D.C. DanceWatcher

Spice and Spitfire

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 12, 2017

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Choreography by Alvin Ailey, Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle, Mauro Bigonzetti,  Johan Inger, Christopher Wheeldon, Billy Wilson
February 7 & 8, 2017
The Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger
ailey-revelationsThe Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is looking as strong and beautiful as ever in its annual February visit to The Kennedy Center Opera House. Now in his sixth year as artistic director of the company Alvin Ailey founded in 1958 with the goal of creating a multiethnic modern repertory company, Robert Battle is leaving his imprint. The legendary dancers, including a new younger crop who can tackle both the old school traditional works and contemporary pieces that push them to varying expressive and physical limits, look well honed and perform with amazing strength, flexibility and precision. They can tackle the loose-limbed release technique, balletic pas de deux and conceptual expressionist work. Battle has brought in new repertory including pieces from international choreographers that challenge the dancers and take the company to new realms.

Tuesday evening’s opening night program included as much glitz and glamour in the audience as it did on stage. The 18th annual gala for the company brought out a few big names in business and politics and a theater filled with Ailey lovers who collectively raised more than $1 million for the company’s programs. But it was the dancing that shone brightest.

While the company is beloved for Ailey’s works, including the incomparable program closer “Revelations,” it was and remains foremost a repertory company, bringing in works by American and international choreographers. The opener, the late Billy Wilson’s “The Winter in Lisbon,” sparkled in a new production of the choreographer’s 1992 work, here restaged by longtime Ailey associate and assistant artistic director Masazumi Chaya. With Barbara Forbes’ intensely jewel-toned costumes — emerald, amethyst, burgundy and deep orchid dresses, with matching shoes and tights for the women and neat slacks and shirts for the men — the piece showcased the easy going jazz style beloved by Wilson and Ailey. Set to composition by Dizzy Gillespie and jazzman and founder of the D.C. Jazz Festival Charles Fishman, “Winter” was at turns sultry and slinky, snazzy and cool, and all-around lowdown and hot. Dancers slid and rolled through easy going pirouettes, fan kicks, and hip thrusting turns. Men lifted women into soaring split leaps, tucking into smooth spirals on the next beat. Both sexy and fun, it showed off easy virtuosity.

ailey_walking_mad_8New to the company and to the Kennedy Center, Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” proved both amusing and vaguely inscrutable. Originally created in 2001, but brought into the Ailey rep last year, the piece featured an eight-foot-high wooden wall that became integral to the dance for it could be opened, flattened, pushed into right angles, climbed on, leaned and pushed against and manipulated for varying effects. The dancers clad in nondescript grays and drab dresses on the women, they variously donned trench coats and bowlers or pointy party hats to add a spark of character, color and silliness as Ravel’s “Bolero” built up its stormy froth. Game-like tricks of hide-and seek between opened and closed doorways and one end and the other of this wall provided the light-hearted silliness, and tempered the unfortunate political connotations that talk of a wall brings these days. Inger’s movement vocabulary draws from an improvisational smorgasbord that looks to be influenced by Israeli dance master Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. All loose limbs, extreme moments of attack, pedestrian strolls, unsettling tremors and bold highly physical body slams against walls and other dancers make up Inger’s palette. An alum of Nederlands Dans Theater, which includes Naharin’s choreography in its repertory, the similarities are unsurprising.

Robert Battle’s small, but not inconsequential “Ella,” a tribute and call out to the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is full of personality, spice and spitfire. A tightly packed duet it takes on Fitzgerald’s incomparable scatting (“Airmail Special”) with verve and impeccable timing by dancers Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel. Wednesday night, a second duet, from contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, showcased the more balletic side of the Ailey aesthetic. The pas de deux from “After the Rain” features an emotional arc as the choreography builds, the dancers, gorgeous Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, entwining and spiraling, stretching to their utmost and retreating to sensuous moments laying on the floor.

ailey-bignozettiWednesday evening’s program featured another new to the Kennedy Center work, Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” which proved a stunning showcase for the Ailey dancers’ contemporary skills and their multi-lingual dance languages. A dark work, with dancers clad in black on a shadowy stage demarcated by boxes or cubes of light, the choreography fashions the dancers into clumps and pairs executing variations on contorted and broken body positions, emphasizing flexed arms, bent elbows and knees and sharp contrasting torsions of pairs and groups. Contrasting the angularity are curving and undulating or rolling hips and torsos drawing from street moves and hip hop. Hand gestures, too, suggest another cultural construct — perhaps Indian hastas — sign language. The score, club-influenced music by Ibeyi, a pair of twin sisters with French Cuban cultural and musical roots, propels the dancers along showcasing their virtuosity and taut unison. But, “Deep,” with all its cross- or multi-cultural borrowings of movement and music, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s lovely to watch but shallow in its message.

aileyamericandancetheaterinkyleabrahamsuntitledamerica-photobypaulkolnik_a6df169e-ffea-4b6f-b8d4-210516dd0ba4-prvAlso new to Washington, Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” a section of his full-evening triptych, left a sobering pall. Drawing on interviews with incarcerated citizens and their family members — which we hear in voiceovers along with a score featuring Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai, Kris Bowers and traditional spirituals, the piece dealt plainly with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Dressed in nondescript gray pants and open tops that from the back could resemble prison jumpsuits, the dancers execute choreographer Abraham’s pain-evoking gestures: hands held aloft in a “don’t shoot” posture, or clasped behind the back as if handcuffed or behind the head for a body search. The half-lit, smoke-filled stage with sharply delineated boxes of light felt oppressive and the dancers, lined up and filed on and off the stage into darkness, like a chain gang. Abraham’s movement is loosely constructed but hard edged, the oppositional attack contrasting the few moments of connection. The work leaves the dancers in their singular isolating bubbles, as voiceovers speak of the loneliness and disconnection of prison life. The hard faces and clenched fists speak powerfully about where Abraham’s America is now.

ailey-revel-christopher-duggan_135That pall lifted as the lights lowered and the hum of a gospel chorus took everyone to Ailey church. His “Revelations,” the 1960 masterwork that closes virtually every program the company dances, has become an expectation for audiences who seek spiritual succor and uplift the indelible choreography. With its traditional gospel score, its journey from slavery to religious renewal to freedom it’s iconic. At the first hummed strains “I Been ‘Buked,” applause takes over. With each emblematic moment — dancers curved over their birdlike arms punctuating the air, the internal struggle made visible through staunch abdominal movements in “I Wanna Be Ready,” the smooth hip rolling walks of “Wade in the Water” — the applause builds. These moments have become iconic, seared into memory by Ailey fans and appreciated for embodied legacy they carry: the choreography itself renders the story of African Americans in vivid wordless moments. At last, a bright, hot sun shimmers on the back scrim and the church-like revival reaches its peak with “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” The women wave their straw fans, the men pulse their shoulders and take their loving scolds with equanimity. “Revelations” has become the most-performed, and likely beloved, modern dance in the world. For the company it represents past, present and future, returning young dancers to the root of the company’s ethos and bringing audiences a spiritual charge that will sustain them until next year.

This season the company included area natives Elisa Clark, who trained at Maryland Youth Ballet; Ghrai Devore; Samantha Figgins who trained at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Jacqueline Green who danced at Baltimore School for the Arts; Daniel Harder who studied at Suitland High School’s Center for Visual and Performing Arts; and Jermaine Terry.

Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” Matthew Rushing and Dwanna Smallwood, photo by Andrew Eccles
Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” Jamar Roberts, Jacquelin Harris, and Glenn Allen Sims, photo by Paul Kolnik
Mauro Bignozetti’s “Deep,” choreography Mauro Bignozetti, photo by Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” photo by Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” photo by Christopher Duggan

 

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

 

Erotic

Posted in Burlesque, Contemporary dance, Dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on January 8, 2017

Antithesis: Dance Place Practice
Gesel Mason Performance Projects

Conception and choreography by Gesel Mason
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
January 6, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

mason-antithesis-2017-pc-kelly-shroads-photography-1252-2
Since one of her first independent performances in Washington, D.C., at Dance Place, dancer and choreographer Gesel Mason has been navigating the taboo and the titillating. She has put a bold face on works that wrestled with race, racism and its deep-rooted role in American history in her A Declaration of Independence: The Story of Sally Hemmings (2001), as well as her ongoing “No Boundaries” project, which gives voice to African-American choreographers in a series of commissioned and revived solos. Mason also has a biting wit: one of her signature solos, How To Watch a Modern Dance Concert or What the Hell Are They Doing On Stage? takes down the sacred cows of 20th-century modernism and post-modernism in dance, with the choreographer’s tongue firmly planted inside her cheek. And, finally, and more than for good measure, Mason has often used her own text and poetry, including the searing “No Less Black,” as accompaniment to her choreography.

On her return to Dance Place, the nation’s capital’s most popular dance performance venue, she converts the black box studio theater into a post-modern burlesque house for her evening-length inquiry into the erotic, and the exotic, of embodied female sexuality. It’s a daring endeavor for Mason, who early in career was a company member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange until forming her own project-based troupe and production company, Gesel Mason Performance Projects. Over nearly two decades, the dancer/dancemaker has tackled the profane and provocative before in Taboos and Indiscretions (1998) and her later Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t (2010), when she collected the stories and movements of District-based sex workers for a piece that gave voice to often well-hidden and ignored female stories.

So it was interesting that Mason names her latest work with a less provocative and more academic title: Antithesis. Developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is now an assistant professor, it continues her explorations into personal and public sexuality, the role of the female in society and, an oft unremarkable theme in much American modern dance, personal expression and self-exploration. The piece features a cast of ten, including burlesque dancers Essence Revealed, Peekaboo Pointe and Love Muwwakkil, as well as more traditionally trained modern — or as Mason refers to them, post-modern — dancers (Ching-I Chang Bigelow, John Gutierrez, Kayla Hamilton, Kate Speer and Rita Jean Kelly Burns are among the cast), with a cameo by Mason’s mom, Andrea Mason. The work, in development for nearly three years, brings together these two worlds where the female body is on display, either in the dance studio and concert stage for the modern dancers, or in the strip club and burlesque stage for the pasty-clad performers. In Mason’s purview, it’s a chaotic collision.

With a stripper pole prominently displayed before the studio mirrors, the show begins. Clad in a silky bathrobe Mason serves as emcee, introducing the audience, seated on all four sides, to the ladies. There’s Peekaboo, the taut bleached blonde with an Ultrabrite smile, in her patriotic g-string and pasties. And Love, a virtuoso of the pole, caressing, climbing and sliding on her apparatus like Simone Biles on the balance beam. But there are other more prosaic dancers, whose talent for, say, Quickbooks, savings accounts and bank account reconciliations is lauded as vigorously in Mason’s biting narrative. And on that note it becomes clear that for the next hour the audience is in store for more that so-called tits and ass. Mason has constructed a probing critique of a slice of contemporary eroticism.

Informed by poet and literary critic Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Mason set out to understand the female body as it is seen and used, empowered and comodified, in various public spaces in the 21st century. For Lorde, the erotic isn’t eroticism, particularly not derived from the male gaze that has made women’s bodies objects to be stared at, re-shaped, manipulated, and appropriated. Lorde views the erotic as harnessing female power — that vital physical and spiritual lifeforce that imbues creativity of all kinds on individuals. Eroticism, then, is about knowing oneself truly, and it’s about embracing the chaos of life and living.

Antithesis pursues that idea by mediating between the patriarchal view of the erotic — the specific kinds and shapes of women’s bodies on display for male desire and pleasure. But instead, especially the burlesque dancers demonstrate complete comfort and confidence in their bodies. They own their eroticism, their physical power and the hold they have over the opposite sex in particular. And they revel in it. They perform their unique identities for their own pleasure; the audience is merely along for the ride. The pasties and g-strings? Sure they’re hot and sexy, as are the burlesques and strip teases. But removed from a gentleman’s club or a strip joint and located in a typical concert venue, the performative nature of the dance is transformed from eroticism into commentary on the feminine, the female, patriarchy and wholesale comodification of bodies, whether its pasties or Quickbooks.

Mason then traverses the divide between women in modern and post-modern dance and women who publicly display and sell their bodies. Is there, ultimately, a difference? Aren’t we all for sale? Is there always a price? Is one art and the other commerce or objectification?

One dancer, barefoot, clad in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, rolls on the floor, releases her weight, shifting her dynamics with limber ease, her face an expressionless mask. Then on comes Peekaboo in her stilettos and pasties. She parses through the same movement phrase, her firm, sensual body on display, her bored look recalling a pin-up girl. Context is everything. A fan-kick or split is merely a piece of choreography. It becomes meaningful in performance. It’s the question of who … and where. And, as Mason noted in a post-performance talk Friday evening, each time Antithesis is performed, she considers it site-specific. At home in Colorado, it has been shown in a church, in a strip club, and in someone’s private home. Its re-staging at Dance Place is, she said, unique.

While plenty of female flesh and embedded discourse on the erotic filled the hour, ultimately it felt like Mason and her performers didn’t push far enough. Most believable and most comfortable in their bodies and skin were Essence and Peekaboo and Love. Much was said about how the process challenged the rest of the performers, who worked to allow themselves into new territory, physically and psychically, erotically. As the dichotomous sets of performers merged, late in the show, clad in silky vibrant orange, slacks, dresses, and tunics, Mason returned to her microphone, calling cues for the dancers to physicalize: “hidden,” “surrender,” “play,” “joy,” “chocolate,” “pleasure.” Counting up to ten, the dancers strove to embody in free-form movement those words and ideas, but, like many improvisations, it ended up looking more like moving wallpaper than personal transformation. The dancers, particularly the modern dancers, were still acclimating themselves and their bodies to this new way of thinking and moving — this new erotic consciousness.

One of Lorde’s definitions of the erotic is the “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” That final apotheosis, the melding the dancers into a singular unified force, reached for a semblance of utopianism within chaos. And, yet, as this collision of cultures, of bodies, of dancers, that has been occupying the space and lives of its participants, needs to still push further. Mason, her dancers, and dramaturg, Deanna Downes, have described the work as “messy, gritty, tactile, growling, chaotic, passionate and tender.” Antithesis is, in various measures, each of these, for many in the audience. But, no longer the independent artist of her earlier “taboo” days, Mason is now ensconced in the university, and that has taken a toll on her independent, compelling voice. She appears, alas, to have reigned herself in, becoming more self-conscious. Throughout Mason’s career as a choreographer, provocative, even taboo subjects have been an important part of her body of work, most especially wrestling with and coming to terms with identity issues. She has lost some of her youthful boldness, though, in striving to fit into the academic realm (as many independent choreographers have been doing in recent years). Mason’s latest feels trapped in theory: Lorde’s essay and philosophy has too much hold on her.

 

Photo credit: Kelly Shroads
© 2017 Lisa Traiger
Published January 8, 2017

 

 

Change Maker

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Dance theater, Jazz dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on November 18, 2016

What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice
Choreography by Vincent Thomas
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 12-13, 17, 19-20, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Walking into Dance Place for the world premiere of choreographer and dancer Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice, an homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s. But the piece is more than a bio-dance commemorating Gaye, it’s akin to a 21st century piece of agit prop. No one should leave the theater unchanged or unmoved for it’s both a celebration and lament. Dancers — barefoot and clad in white — and audience gathered in the lobby for a little warm-up trivia led by Thomas in his soothing voice. Of course, it wasn’t long before the whole crowd was dancing — a little home grown D.C. hand dancing then a full-on electric slide. We danced our way into the theater, and the grooving didn’t stop for two hours.

vincent-thomas-whats-going-onAnd yet, amid all that festivity, there was also deep introspection. What’s Going On is a look inside to reveal where we are — as individuals, as a community, as a nation and a global village.

The festive atmosphere reached a high as onlookers took their seats at Dance Place, and the dancers took to the stage with soul-pumping and heart-racing dances drawing from African roots. With choreographic assistance from Sylvia Soumah or Mama Sylvia, D.C.’s undisputed queen of African dance, the group of 17 dancers and drummers captured the essence of a celebratory communal dance, with cheers, hollers and friendly competition, shoulders rolling, hips shimmying, knees pumping, arms slicing and winding, torsos pulsating. This semicircle of dancers recalled the profound embodied language that remains an elemental part of the African-American community, from its churches to its social clubs to its unparalleled performance aesthetic to its family and communal gatherings.

This was the world Marvin Gaye was born into, deeply religious, rooted to the past, but looking to the future. The son of a Pentecostal minister, who preached at a strict House of God church, he grew up singing, encouraged by his mother. He chafed, though, under his father’s restrictions. Gaye came of age as the Motown sound was evolving and three octave vocal range and a body of unforgettable songs left an indelible mark on American popular culture.

Dancer/choreographer Thomas was inspired by one of Gaye’s hits, What’s Going On, to look back at the singer’s life and his legacy and to delve into today’s current events, forcing viewers to pose a rejoinder — “what am I going to do about our current state of affairs.” Two years in the making, how could Thomas know how timely and prescient this piece would be just four days after the most contentious election in recent memory. Continuing ideas and structures he explored in his 2014 evening-length work, Occupy confronted ripped-from-the-headlines issues including stagnating economic opportunities, disparities between haves and have-nots, and the globalization of the economy. What’s Going On treads similar territory but in a further fleshed out and meaningful manner. Here Thomas actually invites the audience to respond, interact, consider their own next steps.

A moving, heartfelt solo, danced by Thomas, who stretches and spirals his torso and lanky arms, in search of something — comfort, connection, a higher power — features a movingly sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And this, like the many vignettes in the work, is preceded by a slide featuring quotes by and about Gaye.

Looking back to Gaye’s era, and the mobs of teen and adult fans who were touched and changed by his music, Thomas takes us to a typical 1960s or ‘70s house party — featuring low lights, mod furniture (in a video backdrop designed by Sujan Shrestha, couples and groups of dancers bobbing trucking, flirting and embracing. But the dance gatherings were more than a fun night out. Thomas notes, via slide, “this social dancing was their social justice.” It was a way African Americans could connect with and proudly own their cultural heritage, amid the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war era and the post-war disenchantment of the 1970s. And Gaye’s voice became their own.

On the old-school record player, spinning LPs, “Hitch Hike” blares and the dancers again turn to celebration. Here their moves echo those featured in the African segment of the show, but they’re smoother, jazzier, more showy, to allow for teasing. They dance — as everyone does — to celebrate youth, beauty, joy, love, but they also dance to connect. The eight company dancers, in pairs, small groups and as a company, show off their moves and stamina to classics like “Funny Valentine,” an achy solo full of inconsolable reaches and stretches and tremoring hands fluttering over the dancer’s heart. Then they stage a Motown revue — lip-syncing of classic numbers, recalling Al Green and The Supremes, among others — with plenty of step-ball-changes, fan kicks and jazzy moves. It’s fun unencumbered and rather slight, although the men’s trio has some high power leaps and spins.

Before intermission or a “social interlude,” as Thomas called it, placard-bearing dancers entered the audience, their signs asking: “Where are your community’s celebrations?” and “What are the concerns in your community?” Audience members were encouraged to fill mini-placards with their thoughts and and responses before What’s Going On turns to far more discordant 21st century territory. Here Thomas includes slides of historic 20th century moments and icons — Martin Luther King, Jr., Equal Rights Amendment marches of the 1970s, Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and others. The dancers, now clad in muted taupe, no longer dance freely and joyfully. Their body language is muted and pained, filled with grasping, deep, despondent sights, and of-the-moment symbolic gestures – performed before a video of Gaye singing the national anthem in 1983. Raised “black power” fists — the dap — and wrists held together behind the back are as telling as a dancer kneeling and another, fully prostrate in a Muslim prayer-like bow.

Thomas returns to again speak to the audience, allowing them brief time and space to voice their own concerns — among them fear of a Trump presidency, clean water, classicism, rich people who don’t pay taxes, job opportunities and more. Diversity, new life, unity, freedom, respect and Dance Place were called out for celebration. Then Thomas — like his mentor, Liz Lerman, who made her name in combining dance and community activism — turned the question around, asking, “How can you turn your concerns into celebrations?”

As the company converges to dance together in a tight-knit clump, the screen projects today’s images: Syrian refugees, police shootings of black citizens, Somali refugees, poor, impoverished masses, close-ups of wounded children from various conflicts. Each photo compels us to do more than watch. What’s Going On is a necessary reminder that there is more work to be done to repair the world.

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Stop

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Hip hop, Jazz dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 31, 2016

Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness
Directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
October 27-30, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

debbieallen-freeze-frameEver since Debbie Allen parleyed a killer look in the 1980 movie “Fame” into a featured role on the popular television series, this triple threat has been busting open doors in Hollywood for women of color. The Texas-born, Howard University-trained dancer/singer/actress/director/choreographer has conquered Broadway, television, and film. She’s had a recent comeback on the popular CBS drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” and behind the camera she’s directed hit TV shows like “A Different World,” “Fame,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” to name a few. On “Fame,” of course, Allen played the hard-driving dance teacher who weekly said, “Fame costs. And right here you’ll start paying — in sweat.”

Allen’s connection to The Kennedy Center that dates back to the ’90s with her high-energy children’s dance-centric musicals, like Brothers of the Knight, a re-imagined version of the folktale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This weekend Allen returns to The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with her newest and most ambitious project to date: Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness. Five years in the making, this high-energy, hip-hop musical grew from the violence and disenfranchisement Allen saw on the streets of Los Angeles and heard about from students who experienced it first-hand at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.

Freeze Frame is a 90-minute, intermissionless musical chock full of ripped-from-the-headlines issues: Gun violence, teen pregnancy, drug-addiction, gang warfare, police brutality, street crime, and prejudice. With an original score contributed by Rickey Minor, Lenny Wee, Thump (Allen’s son), James Ingram, Tena Clark, Wally Minko, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, and Allen herself, the show is a pastiche of contemporary sounds — rap, blues, hip hop, spoken word, gospel, and pyrotechnic ballads and church hymns. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set evokes mean streets with harsh concrete-like pillars, ramps and steps that lead nowhere, with a series of screens where Mic Gruchy’s video projections (filmed and directed by Allen) lend a cinematic aura to some of the numbers and provide plot background.

A gunshot. A blackout. The flashing lights and sounds of a police siren. These shock the audience into silence as a video of a convenience store robbery plays on the panels at the start of the show. Soon, though, the realistic grittiness of a violent crime in progress gives way to a band of dancing L.A. cops — all jazz hands, whipping pirouettes, fan kicks and body rolls, these dancers seem entirely out of character from that starkly realistic opening. Soon we meet David, aka Moon (Matthew Johnson), a well-shod and well-raised teenager, son of Bishop and Mrs. Washington, who run the largest Los Angeles megachurch. Broadway veteran (I Have a Dream, Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and Dreamgirls) Clinton Derricks pulls out all the gospel stops as the high-strung holy man, building up his congregation’s — and the audience’s — spirits with the mighty force of powerful gospel-infused numbers. Allen, now solidly middle aged, plays Mrs. Washington with spirit and integrity in her wedge sandals.

Alas, Freeze Frame has too much going for it and too much going on. The loose plot orbits around father-son friction and Allen has stuffed the show full of multiple vignettes, musical numbers and monologues that provide a snapshot and running commentary on life on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. There’s the wannabe dancer Eartha (Vivian Nixon, Allen’s daughter), who has received a scholarship to the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Center, but her drug addicted single mother is holding her back. And Rosanna, a gang-banging, gun-toting grandmother keeping a watchful eye on her deaf and mute grandson (rubbery dancer Hunter Krikac), who is, one character noted, the neighborhood Diego Rivera, with a talent for graffiti art. William Wingfield’s searing monologue as The Collector, the neighborhood hoodlum, who is exacting revenge without care because of the abuse he suffered as a child, is probably one of the most chilling moments in the show.

There are scenes in the local high school during a class on African American poets interrupted by a police investigation, and another during a basketball game. A sweet playground sequence performed by six of Allen’s young students from her dance academy, brings out some cute and endearing moments about body image and budding boy-girl friends. But, ultimately, much of Freeze Frame, for all its good intentions, is overdone and as riddled with clichés as with hard truths about race and violence in our communities around the country. And that’s hard to say, because gun violence, street gangs, and police brutality are very real, but Allen has relied on old-fashioned storytelling, overly didactic songs and monologues, and derivative choreography instead tackling these hard issues in innovative ways.

That said, painfully, the message is clear: We must find a way to stop the violence. Black lives do matter. And we must remember those whose lives have been lost too soon. The most effective moments in Freeze Frame come after the dancers, singers, rappers, hip hoppers and musicians have left the stage. On those video screens, more than 500 names scroll by of victims of police and gang violence. The audience departs as the names continue. Freddy Gray. William Chapman. Louis Becker. Oscar Romero. Jared Johnson. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking commemoration of this ongoing cycle of violence in our nation. Only in the stillness and aftermath of this high strung, hyperactive 90 minutes, does the message hit home clearly, succinctly. These names tell us to stop the madness.

This review was originally published October 28, 2016, on DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Grit and Resilience

Posted in Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 9, 2016

The Blues Project
Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIG Lovely
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
October 5-6, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

If you want to know how America dances, don’t tune in to those kitschy television competition shows So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars.

Check out Dorrance Dance in The Blues Project. This is how America dances: with fervor and ferocity, humor and intensity, grace and fluidity, intelligence and an eye on where our people have been and where we are going.

dorrancedance_2013christopherduggan-26-960x600The Blues Project digs deeply into our nation’s indigenous dance and music forms — tap and the blues — parsing its taproots in African dances and rhythms brought by slaves to American soil, Irish step dance performed by immigrants, and a culmination of fusing syncopated rhythms, stringed instruments, which evolved from West African kora to banjo, to all-American guitar and bass, and adapting heartfelt storytelling sung in ballads, spirituals and blues. The result is an astonishing and uplifting 65 minutes of grit and gumption told through body, voice, instrument, heart and soul.

On a darkened stage, the first sounds are a beat, pounded out in footwork, the sharp hit of a tap against wood, singularly and then collectively as nine dancers gather in a layered expression of body music. It’s joyful and elemental, for the beat is always reminiscent of the internal life-force: the heart. Even in the large, less-than-intimate space of the Eisenhower Theater, the performers, both dancers and musicians, manage to pull the viewers into their world, one where rhythm takes hold and leads you on a journey.

Dorrance, lanky and lean, clad in a blue-checked shirtwaist dress, comes forward last among her company of eight fine tap dancers (Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Starinah “Star” Dixon, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, and Nicholas Van Young) . Among them her co-choreographers Derick K. Grant, an original company member of the Broadway cast of the instructive and propulsive tap musical Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who coached Michael Jackson in tap over an 11 year period and lists Broadway credits on her resume.

Also on stage, the exquisite powerhouse singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon. Daughter of legendary Washington-based folk, blues and spiritual song leader, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the a cappella “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” Toshi Reagon mines the aural history of America with her blues-infused rock, funk and ballads, that parses the sonic sounds of America’s roots in music.

From boldly and unabashedly spiritual forms like the Ring Shout, which dates back to slavery, to gut wrenching blues and sultry funk, Reagon carries the inflections and voices of generations expressed in their songs of oppression and hope, of slavery and freedom, that continue to resonate today.

Dorrance grew up in her mother’s ballet school in Chapel Hill, N.C., and on the soccer fields where her father coached — he led the 1991 Women’s U.S. team to the World Cup. Her combination of grace and athleticism mark her tap, but she isn’t an old school hoofer. She dances with a 21st-century sensibility and attack, knowing when to get down and hit the floor and when to lightly scuff it and caress it with staccato trembles. Her ear for the rhythmic journey and its counterpoint is impeccable. It’s hard not to notice her, even tucked into her ensemble. Unlike tap great Savion Glover, she doesn’t hide her face or turn her back on the audience, you see her ferocity of concentration as her forehead scrunches up and her eyes focus hard.

In his solo, co-choreographer Grant slyly at first throws down an old school time step. It becomes the basis for his dance rumination that meanders through a distinctive rhythm tap vocabulary while still feeling entirely of the moment to an untrained ear.

Co-choreographer Sumbry-Edwards takes her solo in a different direction, easing into it and playing off of Reagon’s guitar and bluesy and revelatory singing. Their interplay shows the necessity of having instrumentalists on stage — the four-piece ensemble (Adam Widoff on electric guitar, Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, and Allison Miller on drums) plays on a raised platform across the back of the stage. Sumbry-Edwards channels both pain and joy in her cascading hits and scuffs, slaps and shuffles, until she can’t hold back and it becomes a rush that brings her to a hard-won end. It a reckoning with the origins of tap as a way to preserve rhythms of outlawed African drums outlawed, but maintained in the body through dance and percussion called hambone.

Dorrance has incorporated her ensemble into the work in masterful ways, playing two dancers against three, a single dancer against an ensemble, quartets and trios building on layered rhythmic sets that track the evolution of tap, jazz, blues and funk. It’s a wondrous journey taken in loving recollection of America’s past. Dorrance and her eight dancers, along with Reagon and her four musicians, have let loose an evening of unfettered footwork, drawing from the most primal beats that have been kept alive for centuries to tell our true American story.

Our nation’s 19th century poet Walt Whitman wrote a song of his America, mountains, hills, valleys, workers of every stripe who built this nation. Dorrance and Reagon together sing a 21st century song of our nation’s struggles, flaws, triumphs, and hopes.

The Blues Project is exquisite embodied poetry of resilience.

Photo: Dorrance Dance by Christopher Duggan

This review was first published October 7, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Change and Constancy

Posted in Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on September 30, 2016

Martha Graham Dance Company
Alden Theatre
McLean, Va.
September 24, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Heraclitus may have said it first, but 20th century modern dance pioneer Martha Graham followed his dictum: “Change is the only constant.” The company the iconic dancer and choreographer founded in 1926 remains the oldest modern dance troupe in the world. In fact, the term “modern dance” was coined by early New York Times critic John Martin seeking a new name for the tradition-breaking choreography Graham began creating in New York in the 1920s.

graham-errand-into-the-mazeOn Saturday, September 24, 2016, the company presented a program of classic and new works at the Alden Theatre in McLean VA, showcasing the impeccable legacy that Graham company has preserved for generations. But, as Artistic Director — and former Graham dancer — Janet Eilber noted, the company can’t just be a repository for past works, no matter how important. The dancers and the Graham legacy need to reinvigorate with new choreographic pieces. Thus the program on the modestly sized Alden Theatre stage featured works from Graham’s creative heyday in the 1940s along with new works Eilber and her artistic associates have commissioned in recent years, including a recent premiere by Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg. The challenge for the Graham company — and many other single choreographer legacy companies — is how to balance the classics with new works — and how to showcase both the legacy pieces and new pieces on a single program without giving one or the other short shrift.

The classic works included Graham’s 1947 “Errand Into the Maze,” from the choreographer’s Greek period. Drawing from the myth of Theseus who journeys into the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur, the piece remains an allegorical study of the internal struggle we all battle in different ways. This stripped down version lacks the Isamu Noguchi sculptural set — a two pronged carved wood structure with a rope-like ladder — and Graham’s original costume designs — a dress with abstract ribbons of rope-like appliqué and the horned headdress of the Minotar. The costumes were lost in the flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Instead, dancer Charlotte Landreau stood firm and determined in a body hugging white dance dress, while overly tattooed Ben Schultz, as the Minotaur, was bare-chested, his arms entwined behind him around a wooden rod limiting his movements. The battle is an internal struggle and what better way to represent that than with the pelvis and spine-centered technique Graham created to tell her elemental dance dramas.

Yet, here and in other works on the program — an essential emphasis was missing in the power or thrust those pelvic contractions can contain that render Graham works metaphorical dialogues in deeply seated battles of life sustaining dimension.

“Dark Meadow Suite” distills highlights from the 50-minute work from 1946 that featured a Jungian inner dialogue and a rhythmically and dynamically complex symphonic recorded score  by Carlos Chavez. The abstract piece draws on images Graham collected from her time spent in the southwest. The work, with its spare and classic lines and staccato tremors of cupped hands, feels like a ritual of ancient and mystical purpose. We don’t know for whom these 10 dancers are dancing, but we feel they are dancing for life itself — its preservation and propagation. The men, bold, their bare chests broad as they fill the stage with space engulfing spread-legged hops and cartwheels that end in balanced tilts on one leg. The women are more delicate, their long skirts hiding the rhythmic skittering and stepping of their feet in lovely and complex patterns. If the floor had a layer of sand, the final moments would somehow reveal an exquisitely patterned sand painting. The birdlike flexion of the dancing women’s arms, and the way they hinge and tilt from their pelvic girdles, their bodies like seesaws, demonstrates the power and delicacy these dancers own.

The Graham technique, the once-famed and followed movement structure based on a contraction and release of the pelvis, has lost currency in the 21st century. While the company dancers exhibit the rock-solid abdominal strength, what’s missing is a passionate impetus initiated from an internal force rooted in the pelvis, an expulsion of breath that is felt as the movement grows out of the contraction. But, in truth, Graham has been gone for more than a generation. Modern dance has moved on into various other modes of moving and it’s likely a challenge to preserve something so visceral in a new era that demands different ways to dance.

Of the new works, Lidberg’s “Woodland” felt most finished, but least Graham-like. Commissioned specifically for a score by composer Irving Fine, it features a group of dancers gallivanting in a loose-limbed, very un-Graham-like manner, arms akimbo, torsos free to sway and undulate, breathe and relax, legs and hips sliding easily into the floor and back up to standing again. Most blasphemous of all: the dancers wore socks! A true Graham dancer (I learned from my experiences taking class with old-school Graham dancers back in college) should have enough calluses on the feet to need no footwear whatsoever in the studio or on stage. Barefoot dancing was one of the fundamental principles as modern dance asserted itself in the early 20th century.

“Lamentation Variations” has netted a dozen dances based on one of Graham’s early and most-important solos, “Lamentation.” The work premiered in 1930 and stunned audiences for its gut-wrenching expression of grief in every part of the body. The solo, which Graham and later her surrogates, performed on a wooden bench, features the dancer swathed in purple stretch fabric, contorting and extending her limbs and torso.

The work, projected in silent film clips, showed a young Graham yearning for freedom then allowing herself to be swallowed by her pain in wrenching clarity. The three works drawing inspiration from “Lamentation” included a quirky duet for Anne Souder and Xin Ying, which included physical quotes of some of the memorable moments — a turned in foot, a flat hand wiping an unseen tear from a cheek, outstretched reaches — but ultimately made its own choreographic statement.

lamentation-variations-sonya-tayeh-photo-by-christopher-jones-1024x768Richard Move’s solo for Konstantina Xintara proved the sparest of the three, allowing the dancer to almost imperceptibly cross the stage with a series of reaches and smallish footsteps. Here the choreographer strove for simplicity and constriction of the stage space to just a frontal path, akin to the original’s bench-centric placement. So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s contribution, a group work with a whispered score, proved the most inscrutable and relied almost exclusively on technical tricks included complicated lifts and maneuvers of the female dancers by their male supports. Frustratingly, as much as these pieces were meant to take inspiration from an American classic, none of the works were able to convey any sense of the all encompassing pain of grief that Graham did so succinctly 86 years ago.

The program closed with one of Graham’s most beautiful and soaring works, “Diversion of Angels,” created in 1947 to a score by Norman Dello Joio. The work features three distinctive women’s parts, meant to represent three ways we can express love. Leslie Andrea Williams was steadfast as the woman in white, while Xin Ying switched her hips and tilted, her leg raised well beyond her ear, the seductress as the woman in red. Laurel Dalley beamed with happiness and her leaps soared as the woman in yellow.

Throughout the dancers managed ably on a small stage in the intimate Alden Theatre. The last time the company was in the region at the Kennedy Center, we saw far more expansive and passionate dancing; perhaps the dancers felt constrained by the tight space for these grandiose materials. Because there is nothing small nor incidental about even the slightest movement or moment in a Graham choreography. Her clear-eyed vision, her technical demands of a perfect and present body — the dancers’ lines as etched as cut crystal — remind us of the breadth of her contributions to the artistic conversation occurring among dancers, choreographers, poets, composers and painters of the mid-20th century. And it reminds us of what a treasure it remains that these works are still lovingly maintained while the company strives to find new 21st century voices that echo Graham’s clarion call.

Photos: “Errand into the Maze,” Martha Graham Dance Company
“Lamentation Variations” by Sonya Tayeh, photo by Christopher Jones

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

Going Out With a Bang

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance by lisatraiger on May 13, 2016

The Washington Ballet’s Carmina Burana and Bowie & Queen

Carmina Burana
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music Carl Orff
April 13-17, 2016

Bowie & Queen
Choreography by Edwaard Liang and Trey McIntyre
Music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, David Bowie and Queen
May 4-15, 2016

Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

The standing ovation came before a single dancer took the stage. It lasted about two minutes to honor the final time The Washington Ballet’s loyal opening night audience would hear the game-show like introduction: “Ladieeeessssss and Gentlemen, Septiiiiiiiiime Webre.” Bounding onto the stage in his slim-cut suit, sock-less as usual, the audience stood as he took in the crowd getting a touch emotional. Then he introduced the company’s season closer, and his last show as artistic director of the company he helmed for 17 years. Bowie & Queen, an evening of ballet inspired by iconic 1980s rockers David Bowie and Queen’s Freddie Mercury, is his final statement and it seems he wants to blow the roof off The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Bowie, of course, died earlier this year and Mercury died in 1991 at age 45. Both left behind tremendous bodies of work that changed the music industry.

The_Washington_Ballet_Carmina_Burana_Jonathan_Jordan__Andile_Ndlovu__and_Miguel_Anaya_ticketsOver its nearly two decades, it was a fortuitous match, Webre and The Washington Ballet. During his tenure he took a fine, but somewhat sleepy and staid company, founded by D.C.’s grand dame of ballet Mary Day, and transformed the troupe into one of the city’s hottest tickets. He modernized the company with daring choreographic choices, challenging his young dancers with major classics from Giselle to a world-renowned Swan Lake, neoclassic masterworks from George Balanchine, and the best from contemporary choreographers, including the likes of Mark Morris, William Forsythe, and Twyla Tharp. He also introduced rising fresh choreographic voices, among them the two dancemakers on the Bowie & Queen program: Edwaard Liang, now artistic director of BalletMet Columbus (Ohio), and Trey McIntyre. Webre also contributed his own works to his oft spectacle driven mix, revamping a tired Nutcracker, reimagining Alice (in Wonderland), and reinventing American literary classics as full-length ballets — The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow. Finally, and not often commented on, Webre reshaped the company with a cadre of dancers from around the world, integrating what was essentially an all-white troupe with dancers of color from Asia, South America, and Africa and homegrown Americans of all races.

To close out his time in D.C., last month Webre revived his opulent and bawdy Carmina Burana, which had its premiere a decade ago and wowed audiences then with stunning showmanship, musicality, design and, of course, dancing. With the Cathedral Choral Society, directed by J. Reilly Lewis, Arlington Children’s Chorus, exceptional soprano soloist Melissa Wimbish, tenor Timothy Augustin and baritone Stephen Combs joining the dancers onstage it was a multidisciplinary piece in the grand tradition of another great impresario, the Ballets Russes’ Sergei Diaghilev. Add in the crafty stage design by Regan Kimmel that puts the chorus on three-levels of scaffolding framing the stage, sexy and hot black costumes by Liz Vandal, and lusty, juicy choreography that channels the lush abandon of the oft-played Carl Orff score and the result is an undeniable high. Orff’s composition set a series of medieval German monk’s drinking songs into an expansive musical statement that demands big and lavish production numbers. (Think roller-coaster commercials.)

And Webre complied, managing to hit all those highs and dips with abandon, wit, and whimsy. His dancers threw themselves into heavy duty unison sections, then turned playful in some fun numbers, especially for his buff men manipulating chairs then brooms to sweep clean sweep tossed confetti. There’s an oversized queen, carted around on a rolling scaffold, who baldly reveals her backside and her comeuppance. The duets are filled with ardor and Webre here has not over choreographed the most intimate pas de deux, making it a loving and lovely expression of romantic and sensual connection. With nothing small nor understated about this revival of Carmina Burana, grandiose and gigantic are fitting descriptions for his enchanting ballet with its life-giving feverish forces. Accompanied by a solid version of Balanchine’s stately Theme and Variations, it was a wonderful way to begin the long farewell to Webre.

****

The Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen_Jonathan Jordan by media4artists, Theo KossenasThe final goodbye came last week and this week with that double-header titled Bowie & Queen. I’ve long challenged the efficacy of using rock and roll in ballet primarily because I haven’t seen a successful rock ballet yet. Ballet is about technical proficiency of the body, about balance, equilibrium, line — essentially geometry of the body in motion. Rock and roll is about abandon, freedom, rebellion and unbridled physicality. To me the two forms often seem mutually exclusive.

Choreographer and former New York City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang’s Dancing in the Street provided the Bowie half of the program. But this isn’t the flamboyant, high-energy kinetic Bowie with his sexy pout and his indeterminate sexuality. In fact, only two musical selections — Good Morning Girl and I’m Not Losing Sleep are performed by Bowie in the work (alas on the Eisenhower’s muddy sounding speaker system). Much of the music was composed by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, who drew on Bowie for inspiration, but it wasn’t his actual music that inspired the composition for piano, violin, cello and percussion, which was played by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra.

It was the introspective, artistic Bowie who spoke in interviews that Smith listened to for inspiration. The music is lovely, richly toned, evocative and emotive. Liang’s choreography, alas, is mostly run-of-the-mill. Featuring an agreeable Tamas Krizsa, clad in white jeans and a t-shirt, as the featured dancer, the ballet begins under a street lamp. Later phalanxes of dancers, clad in brightly colored dresses for the women, slacks and t-shirts for the men, whipped out turns, lifts and balletically inspired allegro, fast-paced footwork. “Dancing” is structured like a classical ballet with an opening movement, variations with four couples, additional theme and variations, a slow movement and pas de deux with the gorgeous Sona Kharatian partnered by Krizsa before the ballet comes full circle. Nothing about it feels free or rebellious or makes me want to rock out and dance, alas.

My rule of thumb about the problems of mixing rock and ballet was disproved by choreographer Trey McIntyre, a Webre favorite whose works have graced the company’s repertory for more than a decade now. “Mercury Half-Life” premiered on McIntyre’s own now-defunct troupe, Trey McIntyre Project, in 2013. This production looks terrific — hard driving, uninhibited, and mostly smartly capturing the operatic and vaudevillian tropes of Mercury’s iconic and ironic music for Queen. Here, the musical selections comprise a best-of album, from two versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Bicycle Race” to “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Are the Champions” and (my high-school’s unofficial anthem) “We Will Rock You.”

Wearing Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s chic white shorts or miniskirts and jackets, with white ballet slippers and knee socks, the dancers look like tennis-playing high schoolers — clean, bright, artificially bored. McIntyre puts ten dancers through their paces, playing both with and against the music, allowing for the unexpected, the quirky and the simply surprising results as dancers skip, slide, run, leap and freeze at varying moments. “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” has old fashioned vaudevillian influences and quick-footed Daniel Roberge throws down a finely executed tap number. Later he is joined by a bevy of women, backing him up with Broadwayesque grapevine steps and toe taps. That melds into some heavy hitting choreography that relies on ever evolving formations of dancers, who rarely mimic the music, instead that play against it or expand it. The structure is loose, casual, driven by the musical choices that McIntyre blended together in a free-form manner.

There are sections with unchecked solos where dancers literally do the impossible, with leaps, dives, one-armed hand-stands, and mid-air catches of horizontally prone dancers who seem momentarily frozen before thrusting forward head first. There’s both a toughness and a playfulness in the way the dancers attack or hurl themselves in McIntyre’s choreography. He captures the essence of Mercury and the grandiosity of the Queen musical catalog.

The Washington Ballet_Bowie & Queen by media4artists, Theo Kossenas.There’s no restraint here, no held torsos or loving epaulment of the shoulders and arms. While the choreography favors plenty of specific phrases with complex arms and non-stop footwork, there’s hardly a fussy arabesque or perfectly held pirouette in sight, which is exactly what this ballet needs. It’s rock and roll, which demands more off-kilter, off-balance, unrestrained attack. The Washington Ballet’s ten dancers — Kateryna Derechnyna, Nicole Graniero, Jonathan Jordan, Sona Kharatian, Tamas Krizsa, Brooklyn Mack, Tamako Miyazaki, Andile Ndlovu, Maki Onuki, and Daniel Roberge — are like great rockers, they leave it all on the stage.

And Webre? It will be hard not to miss him and his contributions to making hometown ballet exciting and glamorous. He rocked it to the end.

 

Photos courtesy The Washington Ballet:Carmina Burana, Andile Ndlovu, Jonathan Jordan and Migual Anaya
Bowie & Queen, Jonathan Jordan in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas
Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” photo by Theo Kossenas

This review was first published May 6, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

Serving Food for Thought … and Cake

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Dance, Jazz dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 13, 2016

“Happy Hour”
Monica Bill Barnes & Company 
Terrace Gallery, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
March 10-11, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center 1

Monica Bill Barnes and Ann Bass, courtesy Kennedy Center

In life some things that are easy look hard and others that are hard look easy. That’s also the case for choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, whose party-cum-commentary on masculinity and femininity, success and failure, connection and anonymity, among other things, brightened up the drab Terrace Gallery setting, upstairs in The Kennedy Center March 11. The small but mighty Monica Bill Barnes & Company has taken it upon themselves to spice up people’s lives with playful but pointed in-jokes that provide layers of depth and insight. What on the surface seems like simple off-the-cuff unplanned sequences, is far, far deeper.

Barnes and Ann Bass, her associate artistic director, fellow performer and partner in crime, champion the underdog while culling from a tastefully curated selection of American dance styles, mainly jazz, theater dance, tap and a tad of ballet and modern thrown in. But it’s not so much the steps and choreography — which are themselves often a hoot, smartly selected and dazzlingly performed — but the way they attack the movement. There’s a sense of going all out and over the top, of dancing for life itself. Sometimes Bass’s neck strains, or Barnes’s eyeballs pop, as droplets of sweat form on their brows and they fling themselves completely into quick, goofy phrases that look so easy yet are anything but. They’re working their hardest for our pleasure. You can’t help loving them for their all-out effort, especially in a workaholic town like metropolitan DC, where the only right answer to “how are you” is “busy, way too busy.”

Happy Hour starts with the conceit of the title. The Terrace Gallery is set with 30 cocktail tables. The company reportedly ran out and bought $200 worth of snacks – microwave popcorn, a box of Cheerios, an extra-large size of gummy vitamins, mini candy bars and a tub of pretzel rods. The room is decorated in a baby blue balloons and crepe paper streamers hung like a six-year-old’s birthday party. Robert Saenz de Viteri acts as the MC and maitre d’ for a “pre-show” that is as much a part of the performance as the dancers, handing out snacks from a rolling production cart artfully labeled “Production Cart” in glitter. He works the crowd getting to know his audience, milking them for self-deprecating laughs. A karaoke machine stands at the ready waiting on the brave few in the audience ready to take a turn with pop classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” There’s a raffle, someone is celebrating a birthday, another couple is visiting The Kennedy Center for the first time. This happy hour is a real piece d’occasion and Saenz de Viteri works it with finesse.

Unexpectedly, after the buildup and the snacks, Barnes and Bass slip in, decked out in well-fitting menswear – crisp white shirts, sharp suits black (for Barnes) and gray (for Bass), their hair slicked back. They’re mobsters maybe or madmen. Their shoulders squared, jaw lines taut, when they walk there’s a touch of masculine swagger, their hands pushed deep into their pants pockets, a look of bored indifference darkening their faces. They proceed to parse through a playlist of 20th century pop hits, from John Mellancamp’s “Hurts So Good” to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Judy Garland singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and to Nat King Cole smoothly covering “Smile” (when your heart is breaking).

As the music elicits nods of recognition in the audience, Barnes and Bass attack the songs with a variety of jazz and tap and show business-y moves layered atop emotional moments read clearly on their faces. There are homages to the tap dancing greats the Nicholas Brothers, and to the smooth and easy going Gene Kelly, and suave sophisticate Fred Astaire, each subtly drawn in the quick steps and lanky runs, the syncopated step-ball-changes and the vaudeville like kicks performed with exaggerated smiles. There’s military precision and honor in the way these two attack their phrases, they look simple but are complex rhythmically and technically — quick little steps packed together all in a row. They’re dancing at the top — nay, over the top — of their game.

But what’s most riveting are the small vignettes — the emotional moments — where these women, dressed and behaving as men, interact, try to pick up women from the audience, cheer each other on, muddle through tense moments, hug and make up. Bass has a habit of pulling a silver flask from her pocket and taking a swig. Barnes is the more sensitive one, the underdog, who pulls out a deck of cards and tries and fails at card tricks. No matter, they serenade each other, applaud one another on, gin up approval from the audience then take elaborate bows, accepting bouquets of flowers, like Olympians or Russian ballerinas.

1Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center (4)It all looks ridiculously simple, but every moment, every movement, each twitch of an eyebrow or tug at a shirt, is planned and telescopes meaningful messages about friendship, gender, heartbreak, and perseverance, not only in the face of failure, but also, even more important, in the face of ordinariness. Happy Hour is about elevating the ordinary to high art. Buying supplies at the local drug store for a performance at The Kennedy Center, taking old steps and making them fresh and new, culling from pop classics but finding new statements or highlighting their meanings in new ways — this begins to get at the depth of Happy Hour.

So Happy Hour breaks all the rules of theater, including that fourth wall into the audience, and it offers not merely terrific entertainment, but more than a measure of poignancy, a sense of loss even amid the fun-and-games.

Unexpected life lessons told in subtle and magnified gestures reveal striving, doing one’s best, understanding the desires of the opposite sex and more. As much as this daring and dynamic duo want to be heroes, become the life of the party, their eyes and their physical hesitations show us that painful poignancy of not living up to ideals or dreams, either one’s own or those imposed by others.

But MC Saenz de Viteri finally brings us down to earth and back to reality when he returns with a huge birthday sheet cake, inscribed to the audience member with the birthday. It’s a surprise, a deux ex machina if you will, and, finally, a sweet moment after the heavy duty food for thought that Barnes and Bass served up.

(c)  Lisa Traiger 2016
Published March 12, 2016

Photos: Monica Bill Barnes & Company, courtesy Kennedy Center

This article originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Sacred Ground

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on February 1, 2016

Dance Place Reunion Celebrates 35 Years

Dance Place Reunion
featuring choreographers Jan Van Dyke, Eric Hampton, Helen Hayes, Alvin Mayes, Lesa McLaughlin, Cathy Paine, Carla Perlo, Deborah Riley and drumming by Steve Bloom
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.

January 30-31, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Carla Perlo.

When Dance Place marks a milestone, invariably by the evening’s end its Founding Artistic Director Carla Perlo has more people on stage than in the audience. This happened Saturday night January 30, 2016, as Dance Place marked 35 years with a retrospective program highlighting many of Washington, D.C.’s important choreographers from the past three decades. Full disclosure: I, too, was called to the stage and noted for my work as the first full-time manager of then-young Dance Place back in 1985. Since that year-long stint, I have spent the greater part of these past three decades watching dance there, ranging from children’s summer camp shows to major figures in late 20th-century dance, including choreographers Joe Goode, David Parsons, Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Bebe Miller, and groups like Eiko and Koma, Blue Man, Streb, and more than 700 other artists who shared their works there.

The evening was also a moment for Perlo to say thanks to her forbears as the concert was dedicated to seminal Washington, D.C. teacher and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, who died this past year in North Carolina, where she settled after leaving Washington. Many other dance teachers, among them Perlo’s early teacher Jefferson James, and local dance leaders were acknowledged.

Van Dyke founded Dance Place’s precursor, Dance Project in 1974 in Adams Morgan. Perlo and Co-Founder Steve Bloom, took over the second-story studio/theater near 18th and Columbia in 1980, renaming it and reimagining Van Dyke’s vision. Five years later as the neighborhood gentrified, Dance Place moved to the then sleepy Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington, purchasing its own building. Over the years Perlo and Riley built a state-of-the-art dance studio and theater while committing to bringing arts to local neighborhood children and families as well as presenting world-class dance almost every weekend.

The rolling rhythms of “Thunderhead,” co-founder Bloom’s drum solo played on a daf, a large-headed Persian instrument, opened the program with a clarion call to be mindful of both the pounding beats and the subtleties. In a 1992 solo, “Flight of Time,” dancer Triana Brown captured the steely determination of  choreographer Perlo’s personality with fearless balances and slicing diagonal reaches that later softened into more gossamer lightness.

It was moving to see “And Back Again,” Van Dyke’s final work, choreographed last year and rearranged for the stage, the program noted, in her last rehearsals. The women’s quartet relays Van Dyke’s austere but clarion approach to movement. She valued precision, control and specificity with a mathematician’s or architect’s eye, and here the quartet maneuvers in and out of highly designed patterns and rows, yet, then each dancer, clad in flared geometrically patterned dresses, gets a little release for a solo while the other three pause and watch.

The program closed with an earlier Van Dyke work from 1989, “Full Circle,” a trio featuring one of her favorite accompaniments, Turtle Island String Quartet. Again watching the dancers parse through the technical, specific leg and arm gestures — so out of character in light of today’s more emotion-laden or loose-limbed release techniques — it was easy to imagine Van Dyke dancing along, her cropped hair and prim presence presiding.

The program also featured “While Waiting” from long-time choreographer and educator Alvin Mayes, a heartfelt solo dance by Adriane Fang in memory of a friend and arts lover, Tuckey Requa. The late Eric Hampton’s Jane Austin-like comedy of manners for three women, “Saudades,” featured three dancers from the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Studio Company in an excerpt staged by former Hampton dancer Harriet Moncure Fellows. Ronya-Lee Anderson danced Riley’s “Shadows” from 2014 with a lushness that was meltingly romantic with its dips, reaches and arcing leg fans all set to a Chopin prelude.

Longtime dance educator Helen Hayes made a surprise appearance with her high-school aged dancers from Joy of Motion’s Youth Dance Ensemble in her first group work, a swirling water-y ballet from 1996 called “Whirlpools.” And a former Dance Place director Lesa McLaughlin revived her edgy 1984 solo “On Look” for her 13-year-old son, Chris Mateer. The piece plays on the tension between feminine and masculine roles and expectations as a dancer — back to the audience — dons a man’s dress shirt, tie and jacket, but not until a turn forward is it clear whether it is a male or female. McLaughlin came to dance late, as a college student, and there was a wildness and awkward gawkiness about her dancing and choreography that was equally intriguing and captivating. Her son has more grace and control, he doesn’t teeter in off-kilter balances with the same abandon, and at 13 is, perhaps, too young to match the sexual tension and androgynous interplay inherent in the work.

Cathy Paine, an early teacher and resident choreographer at Dance Place, returned to the stage after many years absence with a gorgeous and heartbreaking solo “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” A graceful and liquid performer, Paine moved with silken textures, fingers tickling the air, arms softly whispering on unseen currents. Then she melted and rose, rolled and scooted again and again into the floor and out like quicksilver. Her improvised spoken narrative — a popular feature for a generation or two of DC choreographers — was both a personal recollection and reflective testament to her forbears. As the title suggested, Paine drew inspiration from the arcane yet famous Shakespearean stage direction in his The Winter’s Tale. Paine, who noted after the performance that she just celebrated her 65th birthday earlier in the week, was simply ageless, and the meaningful and evocative journey she traveled in the course of the piece, from past to present to future generations proved the evening’s singular moment. Her charge to all in the space as she caressed a small spot of center stage: “This is sacred ground so take care of it” beautifully summed up of a 35-year legacy of creating a place to dance in Washington.

Photo: Dance Place Co-founder Carla Perlo, courtesy Dance Place
Published February 1, 2016. This review originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016