D.C. DanceWatcher


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on June 17, 2018

Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
June 15-16, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Burgess I am Vertical Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli high res (1)

The portraits hang solemnly, unmoving at the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery. Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess breathes life and movement into these two-dimensional works of art with a triptych of works he titled “Portraits” for the Terrace Theater stage June 15-16. The first choreographer-in-residence at the Washington, D.C. art gallery, Burgess has immersed himself in the galleries, finding inspiration from the paintings and photographs that hang there. The pieces were originally made for the gallery. The transfer from the less-than-ideal atrium space with its soaring, wavy glass ceiling that bridges the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery was an auspicious one. The choreography fares much better framed on a proscenium stage than in the more open setting, where site lines and cranky kids, muddy acoustics and no theatrical lighting marred the performance experience.

Burgess created “I Am Vertical” last year from a close study of the intimate single-room exhibit “Sylvia Plath: One Life.” And though the exhibit was small, displaying some of the poet’s self-portraits, along with ephemera like a typewriter, family photos and pages from her manuscripts, her inspiration proved monumental for Burgess in parsing this writer’s brief (she died a suicide at 30) but momentous life. “I Am Vertical” does a close reading of the relationship between Plath and her husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes. Hughes was both Plath’s great love and her destruction. Burgess shows us the multi-facets of a creative mind by using four dancers to represent Plath, and three perform as Hughes. Sometimes they move together, but sometimes they split into fragments of a personality. The stark but attractive set design by Kelly Moss Southall and Ben Sanders, with its black diagonal runway cutting across the white stage floor, and a writer’s desk at either end suggests the great chasm between Plath and Hughes. The choreography uses that black line to draw the two characters and also as a representation of the blackness of Plath’s suffering — she was diagnosed with clinical depression.

The women, robed in attractive burgundy dresses by Judy Hansen and mid-20th-century hairstyles, begin with a tad of jitterbug to a decaying version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Their partners, clad in crisp gray slacks and shirts, bounce along, until they don’t, splintering off into their separate worlds. Burgess’s movement language here is specific — and parsed out succinctly, as Plath did with her words on the page. Each woman at times reflects what the others have done — one arm raised, the other to the side then one hand’s fingertips rest on the breastbone — suggesting tension between reaching out and turning inward. Plath’s life was a struggle between those two dichotomies. There are moments when a Sylvia and a Ted dance together, yet the various couplings among the four women and three men, never suggest ease. Rather a stiffness and formality subsumes these moments and, at times, a pair spars. He grabs a wrist. She turns away. And they both retreat to their respective desks, their alter egos silently observing. The soundtrack features some discomfiting strings, percussion and piano (Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen and Sophia Gubaidulina) and some archival interviews with Hughes and Plath. But most touching and telling are the segments when Plath reads her poem “I Am Vertical,” leading to the powerful, mordant ending: “But I would rather be horizontal” and “I shall be useful when I lie down finally” as each woman lies in down on the blackness in turn, the lights dimming.

Burgess I Am Vertical high res Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton (1)

Drawing from the exhibit “The Face of Battle: 9/11 to Now,” “After 1001 Nights” takes a subdued look at the battle scarred. Laid out like a chess match, the dancers, clad in drab tan slacks and shirts suggesting military khakis, move strategically in formation, initially on opposing sides. At center, two men — a veteran and a young soldier — shuffle oversized army men around a table, the dancers follow suit mimicking the formation in live form. Their lives have been rendered as insignificant as playing pieces on a chess board. The stoic, contained approach to movement suits the military setting, which later heats up with some hand-to-hand duets, but, like most Burgess works, emotions and choreographic choices are held in check. No one gets out of hand or out of line, even with John Zorn’s roaming klezmer-like score of horns and woodwinds. Burgess suggests that though war has damaged these men – and women, the scars remain buried. These veterans and soldiers remain stoic, uncompromised.

Closing the evening, “Confluence” provides a neat companion to “I Am Vertical” in look and sensibility. They both channel mid-20th-century sentiments, styles and sensibilities. Here Burgess took inspiration from a photographic portrait of one of modern dance’s iconic second-generation figures — Doris Humphrey — from the exhibit “Dancing the Dream.” A humanist in her choreographic vision, Humphrey founded a movement technique based on fall and recovery, though not much of that physicality is evident. The portrait, shot by Barbara Morgan, is all light and shadow, grays and blacks, with her subject’s pale skin pierced by deep-set eyes. The five women and five men channel introspection and angst in their chic black costumes — the women with sheer skirts over leggings and midriff-baring tanks, the men again in neat pants and shirts.

Some of Burgess’s favorite movements that arm pose — one up, one out (in ballet we’d call it third position) — and the touching of the breastbone repeat, along with some slashing side leg lifts and arms. Yet these choreographic “tells” are not quite unique enough to name them “signature” moves; they just happen to be favored moments in Burgess’s movement vocabulary. That said, the piece is attractively danced. In fact, the company appears technically as strong as I’ve ever seen it, with a marked improvement by the men, who have often been less adept than the women in prior years.

The accompanying score also channels a mid-20th-century sensibility, with Ernest Bloch’s sometimes nervous violin and incessant piano chords. “Confluence” comes together with a sense of grave purpose, a heaviness of intent that suggests Humphrey’s aesthetic — even her lightest and brightest works reflected a sense of importance and a notion of seriousness that made early and mid-20th century moderns high artists. Like Humphrey, though, Burgess’s works are always well-polished, and his never veer far from pretty. He favors clean, articulate lines and his dancers comply. You won’t find dark, gut-wrenching moments — no gut-wrenching contractions or contortions — and the dancers, even as soldiers and veterans slumped on the floor, maintain a sense of lift. They may give into gravity and fall, but they never collapse in heaps.

Beyond his residencies at the Smithsonian, Burgess, a full professor in the dance department at George Washington University, has toured his company throughout the world, often on the behest of the State Department. Originally founded to provide voice for Asian American dancers and ideals, this program in one among many that has moved beyond his founding mission as the company celebrates its 25th year in Washington, D.C.


Photos courtesy Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
Top: “I Am Vertical,” Christin Arthur and Ian Ceccarelli, by Jeff Watts
Bottom: “I Am Vertical,” Christine Doyle and Sydney Hampton, by Jeff Watts
© 2018 by Lisa Traiger
Published June 16, 2018
This piece originally appeared on DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission. 






Global Cooling? Nordic Cool Heats up Washington

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

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom's "Orelob"

GoteborgsOperans Danskompani in Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s “Orelob”

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

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

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

(c) 2013, Lisa Traiger