D.C. DanceWatcher

2015: A Look Back

For reasons that continue to surprise me, 2015 was a relatively light dance-going year for me. That said, I managed to take in nearly a top ten of memorable, exceptional or challenging performances over the past 12 months.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on its annual February Kennedy Center Opera House visit, brought a program of politically relevant works that culminated, as always, in the inspirational paean to the African-American experience, “Revelations.” Up first, though, was the restless “Uprising,” an athletic men’s piece that draws out the animalistic instincts of its performers. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, drawing influence from his experiences with the famed Batsheva Dance Company and its powerhouse director Ohad Naharin, found the disturbing core in his 40-minute buildup.  As these men, in street garb – t-shirts and hoodies – walk ape-like, loose-armed and low to the ground, their athletic sparring, hand-to-hand combat, full-force runs and dives into the floor, ultimately coalesce in a menacing mélange. Is it protest or riot? Hard to tell, but the final king-of-the-hill image — one red-shirt-clad man reaching the apex of a clump of bodies his first raised — could be in solidarity or protest. And, in a season awash in domestic and international unrest, “Uprising,” with its massive large group movement, built into a cri de coeur akin to what happened on streets the world over in 2015.

wash ballet-sleepyhollowThe Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre has been delving into American literary classics and on the heels of his successes with both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in February his fearless chamber-sized troupe unveiled his latest: a full-length Sleepy Hollow, based, of course, on the ghostly literary legend by Washington Irving. But more than just a haunted night of ballet, Webre’s Sleepy Hollow delved into America’s early Puritan history, with a Reverend Cotton Mather character and a scene featuring witches drawn from elements of the Salem witch trials, expanding the historical and literary context of the work. This new dramatization in ballet, featuring a rich score by Matthew Pierce; well-used video projections by Clint Allen; and scenery by Hugh Landwehr; focuses on the tale of an outsider, Ichabod Crane – a common American literary trope. Choreographically Webre has smartly drawn not only on the expected classical ballet vocabulary, but he also tapped American folk dances and early and mid-20th century modern dance influences to expand the dancers’ roles for greater expressivity and storytelling. Guest principal Xiomara Reyes played the lovely love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, partnered by Jonathan Jordan. It’s hard to say whether this one will become a classic, but Webre’s smartly and carefully drawn characterizations and multi-generational arc in his approach to the Irving’s story expanded the options for contemporary story ballets.

Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company founded  by choreographer Andrea Miller, made its D.C. debut at the Lansburgh Theatre in April. Miller danced with Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Israel’s most significant dance troupe, and she brings those influences drawn from the unique methodology Naharin created. Called “gaga,” this dance language frees dancers and other movers to tap both their physical pleasure and their highest levels of experimentation. In “Blush,” this pleasure and experimentation played out with Miller’s three women and three men who dive head first into loosely constructed vignettes with elegant vengeance. With a primal sense of attack as they face off on the stage taped out like a boxing ring. Miller’s title “Blush” suggests the physiological change in a person’s body, their skin tone and during the course of “Blush,” transformations occur as the dancers, painted in Kabuki-like white rice powder, begin to reveal their actual skin tones – their blush. In so doing, they become metaphors for shedding a protective outer layer to reveal their inner selves.

copeland mackThe Washington Ballet continued its terrific season with the company’s much ballyhooed production of Swan Lake, at the smaller Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in April. It garnered international attention for Webre’s casting: ballet “It” girl Misty Copeland, partnered by steadfast senior company dancer Brooklyn Mack, became purportedly the first African American duo in a major American ballet company to dance the timeless roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, respectively. But that’s not what made this Swan Lake so memorable, and mostly satisfying. Instead, credit goes to former American Ballet Theatre principal Kirk Peterson, responsible for the indelible staging and choreography, following after, of course, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He drew exceptional performances from this typically less than classical chamber-sized troupe. The corps de ballet, supplemented by senior students and apprentices, really danced like a classical company. As well, Peterson, who has become an expert in resuscitating classics, returned little-seen mime passages to the stage,  bringing back the inherent drama in this apex of story ballets. My favorite is the hardly seen (at least in the U.S.) passage when Odette, on meeting Siegfried in the forest in act II, tells him the story of her mother, evil Von Rothbart’s curse and the lake, filled with her mother’s tears, as she gestures in a horizontal sweep to the watery backdrop and brings her forefingers to her eyes indicating dropping tears. Live music was provided by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra and made all the difference for the dancers, even though the company’s small size meant the act III international character variations were cut. While the hype focused on the Copeland debut, she didn’t own or carry the ballet, and here Mack was a solid, but not entirely warm Siegfried. This Swan Lake truly soared truly through the corps, supporting roles and staging.

June brought the Polish National Ballet, directed by Krzysztof Pastor, to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in lovely evening of contemporary European works. The small company – 11 women and a dozen men – are luscious and intelligent dancers who can captivate in works that push beyond staid classical technique. Pastor’s program opener, “Adagio & Scherzo,” featuring Schubert’s lyricism, twists, winds, and unfurls in pretty moments. There is darkness and light, both in the choreography and in designer Maciej Igielski’s illumination, which matches the shifting moodiness of the score. Pastor’s movement language is elegant, but not constrained, his dancers breathe and stretch, draw together and nuzzle in more ruminative moments, then split apart. In his closer “Moving Rooms” we first meet the dancers arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a black stage, each dancer contained in an single box of light. Using the sometimes nervously itchy score by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, the dancers, clad in flesh colored leotards, used their legs and arms in sharp-edged angles and geometries. But the centerpiece of the evening was a new “Rite of Spring” – yes, to that Mt. Everest of scores by Igor Stravinsky – this one is choreographed by French-Israeli Emanuel Gat. Danced on a red carpet, the five dancers ease into a counterintuitive tango of changing partners, always leaving one dancer as the odd one out. The smooth and slightly sensuous salsa is the basis for the work’s movement sinuous vocabulary, as it quietly builds like a slowly simmering pot put to boil.

HUANGYI_lightened-593x396Man and machine – or in this case – dancer and computerized robot – meet in Taiwanese-born choreographer and dancer Huang Yi’s 50-minute work. The evening presented in The Clarice’s Kogod Theater, its black box at the University of Maryland in September, provided a merging of art and technology. KUKA, the German-made robot, used in factories around the world to insert parts that build autos and iPads, has become a companion and artistic partner for Yi. Performing to a lushly classical score of selections from Bach and Mozart, Yi, clad in a dark suit, dances with, beside and around the singular movable robot arm sprouting from KUKA’s bright orange base. There are moments of serendipity, when the two seem to be communing in a duet of machine and motion, and others, in the dimly lit work, when each strays off on a tangent – robot and human, may move side by side, or even together, but only one inhabits a spiritual profound space of flesh, blood and breathe. That was my take away from this intriguing experiment in technology and dance. Yi is at the forefront of merging art with new technology and his experimentation – he programmed the robot – is on the cutting edge, but the work doesn’t cut to the quick. Still, orange steel and computer chips don’t trump muscle, bone, flesh and spirit. I would like to see more of Yi’s slippery, easy silken movement, in better light and with living breathing partners.

camille brown 0Camille Brown went deep in mining her childhood experiences in Black Girl: Linguistic Play, presented by The Clarice in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre in October. The evening-length work draws on Brown’s and her dancers’ playground experiences, first as young girls playing hopscotch, double dutch jump rope and sing-songy hand clapping games. On a set of platforms, chalk boards that the dancers color on and hanging angled mirrors designed by Elizabeth Nelson, Brown and her five women dancers inhabit their younger selves, in knee socks, overall shorts, and all the gum-chewing gumption and fearlessness that seven, eight- and nine-year-olds own when they’re comfortable in their skin. As the piece, featuring a live score of original compositions and curated songs played by pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Tracy Wormworth hit all the right notes as the performers matured and grew before our eyes from nursery rhyming girls chanting “Miss Mary Mack” to hesitant pre-adolescents, fidgeting and fighting mean-girl battles, to teens on the cusp of womanhood – and uncertainty. The work is a vibrant and vivid rendering of the secret lives of the little seen and less heard lives of black girls. The movement is pure play, physical, elemental, skips and hops, the stuff of recess and lazy summer days, but there are moments of deep recognition, particularly one where an older sister or mother figure gently, carefully, lovingly plaits the hair of  one of the girls. Its quiet intimacy, too, speaks volumes.

The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – multi-talented performers who can finesse a quick footed petit allegro or execute a jazzy kick-ball-change and slide sequence or bop and rock in bits of freestyle improvisation with equal skill. For the two Tharp did not revive earlier masterpieces, instead she paid a sort of homage to her elf with a pair of new works – “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” Each had elements of hat smart synchronicity that Tharp favors, her beloved little balletic passages that she came to embrace after years of more severe post modernism, and her larky, goofy wiggles, scrunches, and witty physical jokes, like pairing the “tall” girl with the shortest guy in the company, or little games of tag or chase and odd-one-out that are interspersed in both works. “Preludes and Fugues” was preceded by “First Fanfare,” featuring a herald of trumpets composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet society). The two works, one a bit of appetizer, the other the first course, bled into each other and recalled influences of Tharp’s earlier beloved choreography, especially the indelible ballroom sequences and catches of “Sinatra Suite.” “Preludes and Fugues” is as staunch piece set to Bach fugues that Tharp dissects choreographically with precise footwork, intermingling couples, groups and soloists and her eye for the “everything counts” ethos of post-modernism where ballet and jazz, loose-limbed modern and a circle of folk like chains all blend into a whole.

“Yowzie” is brighter, more carefree, recalling the unbridled energy of a New Orleans Second Line with its score of American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto the dancers grin and mug through this more light-hearted romp featuring lots of Twyla-esque loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hijinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the highly calibrated lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like Mardi Gras. In the end though, both works are Twyla playing and paying homage to Twyla – they’re both solid, smart and well-crafted. They’re not keepers, though, in the way “In the Upper Room,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove” were earlier in her career.

Samita-atlas-ektaaraSamita Sinha’s bewilderment and other queer lions is not exactly dance or theater, but there’s plenty of movement and mystery and beauty in her hour-long work, which American Dance Institute in Rockville presented in early December. In a year of no Nutcrackers for this dance watcher, this was a terrific antidote to the crushing commercialization of all things seasonal during winter holidays. Sinha, a composer and vocal artist, draws on her roots in North Indian classical music as well as other folk, ritual and classical music traditions. Together with lighting, electronic scoring, a collection of props and objets (visual design is by Dani Leventhal), she has woven together a world inhabited by creative forces and energies from across genres and encompassing the four corners of the aural world. Ain Gordon directed the piece, which sometimes featured text, sometimes just vocalizing, sometimes movement as Sinha and her compatriots on stage Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray trade places, come together to play on or work with a prop, like a fake fur vest or scattered collected chairs and percussive instruments. There were eerie keenings, and deep rumbles, higher pitched vocalizations, cries, exhales, sighs, electric guitar and steel objects banged together, all in the purpose of building a world of pure and unclichéd  vocal resonance. It would be too easy to compare her to Meredith Monk and Sinha is far less artistically self-conscious and precious. She is most definitely an artist to follow. Her vision and talent, keen eye and gracious presence speak – and sing – volumes.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

Published December 31, 2015

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Stepsisters and Swans

Posted in Ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on November 30, 2015

Cinderella
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
March 28, 2015

Swan Lake
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
April 9, 2015
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

It was a fortuitous spring for ballet lovers in Washington, D.C. American Ballet Theatre celebrated both its 75th anniversary and its long relationship with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March with a revival of Ashton’s Cinderella. Then the home-town team, The Washington Ballet, hit one out of the park with its first production of Swan Lake, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack (among other leads) – likely making history as the first African American Odette/Odile and Siegfried in a major company.

ABT’s Kennedy Center season was bittersweet, though, with the leave taking of homegrown ballerina Julie Kent, who retired after 29 years from American Ballet Theatre, making her own history as the longest serving dance in the company’s history.

copeland mackAlas, Kent, who was scheduled to dance her last time in Washington in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, March 28, 2015, had to pull out due to injury. Instead Gillian Murphy substituted, her crystalline technique punctuating the achy Prokofiev score. The muted tones of the music and Ashton’s first act choreography were highlighted by Murphy’s portrait of the put-upon, abused sister in a household of mean-spirited and grasping women. The step sisters, en travesti roles for Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin asserted their mean girl status in Thursday’s opening with a thick schmear of high ridiculousness. Cinderella’s father, Clinton Luckett, was a berated depressive in this dysfunctional fairy tale family. Murphy’s broom-sweeping solo in act I ached with yearning romanticism. Her transformation, at the hands – and wand – of Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, also on opening night, was not quite magical. Part, regal and distant, is a chilly ballerina, an ice princess and later, in the act III apotheosis, Murphy, too, accompanied by her prince, James Whiteside, show her classical demeanor with little of the warmth or fluidity of her earlier characterization. Here she becomes queenly, precise: bouree-ing and spinning like a music box ballerina.

The Ashton production is not without its moments – comic bits of business by those outlandish stepsisters, or a ridiculous caricature of Napoleon as one of the ball’s guests – but even with David Walker’s lavish sets and costumes, it felt subdued, a bit deflated. The sparkle was missing. Perhaps it was the loss of Kent’s performance. Her bow to Washington came after the curtain dropped; Kent stepped on stage a wisp in her street clothes, for one final curtsy to her hometown audience.

The much publicized debut of ABT’s now principal ballerina Misty Copeland in The Washington Ballet’s first full-length Swan Lake occurred five weeks later, in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater. Heralded as a history-making first for its pairing of Copeland with TWB’s Brooklyn Mack, also African American, the media frenzy and public interest was high and ticket sales brisk. A smart marketer at the ballet screen printed t-shirts that proclaimed: “I Saw Misty and Brooklyn” across the back.

Artistic director Septime Webre brought in Kirk Peterson, who himself had an illustrious 17-year career as a principal at ABT. The former artistic director of Hartford Ballet and one-time assistant artistic director to Washington Ballet, then under the direction of the late founder Mary Day, Peterson’s expertise in restaging full-length classics shone brightly here. Webre also wisely connected with the small, but lively Evermay Chamber Orchestra, which has grown from an ensemble of five into a modestly sized but highly adept mini orchestra, here under the direction of Nabil Shehata. With just 20 full company members and three apprentices, TWB filled out its swan ranks with its 13 dancers from the Studio Company along with additional support from senior level students from the company’s professional training program.

Peterson’s production was finely wrought, well danced and equally well acted. Most notable – and gratifying – was his return to many classic mime passages that are hardly seen, at least not on American soil. He delved into Nicholas Sergeyev’s research on the 1895 original Petipa/Ivanov production following Vaganova’s 1933 Sadler Wells staging in London, which made many Sovietizing adjustments to the work. So it’s possible – or at least believable – that Peterson’s research has returned the ballet to a purer original stage – though of course we’ll never know. In any case, the mostly contemporary dancers of TWB handled the complex mime passages and dramatic sequences with ease and finesse. My favorite is the reintroduction of the passage when Odette tells Siegfried about the curse on her mother and the lake she and her swans inhabit, which was made from her mother’s tears. Equally notable: the lovely and energetic the corps de ballet, particularly in the Lev Ivanov white acts. They were not a unified singular body, but, oh, how they danced with vigor and liveliness.

The main question on most readers’ minds, though, remains, “How did Misty do?” Admirably well considering that Odette and Odile aren’t really her roles. Copeland is a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong dancer, a formidable powerhouse of a mover who can take up space and radiate personality. What she’s not is a classical princess, nor is she, as Odile, a determined seductress. Copeland has the technical chops to knock many roles out of the park. But for Odette, she lacks an abiding sense of fragility and litheness. She understands the physical musculature necessary, for example for her arms to undulate like a bird’s wings, but she doesn’t yet – and may never – have the languid, free-flowing fluidity to make me believe she could in fact take flight. As Odile, of course, beyond being a seductress with an ulterior motive, she has to whip out those beloved and despised fouettes. Alas, for a ballerina of her power and steadiness, it should be an effortless task, one that is barely noticeable, but there was a glitch, she didn’t hit her mark or the count.

As for Copeland’s partner, Mack, who completed his sixth season with the company in the spring, and received some of his training in Washington, D.C. at the Kirov Academy, was an adequate Siegfried. He was not, though, fully believable as a prince. He’s a romantic, but with a more modern sensibility. I’ve seen him expertly and suavely woo a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What he is not, or at least not yet, is a fully classical prince with that sense of elevated self importance, but also that sigh-inducing reverie, that soul-searching quest ever at hand. He has the power to let loose the big jumps and stage engulfing leaps, but he didn’t discover the intense emotional connection with his partner, Copeland, that is necessary for Swan Lake to soar. Alas, they both remained more prosaic than passionate. Now that Copeland has attained the status of principal, there are more classical roles in her future. Time will tell as to whether she can truly attain the classical realm in her dancing. Physically she has the ability; it’s a matter of becoming fully immersed in the drama and emotional life of her role that will make Copeland a true classical ballerina.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2015 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

Photo: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, by Theo Kossenas