D.C. DanceWatcher

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

 

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Ballet Elevated

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

 

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

By Lisa Traiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

 

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

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

 

Spectacle

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 31, 2012

Alice (in wonderland)
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music by Matthew Pierce
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
April 11-15, 2012 

“Noche Latina!”
Choreography by Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
May 9-13, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

Maki Onuki as Alice and Jared Nelson as the Mad Hatter in Septime Webre’s opulent spectacle “Alice (in wonderland)” for The Washington Ballet

Ballet has had no shortage of showmen over its centuries. From Louis XIV, who personified the god himself as Apollo in elaborate court pageants, to Petipa’s academic pyrotechnics and colossal productions, Diaghilev’s riot-inducing Russian seasons in Paris and Balanchine’s moderne spectacles – Firebird, Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, come to mind – understatement it seems can sometimes be overrated. That’s nearly always the case with The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre, a showman extraordinaire when it comes to programming for his fine chamber-sized company of 18 dancers. Recent seasons he has given his audiences equal parts bombast and baubles with a “Carmina Burana,” featuring the Washington Cathedral Society chorus on two-stories of onstage scaffolding; a Broadway-boards-worthy The Great Gatsby complete with a tuxedoed tap dancer, a jazz singer and swing band that rose from the orchestra pit; a storybook come to life with super sized puppets in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; and a Disney-worthy retelling of Peter Pan with flying by rigmasters Foy. This spring the company’s two programs continued that spectacle-minded showmanship that Webre so favors – and that has built a steady and boisterous crowd of younger-than-average ballet goers in a town where gray-suited government and politics are the trade. Webre is certainly market-savvy in drawing both a crowd of the twenty- and thirty-something, beautiful and stiletto-heeled, as well as Chevy Suburban-driving families.

His idiosyncratically titled Alice (in wonderland), is a case in point. Seen April 11-15 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the ballet is a dizzying trip down the rabbit hole into a wildly psychedelic world for one of Webre’s favorites, Maki Onuki. Here this tiny slip of a dancer was all tarted up in a blond wig making the Japanese-born ballerina look like a cartoonish manga character.

Webre enlisted designer Liz Vandal, who conceived the outre look of the ultra-extravagant production [which cost upwards of $300,000]. A one-time fashion designer whose costume work has been seen on Montreal’s La La La Human Steps and Compagnie Marie Chouinard, along with the Backstreet Boys, Vandal’s recent designs on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO are more representative of the direction she’s taken with Alice: fantastic, whimsical, garishly opulent and, needless to say, memorable. From the traditional baby-blue dress the title character wears, Vandal’s conception – Victoriana meets Peter Max and Ziggy Stardust – creates unique and unforgettable worlds in which the storyboarded ballet unfolds, like pages turned in a children’s storybook.

In “Wizard of Oz” fashion, Act 1 is a study in monotones – whites and grays – until Alice escapes her family, falling into a Technicolor wonder world where hot pink flamingos and decks of cards dance, cartoonish cooks battle and bicker over salt and pepper, a spectacle-wearing rabbit, a fiery pterosaur-like Jabberwocky, and other odd assortments of creatures pop up during the episodic adventures. Like the “Oz” movie, Webre doubles his casting, so the family members of act I, become the fabulous creatures and characters of act II. Alice’s imperious mother with her withering glare returns as a black-widow of a Queen of Hearts, emasculating and fearsome, while her bespectacled father becomes the grinning and aloof Cheshire cat.

Lewis Carroll here plays a role, too, jumpstarting the title character’s imagination, but in a pas de deux there’s also a sense of awakening sexuality in the not-yet-woman Alice as tenderly danced by Jared Nelson and Onuki. Later Nelson returns as the Mad Hatter, resplendent in a vibrant patchwork suit a ringleader at the tea party gone awry. As the white rabbit, Jonathan Jordan leads young Alice into these vivid worlds where flowers dance, a sexily slithery caterpillar smokes a hookah, a Dodo Bird and Eaglet (Brooklyn Mack and Emily Ellis) dance a Petipa-worthy pas de deux, and bunches of thorny roses, the bristling corps with roses adorning their heads, are unceremoniously painted red to please the domineering Queen of Hearts, while little children somersault as hedgehogs in a croquet game gone wild.

Played out in a white box set designed by James Kronzer, silk drapes, unfurled painted banners and rolled-in flats provide much of the scenic variety, and along with Clifton Taylor’s candy-colored lighting, the stage itself often becomes a brilliantly rendered canvas in vivid colors. Matthew Pierce’s score for 10-piece string orchestra provides the backbone for the choreography, lending notes of poignancy and tempering some of the wildness of Alice’s journey with muted tones that are at once reflective and forward going. That he ventures astutely into jazz, pop, Middle Eastern and other rhythms and genres, keeps the listener alive in this multifaceted journey.

There’s much to absorb in this version of the Lewis Carroll tale and at times it’s hard for even an experienced viewer to know where to focus, there’s simply so much happening on stage. But who can resist an orange-haired Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair passing through on a tandem bicycle, for example? Or gaggles of eight and nine year olds dressed as playing cards, flowers and hedgehogs, as innocent as first-recital budding ballerinas, courtesy of the Washington School of Ballet. Or gawk as Onuki soars aloft, floating, and spiraling on a near-invisible line that allows her to “fall” gracefully into the rabbit hole.

Alice (in wonderland) is filled to the brim with stunning tricks, opulent and eye-popping designs, a top-notch score and, even, a bit of choreography among all the traffic. But like other Webre-stamped ballets, choreography is nearly beside the point. At center stands the extravaganza, the spectacle. And while the dancers dance their hearts out, the wild applause the audience offers up is for the production as a whole – a collaborative team that succeeded in crafting a stunning world to re-cast an old story anew. Finally, Webre gives our senses a rest: one simple moment after all the garishness of the proceedings have passed. Alice ultimately returns home and we get a final glimpse of Onuki curled up in a cozy armchair with a book. Repose after the chaos.

***

Sona Kharatian and Luis R. Torres of The Washington Ballet in “Noche Latina!”

The company closed its 2011-12 season May 9-13 with another sort of extravaganza. “Noche Latina!” draws on Latin American cultural constructs and allows Webre to explore connections to his cultural roots as a son of Cuban-American parents. In previous seasons, Webre has brought in Latin-inspired programming from the likes of Nacho Duato, Paul Taylor (“Tango Piazzola”) and the director’s own “Juanita y Alicia,” based on stories about his mother’s childhood in Havana. One year the vividly clad Mariachi Los Amigos mariachi band strolled through the theater serenading the audience during intermission like a South of the Border half-time show. This year’s Latin nights program felt much like a one-note wonder. If flinging ruffled skirts, snapping fingers, tightly held stances and imaginary bullfights account for everything you know about Latin dance, “Noche Latina!” will nicely fill your bill. Each of the evening’s three works played the same notes over and over again. And on a program that featured two world premieres that certainly is disappointing.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sueno de Marmol” (Dream of Marble) felt the least clichéd, likely because it opened the program, and yet, with its run-of-the-mill theme of riffling through memories – in this case by walking among a garden of marble statues that come to life – it left little to really ponder. The company’s tallest, and most commanding presence, Luis Torres was the centerpiece of not only this work, but much of the evening. In “Sueno,” which translates to “Dream of Marble,” he was expectedly introspective, wandering through the fog and still-life of posed dancers clad in white – women in tiered skirts, men showing pecs in sheer body-hugging tops.

As a dancer or two caught Torres’ fancy, they moved together into small variations, Torres in traditional black and red transforming easily from sensual to moody to playful in this nicely wrought memory piece. Lopez Ochoa provides her dancers with lush and full-bodied phrases that they can really sink into discovering expressive fodder. A great compliment for a new choreographer is how comfortable the dancers looked in a work and here she knowingly captured their strengths without highlighting weaknesses.

Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” uses late 1960s pop music versions of Astrud Gilberto’s easy-listening pieces. Think “Girl From Ipanema” and you’re there. In fact Aurora Dickie was that girl in this piece, followed by two of the company’s playfully sexy men – Brooklyn Mack and Zachary Hackstock. But “Samba,” like more than a few of McIntyre’s works, comes from the school of too many steps. With plenty for the dancers to do, lifts, balances, complicated jumps and footwork rush past in a sometime flurry that the samba – cool, calm, undulating hips – gets lost. A samba should feel like a walk on the beach – languid, feet sinking into sand, hips shifting softly, giving into the rhythm sexily with each step.

“La Ofrenda,” an evocation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which celebrates folkloric traditions of honoring dead spirits, closed the evening returning to the skirt shaking, hand-clapping, hip-jutting school of imitative Latin dance. Choreographed by Taiwanese-born Edwaard Liang, the work looks like it used a video cabinet full of “Don Quixote” and “Carmen” DVDs as fodder. Torres once more played a central role, and the company joined as interchangeable spirits, roused to drink, clap, stomp feet, imitate a bull fight and the like. Paired with tiny Onuki, Torres made it easily look like he was dancing with a spirit wisp as he wound her around his body, held her aloft weightless before allowing gravity to take hold and pull her back to solid ground. Again, Torres seemed caught in a memory dance – this time one sometimes wild but always passionate – with spirits, while a village of crafty and boisterous souls let loose for him to tangle with. Decorating the somber stage were Spanish artist Cristobal Gabarron’s white skull-like mask cutouts, lending sometimes sinister, sometimes comic effect to the work.

The evening’s most vital performance came at intermission. Famed Colombian singer Toto la Momposina was joined by her cumbia band, Sus Tambores. They rose out of the orchestra pit with a wild jangle of rhythms, she gorgeous in yards of colorful cloth and a head wrap, brightening the evening with multilayers of syncopated rhythms and her deep-throated vocals. It was enough to make you stand up and get your hips shifting, pumping, swaying to the beat – something ballet doesn’t do nearly as well.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the quarterly magazine Ballet Review and is republished with kind permission. To subscribe, send a check for $27 to: Ballet Review, 37 West 12th St. #7J, New York, NY 10011.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger
Published August 31, 2012