafari” [Big City Safari], with its sexy, cool hip thrusts, leg kicks, endless spins and leather-and-lace costume is, if nothing more, an audience pleaser for the television dance crowd.

Norway’s Carte Blanche brought Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal’s assertive dissection of the walk. As she put it in the program note: “In recent works I have used a system of walks. For me walks are the new dance.” In some ways she’s very much the post-modernist, stripping away technique to suss out new discoveries full of unexpected detail, namely large choral group sections of army-like rigor, quirky yet memorable gestures – elbows and fists curled into a boxer’s unreleased punched – and a driving score by Israeli DJ Ori Lichtik that toggles from David Byrne to Claude Debussy, David Lynch to Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Aphex Twin and more. Like “The Swan” from the Icelandic group, “Corps de Walk,” too, plays on the balletic tradition of a corps de ballet – the ballet’s body of dancers crafted to dance, of course, as a single unit. And Eyal highlights that uniformity in the sleek white unitards with white caps the dancers wear, as well as the eye-blanking white contact lenses they don. But the Carte Blanche dancers move like Amazons, creatures acclimated to a harsh climate, but able to surmount any obstacle. They lunge, thrash, punch, push, leap and crawl like as yet discovered creatures of some unknown harsh environment. But at the base of the work by Eyal, house choreographer for Israel’s renowned Batsheva Dance Company, is the walk, asserting the ever-present forward-goingness of the work. They move like ants, purposeful, synchronized in lock step. Carte Blanche’s dancers – an international group of 13 of varying body types and movers – are in one sense an anti-corps. But they have Eyal’s signature style so deeply etched in their bodies that they are formidable as a united front.

The oddball out among these Nordic troupes proved to be Danish Dance Theater. Directed by Brit Tim Rushton, whose pedigree is Royal Ballet, he brought the U.S. premiere (like nearly all of the other works) “Love Songs.” An evening-length work that mines a song book of cherished American jazz classics from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, the work follows the score’s trajectory of love discovered, lost, found, and explored in a somewhat dark nightclub-like setting. The dozen dancers are easy going movers who pair up, spar, undulate and separate, their legs rock solid, their abs steely. There’s a relaxed looseness, not quite the uber-popular release technique so big for years now here in the U.S., but the dancers display an ease in the way they curl into themselves or unfurl. The costumes, street (or make that club) clothes, then eventually lingerie, proved serviceable. Odd, though, was the choice of singer. These American classics have been interpreted here by Danish jazz artist Caroline Henderson. Frankly, I longed for the originals from many, including Dusty Springfield’s “I’m Gonna Leave You” and the Arlen/Mercer classic “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Ultimately, “Love Songs” did what it set out to: trace an arc across various couples and individuals in this small community of lovers and friends. What it didn’t do, though, was draw the viewer in to care sincerely about these characters. They were just so many bodies, mixing it up – albeit beautifully – on stage, yet with not much to say. And, frankly, the work had such an “American accent,” created by a British choreographer, no less, that it felt odd in a festival called Nordic Cool.

 

Tero Saarinen's "Hunt," photo Tero Saarinen Company

Tero Saarinen’s “Hunt,” photo Tero Saarinen Company

I can’t tell you much about what dance in Finland looks like. Former Finnish National Ballet dancer Tero Saarinen has traversed the world soaking up ideas from across Western Europe and Japan, where he studied traditional Japanese dance and Butoh. That contemplative quiet rests at the center of the three works his eponymous Tero Saarinen Company brought to the larger Eisenhower Theater. “Westward Ho!” is meant to evoke a seafaring friendship among three men. Saarinen’s signature work, the first he created for his company back in 1996, is oddly picaresque. These three men embark on a journey clad in loose fitting white and little black aprons. They process through the stage to the oddly chosen score by Gavin Bryars and Moondog’s “The Message.” At times they’re weirdly quirky, with Buster Keaton-esque walks. But the continuous nature of the work with its small simple gestures and unadorned moments feels both very particular and sometimes inexplicably painful. The men stopping along the way bears a sense of great import – a spiritual connection, perhaps, aligned with the scratchy vocals of “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” which sounds like it was recorded in the London Underground. There’s an aura of gravity, even in some of the goofy moments along the way, which solemnly settles into closure as Mikki Kunttu’s lights fade.

Saarinen himself danced in “Hunt,” a 2002 re-envisioning of the great centennial masterpiece “The Rite of Spring.” The score, of course, holds primacy for nearly every choreographer who tackles it. But here Saarinen strips the work of its original sacrificial scenario and instead draws on the multimedia contributions of Marita Liulia, who has spliced together a non-stop parade of moving images from primitive carvings, animals, and futuristic slides. Saarinen opens circling, his bare chest rippling, wing-like arms undulating. Later a winged skirt-like cape drops down, which he dons to provide a projection for the ever-changing collages of images. Strobes pulsate; the music and his movement heighten; he leaps, thrashes and, finally, ultimately, collapses. This “Rite” then becomes a commentary on the overwhelming nature of our multisensory universe and how we sacrifice ourselves, our true bodies, to the moving image, where images are non-stop and the future is constantly rushing toward us, dehumanizing humanity into pods of video and audio bytes rather than flesh and blood. It’s perhaps not a “Rite of Spring” for the ages, but it is one for right now.

Also at the Eisenhower, Sweden’s GoteborgsOperans Danskompani is a smart looking ensemble of 14, which brought three works, including a chic “OreloB” by Finnish dancemaker Kenneth Kvarnstrom. The Ravel score gave away the title – Bolero spelled backwards – yet we only heard faint snatches of it wafting through Jukka Rintamaki’s electronic accompaniment. Dressed in Helena Horstedt’s black leotards adorned with yards of pleated ruffles, the women especially looked Vogue ready. Oddly though, Jens Sethzman’s set included a black garage-like trap door on one side of the stage that opened and closed for no apparent reason. The choreography filled the stage with spirals and swirls of movement, as dancers rose and melted. A few heated partnered moments ramped up the sex appeal, but while the costumes and movement remained rather static, the cacophony of music built to a crash and the “go to” ending, when a choreographer runs out of ideas these days, an onstage snowfall — in this case the snow was an attractive silver.

 

GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom's "Orelob"

GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s “Orelob”

An onstage pianist, Joakim Kallhed, accompanied Orjan Andersson’s “Beethoven’s 32 Variations,” which included fine, if undefined dancing for four women and four men, which showed adeptness of technique and attack, but little of real substance to capture one’s imagination. The colorful hipster jeans and t-shirts by Catherine Voeffray suggested a casual off-the-cuff tone for Belgium-trained choreographer Stijn Celis’s “You Passion Is Pure Joy To Me,” yet Nick Cave’s heavy handed songs and scratchy vocals lent a gloomy air to the work, which seemed more like a structured improv, where dancers run here, or there, or back again, with little connection to the Cave, Pierre Boulez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Krzysztof Penderecki soundtrack, rather than a well-planned piece of choreography.

So, back to the question: how do they dance in Nordic countries? Well, certainly, not like ballet dancers anymore, at least from the selections brought to the Kennedy Center. Many of these companies, among them Iceland Dance and the Goteborgs Operans Danskompani, previously based their works on ballet technique and tradition, but both have thoroughly assimilated the contemporary dance idiom. It’s not exactly American modern dance, although there are elements that seem very American. Yet, these companies approach their work with a more theatrical than choreographic bent, perhaps because in northern Europe still, funding isn’t as challenging as it is in the U.S. American dancemakers maybe rely more on pure choreography and less on lighting, digital, and other special effects for their climactic moments – even fake snow is expensive in these parts. But no matter what these five companies dance, they each performed with a technical proficiency and potency for movement that was refreshing to watch and, indeed, the cool factor of second guessing what contemporary dance from Finland or Norway looks like was very much part of the fun of Nordic Cool.

This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2013 print edition of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review.

(c) 2013, Lisa Traiger