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Tapestry

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8151 (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layla and Majnun_Berkeley 2016_Susana Millman - 8173 (2)

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

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

 

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

 

Published March 23, 2018
© 2018 Lisa Traiger

 

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

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Serenades and Diversions

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 6, 2018

Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied and Wheeldon
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
January 30, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

As parts of the nation settled in to hear 45 read the script of the State of the Union address, and other parts assiduously ignored the same, balletomanes and ballet goers in the Washington area welcomed a program of new and recent choreography from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) to kick off its annual Kennedy Center Opera House season. I’ll leave comments on the SOTU to the political pundits, but can proclaim wholeheartedly that, on the heels of a tough year for ballet companies, from shrinking budgets, to rising touring costs, tighter visa restrictions for foreign artists, and year-end revelations of sexual harassment  and abuse in companies large and small, the state of ABT is strong. In fact, I haven’t seen the company as a whole dance this well since its heyday in the mid-1980s, when premier danseur Mikhail Baryshnikov served as artistic director.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,”  photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Tuesday evening’s program of four works — three by living male choreographers created in the past decade — showcased the company’s commitment to building repertory for the 21st century, instead of recycling the tried and true of the past. Though none were world premieres, these offerings demonstrated a high level of sophistication that demanded far more from the typical “story ballet” crowd that fills the Opera House on Saturday nights and weekend matinees for the Swan Lakes, Giselles and Le Corsaires that the company can churn out.

Artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky has been a prolific dancemaker, creating pieces for his current home company, ABT, as well as for New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, which he directed from 2004-2008, and many others. His choreography demonstrates an astute awareness of the classical underpinnings that remain integral to the art form, but he has a fresh take on how these classic steps get put together and, more essential, how dancers perform them. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” shows that he’s in top form, creatively, intellectually and technically. The work is among his best, featuring seven of the company’s male principals in unexpected and consequential solos that focus on new their distinctive personalities and putting them far enough outside their comfort zone to allow them to shine.

Ratmansky takes self-assured inspiration from a less-well-known, but by no means lesser, score from Leonard Bernstein. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” is a violin concerto (here marvelously played by Kobi Malkin), joined by strings and percussion, especially deep timpani. The composer crafted it in 1954 after a Platonic dialogue and you can hear the questions and answers in the score, as well as the distinctive voices of the participants. Ratmansky follows both the intellectual tenets and the emotional currents Bernstein put into play, placing his dancers in conversation, giving them singular solos — danced monologues — and drawing them together into a larger discursive group, Platonic discourse embodied.

The work for seven men is filled with smartly executed Ratmansky-isms – complicated but pure bits of footwork that showcase the swiftness of feet and legs in a fashion not often seen in new ballets that too often focus on hyperextensions, and gymnastic-like tricks or other elements peripheral to the choreography. But Ratmansky loves and honors the ballet dictionary, the vocabulary that dates back to the French court. The more complicated and honed the footwork is, the more interesting it makes the choreography. And the more interesting the choreography, the better the opportunities dancers have to step up to the plate and hit it out of the park. Atop this evolving base of old and new, he allows for a sense of open expressiveness in the upper body, emphasizing epaulement — the shifting placement of the shoulders and head to enliven and add dimension to the dancers’ interpretations. For this “Serenade,” they really use everyday conversational hand gestures — widespread and open arms with palms up, a questioning shrug, an emphatic fist, an accusatory forefinger — which are more than decorative, they’re essential to the work’s development and purpose.

Calvin Royal in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheedon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Calvin Royal in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Most striking in “Serenade” is the luscious attention to detail from the dancers, from soft-footed landings following soaring jumps, to gentle bourrees — a quick gliding step most often associated with women dancing en pointe — to sequences of freshly executed pirouettes, full body reverses, and a simple repose. Here Ratmansky gives his men equal opportunity to showcase their softer, feminine sides in choreography that allows for a different dynamic and level of attack than is typically expected of male ballet dancers. The men are draped and swathed interestingly in muted tones of gray, beige, rust, black and crisp white, the varied costumes by Jerome Kaplan suggesting the one-shouldered classic Greek toga. Brad Fields’ lighting, too, assists in distilling each of the seven singular performances, and also adding special effect upon introducing the one woman in the cast.

This “Serenade” is a men’s dance: by, about and for men. But it’s also a dance about Love — not cupids and cute Valentine hearts and happily ever afters. This is Platonic love, a divine inspirational connection to the idea of Eros, a transcendent, non-sexual love that rises above the banality of happy endings. Bernstein’s inspiration was the Platonic symposium — an intellectual conversation where the ultimate truth and beauty are in service of Eros.

Interestingly, Ratmansky has avoided any homoerotic undertones in his danced “Symposium” — instead providing heartfelt camaraderie, friendly sparring, frustration, joviality, even disruption. It’s an idyllic universe of music, dance and ideas. They cuff one another like playful lions, but they also question, shrug, clasp hands, brush off and draw in their compatriots as Ratmansky pulls from non-verbal gestures that allow an easygoing verisimilitude. As shifting configurations of twos, threes, fours and the entire group evolve, some dancers peel away to recline, Greek style or to sit on the sidelines regarding their brothers in debate. There’s a real-world feeling to this conversation — or symposium — and the oversized tilted placard states in Greek letters just that, “symposium” at the start of the ballet. By the end it is upturned and becomes a cloud or canopy, hanging above the dance space.

On opening night, Jeffrey Cirio’s solo set the conversation in motion, Calvin Royal’s lush adagio — in his split personality half black, half white costume — let him stretch to his fantastic height. Gabe Stone Shayer seemingly invented new jumps and skips and leaps from thin air in an airborne section while littler Daniil Simkin was playful in his lightness and larger Alexandre Hammoudi seemed stoic. Blaine Hoven, in his white jacket, appears to lead, while bearded James Whiteside played up some of the more feminine steps — crossed Romantic-style wrists, bourrees — with tongue in cheek.

Then, like a deus ex machina, Eros appears in person, entering through a gold-lit opening in the back curtain. Eros (Devon Teuscher in a pale blue dress) dances a brief, entangled duet with before exiting, and this is, interestingly, the least compelling part of the work. The pas de deux is ordinary, while the men’s previous solos and duets were extraordinary, filled with sentiment, moments of softness and rigor.

This was the program’s gem, a keeper that should be well on its way to masterpiece status.

Alas, the revival of Jerome Robbins’ small but not inconsequential pas de deux “Other Dances,” originally made for the incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in 1976, provided an example of what happens when a dance is mothballed and remounted without care to casting and attention to detail beyond the steps. Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns managed the technical demands of Robbins’ highly evocative choreography without a glitch. They simply had no passion, either for one another, or for the poignant yet lilting Chopin pieces that suggest a lost Russian world of mazurkas, booted men, and aproned women, borscht and dachas in the woods, which the choreography acknowledges in the snappy heel closes, hands resting proudly on waists; toe and heel taps, and even — here, entirely too timid — an emphatic floor slap. Yet, neither dancer projected that soulful longing for each other or for bygone days. “Other Dances” evokes another time and place, when wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve added life and zest to the piece. The Chopin was lovingly played on piano by Emily Wong.

Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions,” photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions” is a small piece, a collection of duets, made bigger by adding a 16-member corps behind the four solo couples. Wheeldon’s most memorable dance moments for me have been his duets — here he multiplied those by spreading paired couples across the stage as decorative ornamentation and filtering them in clumps. Danced to Benjamin Britten’s “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21,” the 13 variations melded into one another, while Fields’ lighting, opening with a triangular corner of the backdrop glowing and growing, before evolving into changing colors and temperatures as a bar of bright orange, then blue, then purple, bisected the wall horizontally.

French-American choreographer, former short-lived director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied dabbled in post-modernism with some outtakes from Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” On a stage stripped of scrim, drops and all accoutrements, the dancers march across in a platoon, before the lights come down. Clad in gray tanks and black biker shorts from the rag and bone catalog, the dancers look small and inconsequential in Millepied’s pastiche of exercises and floor patterns for the large cast. Even megastars Misty Copeland and David Hallberg — recently back after a long recovery from an ankle injury — needed something more substantial to shine.

Intentionally the piece felt regimented, with much walking and dancing in unison, canon, and succession and much that likely required a traffic cop to keep order as lines crossed and bled in and out of one another. In the opening section, “Tremor,” Copeland pulls and prods Hallberg from the floor, they push palms against each other and each has a moment before the group overtakes them. Throughout there’s a push against the solo and partnered dancing as the group usurps the individual or couple. At times their mouths covered by black kerchiefs, it’s hard not to think of rioters or protesters, yet the work felt bland, not statement-making.

Much has been written about Millepied (spouse of Hollywood’s Natalie Portman) challenging ballet with something fresh and shocking. But these ideas, themes and barebones staging have a long history in modern dance. Perhaps some ballet audiences may experience shock and awe at the discomfiting usurpation of classical modalities and techniques, but it can’t possibly be that many. In the larger dance world this is rather ordinary. As lovely as it was to see Copeland and Hallberg, along with fellow principals Herman Cornejo, Hee Seo, Stearns and Teuscher, they weren’t able to shine in this dreary piece. It was hard not to wish for another Ratmansky work on this program, which began so promisingly.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
This piece was originally published on dcmetrotheaterarts.com, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

 

 

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

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

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

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

cafe muller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

Dancing While a Black Man

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

 

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

By Lisa Traiger

Helanius bon coeur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dancing in Red

Posted in Ballet, Broadway, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 13, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

THE RED SHOES

Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Johan Persson

Generations of budding ballerinas have lusted after the shiny crimson satin pointe shoes in the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes. Who can resist those shoes, they make the wearer dance, and dance, and dance. This week the Kennedy Center Opera House is filled with ballet lovers captivated by the red shoe mystique. Matthew Bourne’s theatrical production re-imagines the Emeric Pressburger-Michael Powell film as a wordless evening of movement theater with mixed results.

Bourne, the British director and choreographer, has long demonstrated his love of classics. His Swan Lake featured a prince discovering his sexuality and a gaggle of bare-chested male swans, while his Sleeping Beauty, seen here two seasons ago, was populated with vampires. His Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray, and Play Without Words all evoke classic movies. Bourne’s The Red Shoes is a riff on the Technicolor movie, using a recorded score from Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Hermann. Like the film, it pits art against life. Art wins.

Usually an astute storyteller, here Bourne has trouble boiling down the narrative into a compelling performance without dialogue. He does maintain the vivid color and heightened musicality of the motion picture, but paring down the story to essentials denudes it of some of its drama.Victoria Page is a young ballet dancer vying for a company job and, ultimately, stardom. She convinces – through the help of her overbearing mother – impresario Boris Lermontov to hire her for his world-renowned European company, with its repertory of classic and cutting-edge choreography. As a rising starlet, Page gets a shot at the spotlight when the lead ballerina suffers an injury: a Broadway plot line for the ages, which differs from the film when the lead ballerina marries and leave the company. Lermontov sets his sights on Page’s stardom and becomes jealous when she takes up with a handsome, young composer, Julian Craster. The ballet’s centerpiece is a realization of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a spare, black and white mid-century modern vision of a dancer caught up in the enticing life of an artist.

The 16-member cast of the New Adventures company is exceedingly attractive and adept at bringing Bourne’s ideas to fruition. They dance with the flair of storytellers but remain mindful of ballet’s demanding technical precision. As Victoria, Ashley Shaw resembles the film’s ardent lead, the exquisite Moira Shearer, and we understand her best in her heart-breaking duet with Julian – American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes on opening night. The pair have been rejected by Lermontov after their affection rankled the possessive producer. Down on their luck performing at low-rent music halls instead of grand opera houses, their relationship frays. We see that conflict danced out in tensile angles. Gomes, too, demonstrates his capacity for dramatic storytelling in a solo that makes visual his conductor’s creative process in musical composition. The interpretation is of an artist at work, discovering the subtleties and gaudiness of Hermann’s music. It’s a compelling visualization of an artist in process. Alas, Sam Archer’s Lermontov – a Diaghilev or Balanchine-like figure – does not inhabit the severity and control that an old-school impresario would exhibit, which puts Shaw at a disadvantage – her struggle between her director and her beloved composer isn’t as compelling as it could be. And that’s one of the best elements of Bourne’s Red Shoes: he shows artists hell-bent on perfecting their art.

Act one is filled with intrigue: backstage rehearsal scenes and artistic encounters. The company, dressed in their rag-tag rehearsal togs a la mid-1940s, dance through sections of a 20th-century classic, Les Sylphides, an homage to Romanticism set to an aching Chopin piano score. These show-within-a-show moments are a Bourne trademark that pays homage to the past in smartly succinct vignettes.

Act two features a Gatsby-esque party for the dancers, who Charleston, tango, and conga with abandon overlooking the Mediterranean sea on the French Riviera. The talents of designer and frequent Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston are a key element in interpreting the work. He remains loyal to the saturated colors of 1940s Hollywood and the centerpiece is a show curtain and a stage-within-a-stage that spotlights the onstage/backstage tensions that percolate within a ballet company. (On opening night, a chandelier flew in too early and the internal show curtain got stuck causing a nearly 10-minute pause. “Safety first,” Bourne remarked after the performance.)

Marcelo Gomes

Marcelo Gomes as Julian Craster and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Shaw in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Lawrence K. Ho.

 

There is much to like about this lavish, lovingly conceived production, but, it can’t, and shouldn’t, upstage the classic film. For those planning to attend, do your homework, re-watch the Powell/Pressburger movie. It will enhance your enjoyment. In the movie, Lermontov asks young Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” He responds, “I must.” And Vicky says, “That’s my answer to you.” The Red Shoes is a full immersion in the art of living a fully committed creative life. Let’s hope this re-telling inspires another generation of ballerinas enamored of shiny, red satin slippers that inspire the dance.

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


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

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 was a step back in time. In homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s, the evening 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