D.C. DanceWatcher

Lukewarm Welcome

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on June 28, 2019

TWB Welcomes
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Choreography: Fokine, Balanchine, Ratmansky, Lopez Ochoa
Washington, D.C.

September 28-29, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Katherine Barkman (4)Three seasons ago, The Washington Ballet welcomed former ABT principal ballerina Julie Kent as artistic director, only its third since Mary Day founded the company in 1976. Expectations were high on how Kent would remake the chamber-sized company Septime Webre directed for 17 years. Aptly titled “TWB Welcomes,” the fall 2018-19 season opener at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater provided some insight into the company’s direction. Alas, that direction is nowhere new or innovative. The welcome in the title alluded to invited guest artists: ABT’s Stella Abrera, Ballet Manila’s Katherine Barkman, Houston Ballet’s Connor Walsh and Marcelo Gomes. Together they provided star quality amid the 24 company members and six apprentices, particularly after the loss of renowned and much-loved dancer Brooklyn Mack, whose contract was not renewed after protracted negotiations.

The two programs featured a classic Balanchine and a Fokine, a smattering of pas de deux, and each closed with a newer 21st-century work, presenting the company in agreeable light. The pair of mixed bills provided another glimpse at Kent’s vision for the company, which can be summed up as “ABT South,” for she appears to be re-shaping TWB into what’s most familiar to her ABT-friendly repertory and story ballets, like last year’s Romeo and Juliet and this season’s The Sleeping Beauty, both ballets frequently danced in Washington by touring companies.

Program A, titled “Exquisite and Exotic” do ballet programs always have to be named these days? was like summer television re-runs, opening with “Serenade” (which the company danced in the season prior 2017-18 season) and closing with Alexei Ratmansky’s “Bolero,” another repeat from the previous season. Likewise, Program B “Ethereal and Evocative” opened with Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” another recent re-tread. Its closer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo,” an all-male play on jazzy incongruities, was on the season opener just three seasons earlier in 2015. These programming re-runs rather than fresh repertory, put a damper on what should have been an auspicious welcome for a new season and invited guests.

“Serenade” was well danced and offered the debut of Gomes in the ballet. The company demonstrated growth in tackling the Balanchine staple, particularly the corps de ballet, which is looking stronger, crisper and more unified under Kent’s direction. “Les Sylphides,” alas, emitted a musty scent, save for the spritely Maki Onuki in the Mazurka, joined by Rolando Sarabia. The dancers looked bored, their performances mostly underwhelming.

Both evenings featured gala fare like the grand pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” and Houston Ballet’s Walsh proved a stalwart partner to EunWon Lee, while Katherine Barkman (invited into the company shortly after her guest appearance) displayed her solid technical attributes and lively demeanor, accompanied by apprentice Alexandros Pappajohn. Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” alas, lacked brio from Stephanie Sorota and Alex Kramer, and on the following evening Tamako Miyazaki and Masanori Takiguchi made this spicy morsel into milquetoast. The standout proved to be the richly layered and profoundly expressive pairing of Gomes with long-time Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian in the first duet from Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Kharatian’s maturity and heartfelt emotions pierced the sensitive work. With Gomes, the pair was spellbinding in communicating the work’s lush and resonant shadings, beautifully accompanied by pianist Glenn Sales.

Both programs concluded with 21st-century works. “Bolero,” with its sporty costumes tank tops numbered from one to six  skillfully set the six dancers into singular solos against the group. Their bored worldliness fleshed out Ravel’s oft-heard score. “Sombrerisimo,” with its jazzy riffs and competitively boyish roughhousing, ended Program B with a flourish as a flood of bowlers tumbled from the rafters.

Kent’s re-runs suggest either that she hasn’t solidified her vision for the company, or, perhaps, budget constraints are forcing the troupe to rely on recent repertory rather than investing in new works. Whatever the reason, the impression left was that The Washington Ballet’s “Welcome” is barely lukewarm.

Above: Katherine Barkman, photo: Ari Collier, courtesy The Washington Ballet

 

This review originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Ballet Review. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review here

© 2019 Lisa Traiger

 

 

 

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

 

A Personal Best: Dance Watching in 2012

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, World dance by lisatraiger on December 30, 2012
Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Like many, my 2012 dance year began with an ending: Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Much was written on the closure of this 20th-century American treasure after more than 50 years, especially its final performance events on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve 2012. At the penultimate performance on December 30, the dancers shone, carving swaths of movement from thin air in the hazy pools of light spilling onto raised platform stages in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. A piercing trumpet call emanated from the rafters heralding the start of this one-of-a-kind evening. Pillowy, cloud-like installations floated above in near darkness. Throughout, snippets of Cunningham choreography – I saw “Crises,” “Doubles” and maybe “Points in Space” – came and went, moving images played for the last time, while audience members sat on folding chairs, observed from risers or meandered through the space, taking care not to step on the carpeted runways that the dancers used to travel from stage to stage.

I found it refreshing to get so close to the dancers after years of partaking of the Cunningham company in theatrical spaces, for me most commonly the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Here the dancers became human, sweat beads forming on their backs, breathe elevated, hair matting down toward the end of the evening. Duets, trios, groups formed and dissolved in that coolly unemotive Cunningham fashion, with alacrity they would step off the stage and rest and reset themselves before coming back on again for another round of the complex alphabet of Cunningham bends, pelvic tilts, lunges, passes, springs, jumps and playful leaps. While the dancers energy surged, I felt time was growing short. The end near. I soon found myself on a riser standing directly above and behind music director Takehisa Kosugi who at the keyboard conducted the ensemble and held an digital stop watch. Journalists traditionally end their articles with – 30 –. Here, momentarily I got distracted with the numbers: 41’38”, 41’39”, 41’40”, 41’41” … And then within a minute Kosugi nodded and squeezed his thumb: at 42’40”. An ending stark, poignant, and by the book.

In January, the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Les Saisons Russes” program was an eye opener on many levels. The work of Ballets Russes that stunned Paris then the world from 1909 through 1914 under the astute and market-savvy vision of Serge Diaghilev, remains incomparable for audiences today. The triple bill of Mikel Fokine works wows with its saturated colors and vividly wrought choreographic statements, impeccably executed by Mariinsky’s stable of well-trained dancers. These three ballets – “Chopiniana” from 1908, and  “The Firebird” and “Scheherazade” from 1910 – continue to pack a powerful punch, a century after their creation. The subtle Romanticism distilled with elan by the Mariinsky corps de ballet — from the perfection etched into their curved arms and slightly tilted heads, their epaulment unparalleled — makes one pine for a bygone Romantic era that likely never actually attained this level of technical grace and precision. With “Firebird,” the Russian folktale elaborately retold in dance, drama and vibrantly outlandish costumes, the flamboyant folk characters were part ‘80s rock stars, part science fiction film creatures. Finally, the bombast and melodrama of the Arabian Nights rendered through Fokine’s version of “Schererazade” danced as if on steroids provided outsized exoticism, with more sequined costumes, scimtars and false facial hair and the soap operatic performances to suit the pompous grandeur of the Rimsky-Korsakov score. Surely Diaghilev would have approved.

Mark Morris Dance Group in "L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato"

Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

Also in January, Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House with its brilliant L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, danced with humanity and glee to Handel’s oratorio, itself based on 17th-century pastoral poem by John Milton and the watercolor illustrations of William Blake. Morris – and Milton, Blake and Handel – each strove for a utopian ideal. This work draws together its disparate parts into one of the great dance works of the 20th century. Enough has been spoken and written about this glorious rendering in music, with the full-voiced Washington Bach Consort Chorus, wildly overblown and softly understated dancing from an expanded company of 24 elegant and spirited movers, and set design – vivid washes of color and light in ranging from flourish of springtime hues to fading fall colors — by Adrianne Lobel. L’Allegro was produced abroad, in 1988 when Morris and his company were in residence at the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Belgium, at a time and a place when dance received unprecedented financial and artistic support. I was struck by the open democratic feeling of the dancers, each on equal footing, soloists melding into groups, humorous bits shifting to serious interludes, no dancer stands out individually. For Morris, whose roots date back to folk dance, the community, the group, the natural feeling of people dancing together is valued above the singularity of solo dancing. It’s democracy – small d – at its best. Watching the work again this year, as dance companies large and small balance at the edge of a seemingly perpetual fiscal cliff, was a reminder of how small and cloistered American modern dance has become. We have few choreographers with the resources and the daring to attempt the bold and brash statements that Morris harnessed in L’Allegro.

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo: Gadi Dagon

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora,” photo: Gadi Dagon

Another company that leaves everything on stage but in an entirely different vein is Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, which I caught at Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. Hora, an evening-length study in gamesmanship and internalized worlds made visible was created by company artistic director (and current world-renowned dance icon) Ohad Naharin. With his facetiously named Gaga movement language, dancers attained heightened sensitivity, not dissimilar to the work butoh masters and post-modernist strove for in earlier decades. And yet the steely technical accomplishment and steadfast allegiances to dancing in the moment that Gaga pulls from its best proponents makes Batsheva among the world’s most prized and praised contemporary dance companies. At BAM, the 60 minute work with its saturated colors and pools of shifting lighting by Avi Yona Bueno and music arranged by Isao Tomita featuring snippets from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Mussorgsky offers a smorgasbord of familiarity as the dancers parse oddly shaped lunges with hips askew, pelvises tucked under, ribs thrust forward and heads cocked just so. Odd and awkward, yet athletic and graceful, and undeniably daring Naharin mines his Batsheva dancers for quirks that become accepted as fresh 21st century bodily configurations. Though named Hora, the work has nothing whatsoever to do with the ubiquitous Jewish circle dance, yet after an evening with Batsheva, it’s hard not to feel like celebrating.

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather," with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in “Necessary Weather,” with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

In April, Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz glimmered in “Necessary Weather,” a subtle tour de force filled with small moments of great and profound drama and even, unexpectedly, a smile or two. The glide of a foot, cock of a head, even a raised eyebrow or tip of a hat from Rudner and Reitz resonated beneath the glow of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, which in American Dance Institute’s Rockville studio theater, performed a choreography of its own glowing, fading, saturating and shimmering.

Also at ADI in May, Tzveta Kassabova created a rarified world – of the daily-ness of life and the outdoors. By bringing nature inside and onto the stage, which was strewn with leaves, decorated with lawn furniture, and, in a coup de theatre, a mud puddle and a rain storm. Her evening-length and richly rendered Left of Green, Fall, choreographed on a wide-ranging cast of 16 child and adult dancers and movers, featured sound design and original music with a folk-ish tinge by Steve Wanna. The work tugs at the outer corners of thought with its intermingling of hyper-real and imagined worlds. The senses also come into play: the smell of drying leaves, the crackly crunch they make beneath one’s feet and the moist-wet smell of fall is startling, particularly occurring indoors on a sunny May afternoon. Kassabova, with her flounce of bouncy curls and angular, sharp-cornered body, dances with a laser-like intensity. She’s ready to play, allowing the sounds and sights of children in a park, sometimes among themselves, other times with adults. She’s also game to show off awkwardness: turned in feet, sharp corners of elbows, hunched shoulders and flat-footed balances – providing refreshing lessons that beauty is indeed present in the most ordinary and the most natural ways the body moves.

The Paris Opera Ballet in "Giselle," photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet in “Giselle,” photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet’s July stop at the Kennedy Center Opera House brought an impeccable rendering of one of the pinnacles of Romantic ballet: Giselle. And should one expect anything less than perfection when the program credits list the number of performances of this ballet by the company? On July 5, 2012, I saw the “760th performance by the Paris Opera Ballet and the 206th performance of this production,” one with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot dating from 1841, transmitted by Marius Petipa in 1887 and adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991. Two days later it was 763. The POB still uses the 1924 set and costume designs of the great Alexandre Benois, adding further authenticity to the work. But nothing about this production is museum material. POB continues to breathe life into its Giselle.

Aside from making a pilgrimage to the imaginary graveside of the tragic maiden dancer two-timed by her admirer, it’s hard to find a more accurate and handsome production of this ballet masterpiece. Aurelie Dupont was a thoughtful and sophisticated Giselle, care and technical virtuosity evident in her performance, while her Albrecht, Mathieu Ganio, played his Romantic hero for grandeur. While the 40-something husband and wife duo of Nicholas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta on paper make an unlikely Albrecht and Giselle, in reality their heartfelt performances were so intensely and genuinely realized at the Saturday matinee that they felt as youthful as Giselles and Albrechts a generation younger.

The production is as close to perfection on so many levels that one might ever find in a ballet, starting with a corps de ballet that danced singularly, breathing as one unit, most particularly in the act II graveside scene. The mime passages, too, were truly beautiful, works of expressive artistry many that in most companies, particularly the American ones, are dropped or given short shrift. Here the tradition remains that mime is integral to the choreography, not an afterthought but a moment of import. Most interesting was a (new to me) mime sequence by Giselle’s mother about the origins of her daughter’s affliction and how she will most definitely die (hands in fists, crossed at the wrists, held low at the chest). Later when the Wilis dance in act II, it becomes abundantly clear why their arms are crossed, though delicately, their hands relaxed: they’re the walking dead, zombies, if you will, of another era. Another unforgettable moment in POBs “Giselle,” is its use of tableaux at then ending moment of each act. Each act ends in a moment of frozen stillness – act one of course with Giselle’s death, act two with the resurrection of Albrecht. Each of these is captured in a stage picture, then the curtain dropped and rose again – and there the dancers stood, still posed in character. Stunning and memorable.

Each year in August the Karmiel Dance Festival swallows up the small northern Israeli city of Karmiel as upwards of reportedly 250,000 folk and professional dancers swarm the city for three days and nights of dance. From large-scale performances in an outdoor amphitheater to professional and semi-professional and student companies performing in the municipal auditorium and in local gymnasiums and schools to folk dance sessions on the city’s six tennis courts, Karmiel is awash in dance. I caught companies ranging from the silky beauty of Guangdong Modern Dance Company from China’s Guangzhou province, France’s Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, the youthful and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, whereartistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Rami Be’er in a program of new works by young dancemakers. Maybe not the best that I saw, but the unforgettable oddity of the three-day festival was the headlining company, billed as the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia. In the grand folk dance tradition of the great Moiseyev company of Russia, these dancers, musicians and singers – numbering 60 strong – let the sparks fly, literally. With breathtaking sword play where white hot sparks truly did fly from the swords, to astounding acrobatic feats and graceful, feminine dances featuring smoothness, precision and delicate footwork parsed out in heeled character boots, the troupe was a hit. Few in the appreciative Israeli crowd – many of whom sang along to the old Russian folk songs buying into a mythic pastoral vision of the Cossack warriors – seemed aware of the irony of an audience of predominantly Israeli Jews heartily applauding a show titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” The last time Jews were heard to say “The Cossacks are coming,” things didn’t turn out so well.

Nan Jombang in "Rantau Berisik," photo: Fiona Cullen.

Nan Jombang in “Rantau Berisik,” photo: Fiona Cullen.

In September, Dance Place was fortunate to book one of the State Department’s CenterStage touring troupes at the top of its season. Nan Jombang, a one-of-a-kind family of dancers from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, provided a remarkable and moving evening in its North American premiere. Rantau Berbisik or “Whisperings of Exile” begins with a siren call, a female shriek that’s an alarm and cry of pain, that begins a journey of unexpected images. Ery Mefri, a dancer from Padang, on the western coast of Sumatra, has created a surprisingly original dance culture drawing from traditional tribal rituals, martial arts – randai and pencak silak – captivating chants and unusual body percussion techniques. But most unique about Mefri’s artistic project, and the company he founded in 1983, is that it is truly a family affair: the five dancers are his wife and children. The live, sleep, eat and work together daily in intense isolation crafting dances of elemental power and uncommon dynamism through an intensely intimate process.

The work features a trio of gloriously powerful women who exhibit strength of body and will in the earthbound manner they dive into movement, oozing into deep plie like squats and then pounding the taut canvas of their stretched red pants like drummers. Moments later they spring forth from deep lunges, pouncing then retreating, only to strike out again. The hour-long work is filled with mystery and mundanity: dancers carry plates and cups back and forth from a tea cart, rattling the china in percussive polyrhythms, and one woman sits in a chair and keens, rocking and hugging herself for an inconsolable loss. Later the women pass and stack plates around a wooden table with an urgency and assembly-line precision that brings new meaning to the term woman’s work. The one thin boy/man in the group attacks and retreats with preternatural grace, sometimes part of this female-dominated social structure, other times apart – an outcast or loner. And throughout amid the bustle, the urgent calls, the unmitigated pain and sense of loss, there remains a stunning impression of yearning, of hope. The ancient rituals of home and hearth, of work and rest, of group and individual it seems are drawn from a language and way of life that Mefri sees disappearing. Quickly evident in this riveting evening is how Mefri and his family can communicate so deeply to the heart and soul in ways that strike at the core, of unspoken truths about family, community and cultural continuity and conveyance.

Step Afrika!

Step Afrika!

One final note of continuity and cultural conveyance was struck resoundingly in December with Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Juba: Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. While the program was long on youth and short on masters – an indication that we’ve reached the end our last generation of true tap masters — Dianne “Lady Di” Walker represented the early tap revival providing the link to old time rhythm tap of the early and mid-20th century. The program, emceed and curated by Lane Alexander of CHRP, brought together  a bevy of youthful dance companies, among them Michelle Dorrance’s Dorrance Dance with an interesting excerpt for two barefoot modern dancers and a tapper. D.C. favorite Step Afrika! brought down the first act curtain with its heart-raising rhythms and body slapping percussion. And, closing out the evening, Walker served up “Softly As the Morning Sunrise,” a number as smooth and bubbly as glass of Cristal, her footwork as fast as hummingbird wings, her physics-defying feet emitting more sounds than the eye could see. This full evening of tap also included Derik Grant, Sam Weber, and younger pros Jason Janas, Chris Broughton, Connor Kelley, Jumaane Taylor, Joseph Monroe Webb and Kyle Wildner. The evening with its teen and college aged dancers sounded a note that tap will continue to be a force to reckon with in the 21st century. That it occurred on a main stage at the Kennedy Center was – still – a rarity. Let’s hope the success of this evening will lead to more forays into vernacular and percussive dance forms at the nation’s performing arts center. The clusters of tap fans young and old gathered in the lobby after the show couldn’t bear to leave. If they had thrown down a wooden tap floor on the red carpeting, no doubt folks would have stayed for another hour of tap challenges right there in the lobby.

 ***

And I can’t forget a final, very personal experience. During the annual Kennedy Center run of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in February, I found myself pulled from my aisle seat to join the dancers onstage in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” which the company had just added to its repertory in late 2011. Clad in slim fitting business suits and stark white shirts, the dancers make their way to the lip of the stage and stare. The next thing you know, they’re stalking the aisles, climbing over seats, crawling across laps to bring up randomly selected members of the audience. The sequence is fascinating – a mix of the mundane, the ridiculous and the dancerly – inviting in the human element as these god-like dancers canoodle, slow dance, cha-cha and indulge their new-found partners. Soon they corral the group, circle, and in ones and twos the dancers begin to lead the participants off stage, leaving just one – most frequently a woman – standing in the embrace of her partner as the others hug themselves in a smug slow dance. On cue the dancers fall. The woman remains alone, in the spotlight. Frequently aghast, embarrassed, she slinks away.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," photo: Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” photo: Paul Kolnik

Dreamlike is the best way I can describe the experience. Audience members seem to be selected according to a particular color, most frequently red judging from the previous times I’ve seen the work. As a “winter” on the color chart, I, of course, frequently wear red from my beret to my purse to a closet full of sweaters and blouses. When the dancers lined up, I felt one made eye contact with me right away. I didn’t avert my gaze and I thought that I could be chosen. But as they came into the audience, he passed me by and I exhaled slightly, relieved not to be selected. The stage re-filled with dancers and their unwitting partners as I watched. Suddenly, the same dancer who caught my eye was at my side beckoning, pulling me from my seat. My hand in his I followed him down the dark aisle and up the stairs. There the music changed frequently from kitschy ‘60s pop to rumba, cha cha, and tango – all recognizably familiar, a Naharin trait. Yet the choreographer definitely wants to keep the novices off guard, which is disconcerting because there are moments when the dancers are completely with you and you feel comfortably in their care, then they leave you to your own devices and all bets are off.

I realized quickly that I had to focus fully on my partner and not get distracted by what others on stage or in the audience were doing. We maintained eye contact throughout and went through a bevy of pop-ish dances: I recall bouncing, lunging, throwing in a bump or two and a great tango – wow, what a lead. Then they mixed things up, pushing all the civilians into a circle then a clump before reshuffling things. Somehow I came out with a new partner and things really heated up as I followed him and he me. I felt my old contact skills tingling back to life as I tried to give as good as he gave. He dipped me and I suspect that when he felt I gave in to it, he realized he could take me further. I don’t know how, but I found myself lifted above his head in what felt like a press. As he turned, I thought I might as well take advantage of this. I’m never going to be in the arms of an Ailey dancer again. I put one leg in passe, straightened the other, threw my head back and lifted my sternum, while keeping one hand on my head so my beret wouldn’t fly. He likely only made two or three rotations, but in my mind it felt like a carnival carousel: incredible. Back on earth with my feet on solid footing, he tangoed and embraced me. I knew what was coming. The slow dance when they lead partners off stage. I realized I might was well give in to the moment, I melted into his embrace and we swayed. Two bodies as one. Eyes closed. I momentarily opened them when I sensed the stage emptying. The only words spoken between us are when I said, “uh oh.” He squeezed me and then dropped to the floor in an X with the remaining Ailey dancers. There I was. Alone. Center stage in the Kennedy Center Opera House. I have been seeing performances there since I was a child in 1970s. I had seconds to decide what I was going to do. “%^&#) it,” I said to myself. “I’m standing here in the Opera House with 2,500 people looking at me. I’m going to take my bow.” I moved my leg into B+, opened my arms with a flourish, dropped my head and shoulders and rose, relishing the moment for all it was worth. Seconds later, the audience roared. I was stunned. I made my way gingerly off stage, still blinded by the spotlights as I fumbled up the aisle to find my seat.

Dreamlike. Throughout I knew this was something I would want to relish and remember and tried to find markers for while maintaining the presence of the moment. I was able to find out who the dancers were (yes, there were two) who partnered me. But I believe that Naharin wants the mystery to remain both for the onlookers and the participants. At intermission people were asking if I was a “plant,” insisting that I must have known what to do in advance. But, no, Naharin wants that indeterminacy, that edginess, that moment of frisson, when the audience realizes that with folks just like them on stage, all bets are off on what could happen. While we often attend dance performances to see heightened, better, more beautiful and more physically fit and skilled versions of ourselves (one of the reasons, I think, that we also watch football, basketball and the like), there’s something about seeing someone just like you or me up on stage. If the middle aged mom who needs to get the kids off to school then go to work the next morning can have such a rarified experience then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us can rediscover something fresh, untried, daring, out of sorts, amid the banality of our everyday lives. In this brief segment – and I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but I’m sure not more than five minutes at most – Naharin, through the heightened skill and beauty of professional dancers, offers escape from the ordinary. Audiences live through it vicariously by seeing one of their own up there on stage. For me the experience was unforgetable.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger

Published December 30, 2012