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Making the Extraordinary Ordinary

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ballet Elevated

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on February 28, 2016

 

“Director’s Cut”
The Washington Ballet
Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Septime Webre and William Forsythe
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
February 25-28, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez, photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “PRISM,” photo Theo Kossenas

Earlier this month, the dance world rumbled a bit upon learning of the resignation of The Washington Ballet’s high-energy, effervescent Artistic Director Septime Webre. Since his arrival in Washington, D.C., 17 years ago, he has transformed a staid and none-too-risky modest troupe into a powerhouse, with a stable of excellent dancers and a wide-ranging repertory that has introduced new rising choreographic voices, while still featuring  standards in the ballet canon. Webre, too, brought both story and more than a touch of glamour and show business to the city’s homegrown ballet company, with his own spectacle-infused evening-length works, like his trippy Alice (in Wonderland), his jazz- infused The Great Gatsby, and the sexy hauntings of Sleepy Hollow. And last year he conquered ballet’s Mt. Everest, presenting a highly praised and internationally covered Swan Lake, which featured one of the first African-American Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried pairings, with the casting of ballet phenomenon Misty Copeland and leading Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack.

This season’s programming has been less flashy and more retrospective, so, if ballet watchers had read the signs, Webre’s departure was already on the horizon. As part of his final season as artistic director, this week his “Director’s Cut” features two of his choreographic favorites — half-Belgian, half-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has crafted a few works on the company in recent years; and William Forsythe, the high priest of sorts of ramped up neoclassical ballet. And, of course, the program featured one of Webre’s more challenging abstract ballets, his State of Wonder, set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with both a live on stage pianist and a live harpsichordist accompanying the choreography.

As always, Webre bounded on stage for his pre-show curtain speech, chic in his slim black jeans, if not as boyish as he was nearly two decades ago in his first season following company founder and grande dame Mary Day’s retirement.

The program opener, Lopez Ochoa’s PRISM, had its world premiere on the company two years ago. Taken by the well-known and beloved Koln Concert by jazz great Keith Jarrett, the choreographer parsed his 28-minute improvised piano improvisation, which is variously sunny and tinkling with lively piano musings and then somber and moody, honing in on more shadowy, cooler shadings.

Since the musical piece was recorded live in 1975, while Jarrett was on tour and his piano didn’t arrive, he instead decided to improvise beginning with the four notes from the theater’s lobby that notified patrons the show was about to begin. We hear in that historic aural snapshot the pianist’s own vocal exclamations, at first almost jarring, then simply sweetly human. Lopez Ochoa found inspiration in this musical contrast and Jarrett’s virtuosity tinged with a lively humanness. Her choreography swirls, winding and unwinding, changing tone and color — even the costumes evolve from severe black turtle necks, biker shorts and black socks for the men and jewel-toned high/low dresses for the women, to black and sheer leotards with gloves and spidery designs. The smoothly easygoing nature early in the piece, following a rather severe, but eye-catching opener featuring a trio of athletic men, shifts into more splayed, edgy motifs — elbows and knees emphasized rather than straightened, fingers splayed. Lopez Ochoa interrupts this tensile and jaggy choreographic landscape with static poses: the group of dancers clumped, a leg or arm shooting out of the mostly grounded formation. And then, the work shifts mood again, the dancers circle and become a community in retreat, swaying, stooped, backs to the audience.

Webre’s State of Wonder premiered on the company a decade ago, and its return is welcome. Set to Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations, the work highlights the infinite possibilities Bach explored in his own thematic variations. The 30 short pieces, purportedly commissioned by Count Kaiserling to help sooth his insomnia, may have been played by a Goldberg, a 14-year-old pianist. For the ballet, pianist Ryo Yanagitani plays much of the work on a movable white platform, and he is later joined by harpsichordist Todd Fickley, on a second wheeling platform, which the dancers maneuver around the stage. There’s much to like in the brief choreographic variations threaded together by the 30 short piano pieces. Webre plays with couples, groupings and a few lovely solos. What stands out are the broad and sweeping variations for men, both solos and groups. There’s a Paul Taylor-esque sense of attack imbued in some of the space engulfing leaps and runs and the athletic allusions – at one point six men look like hunky lifeguards posing on a sunny beach, then two are lifted prone and “surfed” off stage.

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Morgann Rose_photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Morgann Rose in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” photo Theo Kossenas

Another section features some high-kicking and karate-like punches, as if Webre channeled Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid for his quartet of men. Liz Vandal’s costumes also feature jeweled tones. At some points the men are bare-chested, while the women wear swingy lycra-like dresses. One section clads the men in modified 18th century skirts, while the women wear modern-looking cutaway topcoats — a subtle gender switch. While State of Wonder is not one of Webre’s flashiest works, it offers fine ensemble dancing with careful attention to beautiful musicality from the company members.

The first time I saw American-born choreographer William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, featuring a crashing, booming, scratching techno score by Thom Willems, I was blown away by the boldness, the bored audacity, and piercing stares of the dancers, not to mention the steely attack of the Frankfurt Ballet — once Forsythe’s company. It was the late 1980s or early ’90s. Contemporary ballet was in a state of evolution. Many American ballet companies still considered Balanchine’s neoclassical leotard ballets cutting edge, even as his many ballets became modern repertory classics.

In the Middle … begins with a bang, literally. An electronic, cymbal-like crash and bam startles as harsh, fluorescent-like lights etch the dancers in a relentless eerie glow. Clad in green leotards and bare legs, two women glare out into the darkness of the audience. As dancers enter and exit, arms and legs pierce and slash the space. Forsythe deconstructs the primacy of the stage — pushing choreographed moments to the sides as dancers are half-hidden by the curtain, or they turn their backs on the audience, as if we matter not at all in this futuristic universe.

Hanging about halfway above the dance space are a pair of golden cherries (though they look like apples to me), ironically alluding to the title — In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The work is a literal and mental workout — the women’s pirouettes spin around like whirring drills driving into the floor. They unfurl their legs in ear-grazing splices, their torsos teetering off kilter, but perfectly posed. The men leap and topple off balance, bold and bloodless in their hard, edgy conquests of the bare, black stage.

Nothing loose or easy-going happens here. The entire work is attacked as if the dancers are teetering on the edge of a precipice, with a sense of both abandon and accuracy — one wrong move and the whole thing could tumble into nothingness. The work demands unparalleled muscularity and a sense of urgency that celebrates a harsh pent up energy bursting force. Forsythe’s choreography when his work premiered on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 altered the way many ballets were made thereafter. He is, indeed, a successor to Balanchine, who in his day pushed classical technique to new levels. Forsythe did the same here and with his succeeding body of work, making the classical ballet fundamentals relevant for the new world of the late 20th-century. Today, nearly three decades after its creation, In the Middle … remains as starkly relevant and engaging as it was then. Thirty years ago, when The Washington Ballet was still working to finesse some of Balanchine’s more complicated works, it would have been hard to imagine the company could come so far. Under Webre’s direction his dancers are not only technically adept, they are adaptable — able to tackle the loose jazziness of Ochoa, the complex, occasionally quirky, partnering Webre so frequently favors, and, most refreshingly, the highly stylized sharp and relentless attack Forsythe’s choreography demands.

This review was first published February 27, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with permission.

 

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger