D.C. DanceWatcher

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

Posted in African dance, Ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 31, 2017

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

The dance that I experienced this year moved me by being meaningful, making a statement, and speaking truth to power. Thus, the choreography that excited or touched or challenged or even changed me was unsettling, thought-provoking, visceral. The influence of #Black Lives Matter, #Resist and #MeToo meant that dance needed to be consequential, now more than ever. Here’s what made me think and feel during a year when I saw less dance than usual.

cafe muller

Not merely the best performance I saw this year, but among the best dance works I’ve experienced in a decade or more was the double revival of Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” and “Rite of Spring” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alas, the company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C., so my experience with Bausch’s canonic works are few, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these two masterworks. Their significance cannot be understated. In “Café Muller,” the profound gravity of the performers in that closed café, with its scintillatingly scattered chairs, doorways and walls arranged in perfect disarray is humorless, just like the dancers, who arrive with their aura of existential loneliness. The bored banality of these slip-dressed sleepwalking women, the meaningless urgency of the red-head in her clickety clackety heels and green dress, the morose body-bruising couplings, as a slip-thin woman incessantly throws herself onto her male counterpart only to be flung, dropped, and sideswiped with as much care as one might give to a sack of laundry. “Café Muller’s” fragrance, with its snippets from a Purcell score, is heavy with the perfume of existentialism and the Sartrian notion that hell is other people. The work feels like life: a study of losses, regrets, and the unrelenting banality of existence. I’m glad I saw it in middle age — Pina understood it as the decade of disappointment.

A rejoinder to this nondescript yet vivid café of no exits, is the cataclysmic clash of the sexes that imbues Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring” with the driving forces of primitivism that jangle the nerves, raise the heart rate, ignite loins, and remind us of our most basic animalistic instincts for creation and destruction. The infamous soil-covered stage, populated with xx men and women elemental gravity in came from the It took a trip to Brooklyn, New York, because, alas, the Pina Bausch Dance Company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C. The double revival of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring shook my world, reminding me what the greatest dance can do to the gut and the soul.

Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2A companion of sorts to Bausch, arrived later in the fall at the University of Maryland’s Clarice. Germaine Acogny, often identified as the Martha Graham of African modern dance, brought for just a single evening her taut and discomfiting Mon Elue Noire — “My Black Chosen One” — a singular recapitulation of “Rite of Spring” drawing, of course, from Stravinsky’s seminal score, and also dealing unapologetically with colonialism. The choreography by French dancemaker Olivier Dubois places 73-year-old Acogny, first clad in a black midriff baring bra top, into a coffin like vertical box, her head hooded by a scarf. A flame, then the sweet, musky perfume of tobacco smoke draw the viewer in before the lights come up. There she sits, smoking a pipe, eyeing the audience with suspicion. The drum beats and familiar voice of the oboe as the musical score heats up, push Acogny into a frenzy of sequential movements. The French monologue (alas, my French has faded after all these years) from African author Aime Cesaire’s 1950 “Speech on Colonialism” sounds accusatory, but it’s the embodied power Acogny puts forth — her flat, bare feet intimately grounded, her long arms flung, her pelvis at one point relentlessly pumping powers it all. As smoke fills the space, Acogny pulls up the floor of her claustrophobic stage and slaps white paint on herself, brushes it in wide swaths on this box, filled with smoke. Now wearing a white bra, her lower body hidden beneath the floor, her eyes, bore into the darkened theater. Mon Elue Noire’s bold statement of black bodies, of African women, of seizing a voice from those — white colonialists — who for centuries silenced body, voice and spirit rings forth both sobering and inspiring.

I was just introduced to formerly D.C.-based choreographer/dancer MK Abadoo’s work this year and I’m intrigued. Her evening-length Octavia’s Brood at Dance Place in June, time travels, toggling between Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and a futurist vision of the world where women of African descent reclaim their bodies and voices in an ensemble work that takes inspiration also from the writings and commentary of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The work begins with a bantaba — a meeting or dancing ground. The audience is invited onto the stage to encircle the dancers. The women, clad in shades of brown, fall to their knees, rise only to fall again to all fours. Beauteous choral music accompanies this section. Soon they stretch arms widely reaching to the sides. A sense of mysterious spirituality fills the space, a space once more enriched by the uncompromising presence of strong, graceful black women’s bodies. Octavia’s Brood is not simply about memory. It navigates between past, present and future while celebrating the durability of black women in America – there’s a holy providence at play in the way Abadoo and her dancers draw forth elemental, earth-connected movement.

IMG_2038They toss their arms backwards, backs arching, leg lifting, while a conscious connection to the floor remains ever present. Later, we see these same dance artists on stage, the audience now seated, on a journey that draws them to support and uphold one another. There’s a gentle firmness in their determination and a tug and pull in the choreography, underscored by a section where the women are wrapped in yards of brown fabric, a cocoon of protection. Then as they unwind it feels like rebirth.

In September Abadoo premiered a program featuring “LOCS” and “youcanplayinthesun,” commissions by the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long wrote in the program that these pieces too draw inspiration from Afro-futurist sci-fi author Butler. But they also wrestle with intracultural racism. Poet Marita Golden called it “the color complex … the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features” among African Americans, and others. The six dancers clad in white fuse a modern and African dance vocabulary, but more essential to the work are the smaller gestural moments. Like when an older dancer, Judith Bauer, proudly gray haired, sits on a stool and braids and combs Abadoo’s hair. She carries a rucksack, which slows and weighs down her gait. Later we see that the bag is filled with lengths of hair, locs, suggesting the burden black women carry on whether they have “good” — straight — or “bad” — curly or kinky — hair. But that quiet moment, when Bauer tends to Abadoo’s hair — it’s a maternal act, sacred and memorable for its resonance to so many who have sat in a chair while their mother, grandmother or aunt hot combed, plaited, flattened or styled unruly hair into something not manageable but acceptable to a society that has denigrated “black hair.”

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)Interestingly, in ink, Camille A. Brown’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in November, also features black women’s hair — a subtext in a larger work that wrestles with African American identity. The evening was made more vivid by a live jazz percussion quartet helmed by Allison Miller. Structured with compelling dance vignettes that bring African American cultural and societal mores to the fore ink speaks an oft-silenced vocabulary through bodies, gestures, postures and poses. A solo by Brown feels like a griot’s history lesson articulated with highly specific gestures that vividly reflect what could be read as “woman’s work” — dinner preparations, wringing laundry, caregiving. Later Brown gives us a different story, of two guy friends — first they’re wonder-filled kids, then they hang ten, basketball their game of choice. But, unseen, unspoken, something hardens them. Later an intimate duet shows a loving couple behind closed doors. But that love belies the challenges outside that arduous nest. In ink, Brown has completed her black identity trilogy, which included Black Girl: Linguistic Play, by consciously asserting the beauty and bounty of black bodies, souls and spirits that inform, intersect and shape our larger American culture.

Other standouts for me during 2017 ranged from a new work for the Ailey company by Kyle Abraham, “Untitled America,” with its narratives of incarcerated citizens and their family members, and a simple yet powerful palette of pedestrian and gestural elements, to Lotus, a rollicking tap family reunion at the newly renovated Terrace Theater, upstairs at the Kennedy Center, that traced the home-grown percussive dance from early roots to a high-spirited finale, with plenty of meditative percussive and narrative moments in between — plus enough flashy footwork.

It was also a year of change at many Washington, D.C. dance institutions. Dance Place’s founding director, the indomitable Carla Perlo retired in the summer, along with her long-time artistic associate Deborah Riley, passing the reins to choreographer/dancer/educator Christopher K. Morgan. It’s too early to tell whether Dance Place will move in new directions, but it appears that the organization is in solid hands. Morgan continues to make his own work for his company, lending continuity to the profile of a working artist-slash-administrator-slash-artistic-director.

We also have a better sense of the direction The Washington Ballet will be moving toward under artistic director Julie Kent. It appears that predictions of a company that resembles American Ballet Theatre, where Kent spent her stage career as a principal ballerina, are coming true. Remarks that The Washington Ballet is now “ABT-South” are no longer facetious; they’re reality. Kent has brought in her colleagues Xiomara Reyes, school director, and her husband, Victor Barbee, as her associate artistic director. And her commissions, too, have been ABT-centric, from an atrocious tribute to President John F. Kennedy called “Frontier,” from her former partner Ethan Steifel to upcoming commissions by Marcelo Gomes (who recently resigned from ABT under a cloud of suspicion over sexual allegations not related to ABT). But Washington, which gets a surfeit of ballet riches with annual visits from not only ABT, but also New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and other top ballet companies, doesn’t need an “ABT-South.” The city needs a ballet company that speaks to the needs of the District and its environs, not the international ideal of Washington. An ideal Washington ballet company would be one that nurtures ballet artistry that is unique and relevant to hometown Washington, not government Washington. Former artistic director had one vision of a ballet company and some of its works under his direction made singular statements. What the city and its dance audiences don’t need? More Giselles, Don Quixotes or Romeo and Juliet by a mid-sized troupe.

The region also suffered a loss in The Kennedy Center’s decision to shutter the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. While the company never, or rarely, in its 17 years achieved the notoriety or success one would have wished for an ensemble founded by choreographer George Balanchine’s elusive muse, the early December program hinted at missed possibilities. Her company’s farewell program, a tribute to Balanchine, was strongly danced, an aberration for a company that often looked ill-prepared and at times a bit sloppy on stage, alas hinting at missed possibilities in the loss of her directorship.

2017 was also a year where dance — particularly big name ballet companies — made the news, and not in a good way. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, well-substantiated accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties against New York City Ballet ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, rocked the ballet world. It’s again too soon to know if systemic change can come to this male-dominated leadership model and the endemic hierarchical organization of most ballet companies; but change has been a long time coming to the ballet world where hierarchy and male power reigns supreme.

Let’s hope for a new year where that status quo will be upended as ballet companies — among other companies — strive for a more equitable, comfortable and safe creative and artistic environment. The dancers deserve it. The choreographers deserve it. The art deserves it. Let 2018 be a year of change for good.

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017
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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

 

Story Time: 2012-13 Kennedy Center Ballet Season

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet by lisatraiger on October 26, 2013

Ratmansky’s Cinderella — Maryinsky Ballet
Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet — San Francisco Ballet
Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — National Ballet of Canada
Christensen’s Nutcracker — Ballet West
Dangerous Liaisons — Washington Ballet
By Lisa Traiger

The surfeit of story ballets on the Kennedy Center’s ballet season in recent years has provided a primer of sorts for what works, what doesn’t and what is simply overdone. From new visions of classics by Alexei Ratmansky, to warhorses like The Nutcracker to tricked-up modern versions of favorite children’s novels like Christopher Wheeldon’s up-to-date, smartly modern re-telling of Alice and Wonderland, audiences have been lulled and coddled by mostly known quantities, seemingly to pad the ticket sales by giving subscribers and matinee audiences what they want – story after story after story. If they don’t quite know the ballet, the company or the choreographer, well, no matter; surely they know the rudiments of, say, Cinderella, her nasty stepsisters, her magical godmother and her lost slipper. This isn’t a recent problem at the Kennedy Center, but the valuing of story over repertory and ballet warhorses over newer and more adventurous mixed-bill programs has become standard fare under Michael Kaiser’s direction. Lost with this overly cautious programming is the opportunity to build audiences for newer works, provide opportunities for lesser known choreographers to test their artistic voices and challenge companies to move beyond costume- and story-driven ballets and into new waters.

Back in Washington, D.C., October 16-21, 2012, the Maryinsky Ballet’s Cinderella by Ratmansky – seen here previously in 2005 — opened the season on a mordant note, emphasizing the darker tones of the Prokofiev score along with the choreographer’s darker version of the tale. There’s little light and air in Ratmansky’s vision, set in a foreboding steel trussed urban landscape (the contemporary design is by Ilia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov). In this Cinderella, we glimpse a flashback to her life before her ineffectual and, here, alcoholic father remarried. Her sunny, idyllic childhood has been overshadowed by a Cruella de Vil-like stepmother, the sexy-mean Sofia Gumerova on the two performances I saw. With her razor-sharp pointes stabbing the air, jagged elbows, wrists and knees highlighting her angularity and her treacherous, spiky personality. Her own daughters – Khudishka and Kubishka — deliciously and outlandishly played by Magarita Frolova and Nadezhda Batoeva for full laughs – follow their mother’s nasty footsteps: their preening, primping, one-upmanship as garishly overstated as their florid and cheap costumes (the work of Elena Markovskay). Cinderella, the delicate Daria Pavlenko (on opening night and replacing an injured Ekaterina Osmolkina later in the week) offers the only hope and kindness in this dark and demoralized world of Ratmansky’s making. Her movement is smoothly circular: curves, dips, arcing arabesques elegantly filled with breathy epaulement. Her fairy godmother, a village tramp, the wonderfully warm Elena Bazhenova, shuffles and nods off and looks approvingly on as Cinderella helps the old woman with her spilled groceries. There are no pumpkin-shaped coaches and magical creatures to take her to the ball. Instead, a retinue of seasons – a new-age crew of asexual men in their own outlandish garb, oversee her and spirit her away. The ball Ratmansky staged is wryly astringent, emphasizing the vapid, heartless beauty – air kisses all around, punctuated with disapproving stares — of the young, idle, and rich. Women and men in waves twist and shimmy to a series of made-up faddish dances. The women clad in sleek, garishly colored floor-length dresses, the men in trim tuxedos, wear the bored expressions of the rich and pampered, while the stepmother and step daughters as wannabe socialites try too hard and fall too far.

The moral center of the ballet rests firmly with Cinderella and her questing prince. Vladimir Shklyarov and Igor Kolb provide two interesting readings on this role. Opening night Shklyarov was a 21st century geek, retiring, super shy, he looked all the world like he’d have happily avoided the fancy-dress ball for another episode of “Game of Thrones” or the latest video game release at home on the sofa. When he set off on his quest to find the beloved he had glimpsed, he even carried the all-important slipper in a fanny pack, which must be a ballet first. Igor Kolb radiated the maturity and presence of a danseur noble, and was undeniably more princely in his demeanor, confident in his interactions and impeccable in his solo variations. And, interestingly, he used a messenger bag (or was it a European “manpurse”?) slung casually over his shoulder to carry the slipper. Each reading worked, but it was easy to fall for the geeky Shklyarov with his 21st-century anti-hero status. When the pair reunite, the ballet regains its morality, suggested in that early flashback, when all was right with the world and girl-child Cinderella had an intact nuclear family. Ratmansky’s coupling that brings these two outsiders, these two seeking hearts, together as one is the only time the ballet truly sings. Their lush pas de deux, danced alone in moonlight, is a thing of pure beauty – her lines achingly reaching, he finding himself for the first time in the eyes of a beholder. The partnership between Shklyarov and Shirinkina was particularly affecting, imbued with romantic passion. While Ratmansky hasn’t created a Cinderella for the ages, he has undeniably created one right for our age of cynicism and consumerism.

San Francisco Ballet split its week-long visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House, bringing in a program of repertory that included artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Trio,” a high-minded love triangle imbedded in four movements of Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor “Souvenir de Florence,” Op. 70. Tomasson’s work-a-day choreography served its pride of place as a program opener. The centerpiece of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” was a stylized tale drawing on Eastern meditative and martial arts elements that showcased the lovely Yuan Yuan Tan as a warrior’s widow (I think) to Damian Smith’s Prince. Into their rarefied world, Pascal Molat as the evil monk intrudes, taking advantage of the mourning widow and burning a sacred temple to the ground. Along the way, amid Alexander Nichols’ overly elaborate sets and projections, a band of samurai warriors appears to re-enact a battle. Whether it is for body or soul is little matter; the piece is inscrutable. Christopher Wheeldon’s sunny and bright “Number Nine,” to a rhythmically assertive score by Michael Torke, is forceful in demonstrating the large company’s athleticism and musicality. Holly Hynes’s unapologetically bright costumes, cheery yellow for the corps, and popsicle colors for the four couples, set the tone for the effervescent feel Wheeldon is aiming for: shape-shifting patterns for the group – Vs, diamonds, lines, circles, and intersecting paths, and plenty of eye-candy. The company run, though, focused on Tomasson’s 1994 staging of Romeo and Juliet, featuring the familiar Prokofiev score. Tomasson’s retelling of this oft-danced Shakespearean classic is more ordinary than elevated. The choreography and scenes feel studied and carefully wrought. Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s sets and costumes dutifully in period and lovely to observe. But again, and surprisingly for a troupe as fine as San Francisco, the work simply doesn’t soar. I don’t believe it’s the fault of its principals – lithe and petite Maria Kochetkova as Juliet and stalwart Joan Boada, who was buoyant and brash enough as Romeo the evening I attended. In fact, whether in ballet or play form, Romeo and Juliet requires an intense buildup – the tension between the two families, the chance meeting of the two lovers, the street brawls that set in motion the impossibility of them ever being together, their moonlit love scene and their unfortunate demise – the plotlines are laid out in perfect progression. While Tomasson has mapped out his version methodically, he lost sight of the teeming conflicts and passions that make it such a beloved and masterful work.

While story is often beside the point in the endlessly numbing march of Nutcrackers each December, for a few years running the Kennedy Center has brought in a different company to dance its own version. This past Christmas we received a gift in William Christensen’s rendering of this ever-green ballet, done up with impeccable wrapping, bows and tags by Ballet West. The company’s visit to the Opera House December 5-9, 2012, was a lovely re-introduction to this troupe since Adam Sklute took the helm in 2007. Although Ballet West must relish its pop-culture notoriety in the reality TV world, there’s nothing faddish about Christensen’s version of The Nutcracker, first set onstage back in 1944. Christensen didn’t go in for psycho-drama about young Clara on the cusp of womanhood, nor black snowflakes, nor homo-erotic suggestions. A good Nutcracker doesn’t need the extra-suggestive elements to make an impact, Sklute realized, and there’s nothing wrong with simply presenting a good ballet done very well. There’s a warm glow right from the start and the party scene, lit by candles and, of course, a glowing Christmas tree is surely one reason so many families flock yearly to this ballet event: the suggestion that holidays celebrated together provide a semblance of utopia amid the stress and bustle of daily life. There’s nothing lascivious about this Drosselmeyer (Beau Pearson): in his magic-wielding manner he charms the children and parents alike. Lovely, too, is the cast of real children, not simply short adults as the principals, including the key roles of Clara and her prince (Anastasia Markova and Quentin Rouiller) and upwards of 50 other well-rehearsed youngsters from local studios around the Beltway. Unique among the Ballet West dancers was the uninflected approach they gave to the technique. There was a purity and trueness to their dancing that eschewed affectation or a particular Balanchinean, Russian, or other style. Also notable, Ballet West, more so than many other American companies, featured dancers of a wide range of complexions. Long a thorn in the side of the ballet world is the lily-white look of most companies from corps to principal. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, of all places, appears to have a greater proportion of dancers of color than most companies these days. Kudos to Sklute on that. It seems that even the ever-green ballet classics sometimes need a new addition to the repertoire of stories.

Wheeldon, in 2011, found inspiration in the fantastical 1865 Lewis Carroll novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with all its dusky undertones. Originally created for the Royal Ballet in a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, the Kennedy Center saw the Canadian production January 18-27, 2013. Featuring a wise and melodic score by Joby Talbot and theatrically stunning sets and projections by Bob Crowley and Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the production provides a visual feast while following a lovely Jillian Vanstone as Alice – here a teen on the cusp of womanhood, like so many Claras and Auroras before her — into a bevy of encounters with those well-known odd fellows, creatures and curious royalty in her imaginative world. The whole adventure is set in motion during an outsized garden party where Greta Hodgkinson as an uber-dominating mother bares her teeth and steely pointes to control the event. Later, she like the rest of the cast, reappears. As the erratic but mean-spirited Queen of Hearts she’s equal parts bumbling dominatrix, and mad harridan. There’s even a great sendup of the Rose Adagio, while her emasculated spouse looks on in dreaded hilarity as she wobbles and overdramatizes to ridiculous effect. Woefully mismatched, Rex Harrington keeps a stiff upper lip as the father/King of Hearts, and once in a while a smile slyly peeks through noting his wife’s foolish demands. This Alice is spunky, up for an adventure and by no means a wilting flower, even in the face of her prickly mother/mother figure. The rest of the characters – from the white Rabbit, who doubles as auteur Lewis Carroll – to the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse Cook, Caterpillar and the rest fill the stage, scene by picaresque scene. Choreographically Wheeldon here seems more concerned with the job of traffic cop than dancemaker. With so much happening on stage, the comings and goings of outlandish characters, the changes in scenery and dimension, even a time warp flashback saved for the final epilogue – helped along quite nicely with those projected video effects – leaves the choreography on the back burner. The steps given the dancers seem often an afterthought, filler to get them from one sequence to another in this mostly busy ballet. The budding Alice has her own pas de deux with Jack (Naoya Ebe) in the second act, but this angle seems an afterthought and doesn’t move the characters forward. When we meet them again in the epilogue, there we’re to understand that fate brought them together a 100 years hence, but it’s too little too late from Wheeldon.

A mid-season entry into the story-filled ballet season, The Washington Ballet’s Valentines Special program titled incongruously “L’amour (love, baby …)” included a world premiere of “Dangerous Liaisons”  by the company’s associate artistic director David Palmer. Drawn from the 18th-century French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the 1988 bodice-ripping film adaptation featuring Glen Close and John Malkovich, the work was simply not meant to be a ballet. The seductive court drama with its interlacing romances and betrayals all played out within the ever-important hierarchy of courtiers and servants is far too complex to break down into manageable movement motifs and recognizable character-driven relationships. There are letters passed and re-passed, whispering women in wigs and shortened hooped skirts. Men with ruffled shirts and knickers biding their time to bed and conquest a woman. A Marquise (the exquisite and worldly Sona Kharatian) takes revenge on a lover in challenging Valmont (a passionate Jared Nelson) to seduce his rival’s virginal fiancée (the slip-thin Maki Onuki). With more than a dozen characters in total, from maids and dancing masters, to servants, a favorite aunt, an old military man, and a religious wife, it’s impossible to keep anyone straight in this costume drama. The result, all danced to the clichéd Vivaldi “Four Seasons,” is an attractive but impenetrable mess. Balanchine famously said, with good reason: “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Indeed, this stage of shifting paramours and power-hungry courtiers vying for allegiance would have been better left to the spoken and written word rather than retro-fitting it into a wordless, murky vision of a ballet.

(c) 2013 Lisa Traiger
This article was originally published in the summer 2013 issue of Ballet Review (p. 14). It is reprinted with permission. For more information or to subscribe to Ballet Review, visit here.

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

TWB’s Brooklyn Mack: Dance Mag ’25 To Watch’

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet by lisatraiger on January 6, 2012

The Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack is one of Dance Magazine’s “25 To Watch” for 2012.

“While physically gifted, Mack packs more than a dance bag of virtuosic tricks. His pure Vaganova technique and developing sense of character shine no matter what the role.”

You can read my full article here (scroll down).