D.C. DanceWatcher

A Personal Best: Dance Watching in 2012

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, World dance by lisatraiger on December 30, 2012
Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Like many, my 2012 dance year began with an ending: Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Much was written on the closure of this 20th-century American treasure after more than 50 years, especially its final performance events on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve 2012. At the penultimate performance on December 30, the dancers shone, carving swaths of movement from thin air in the hazy pools of light spilling onto raised platform stages in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. A piercing trumpet call emanated from the rafters heralding the start of this one-of-a-kind evening. Pillowy, cloud-like installations floated above in near darkness. Throughout, snippets of Cunningham choreography – I saw “Crises,” “Doubles” and maybe “Points in Space” – came and went, moving images played for the last time, while audience members sat on folding chairs, observed from risers or meandered through the space, taking care not to step on the carpeted runways that the dancers used to travel from stage to stage.

I found it refreshing to get so close to the dancers after years of partaking of the Cunningham company in theatrical spaces, for me most commonly the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Here the dancers became human, sweat beads forming on their backs, breathe elevated, hair matting down toward the end of the evening. Duets, trios, groups formed and dissolved in that coolly unemotive Cunningham fashion, with alacrity they would step off the stage and rest and reset themselves before coming back on again for another round of the complex alphabet of Cunningham bends, pelvic tilts, lunges, passes, springs, jumps and playful leaps. While the dancers energy surged, I felt time was growing short. The end near. I soon found myself on a riser standing directly above and behind music director Takehisa Kosugi who at the keyboard conducted the ensemble and held an digital stop watch. Journalists traditionally end their articles with – 30 –. Here, momentarily I got distracted with the numbers: 41’38”, 41’39”, 41’40”, 41’41” … And then within a minute Kosugi nodded and squeezed his thumb: at 42’40”. An ending stark, poignant, and by the book.

In January, the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Les Saisons Russes” program was an eye opener on many levels. The work of Ballets Russes that stunned Paris then the world from 1909 through 1914 under the astute and market-savvy vision of Serge Diaghilev, remains incomparable for audiences today. The triple bill of Mikel Fokine works wows with its saturated colors and vividly wrought choreographic statements, impeccably executed by Mariinsky’s stable of well-trained dancers. These three ballets – “Chopiniana” from 1908, and  “The Firebird” and “Scheherazade” from 1910 – continue to pack a powerful punch, a century after their creation. The subtle Romanticism distilled with elan by the Mariinsky corps de ballet — from the perfection etched into their curved arms and slightly tilted heads, their epaulment unparalleled — makes one pine for a bygone Romantic era that likely never actually attained this level of technical grace and precision. With “Firebird,” the Russian folktale elaborately retold in dance, drama and vibrantly outlandish costumes, the flamboyant folk characters were part ‘80s rock stars, part science fiction film creatures. Finally, the bombast and melodrama of the Arabian Nights rendered through Fokine’s version of “Schererazade” danced as if on steroids provided outsized exoticism, with more sequined costumes, scimtars and false facial hair and the soap operatic performances to suit the pompous grandeur of the Rimsky-Korsakov score. Surely Diaghilev would have approved.

Mark Morris Dance Group in "L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato"

Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

Also in January, Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House with its brilliant L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, danced with humanity and glee to Handel’s oratorio, itself based on 17th-century pastoral poem by John Milton and the watercolor illustrations of William Blake. Morris – and Milton, Blake and Handel – each strove for a utopian ideal. This work draws together its disparate parts into one of the great dance works of the 20th century. Enough has been spoken and written about this glorious rendering in music, with the full-voiced Washington Bach Consort Chorus, wildly overblown and softly understated dancing from an expanded company of 24 elegant and spirited movers, and set design – vivid washes of color and light in ranging from flourish of springtime hues to fading fall colors — by Adrianne Lobel. L’Allegro was produced abroad, in 1988 when Morris and his company were in residence at the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Belgium, at a time and a place when dance received unprecedented financial and artistic support. I was struck by the open democratic feeling of the dancers, each on equal footing, soloists melding into groups, humorous bits shifting to serious interludes, no dancer stands out individually. For Morris, whose roots date back to folk dance, the community, the group, the natural feeling of people dancing together is valued above the singularity of solo dancing. It’s democracy – small d – at its best. Watching the work again this year, as dance companies large and small balance at the edge of a seemingly perpetual fiscal cliff, was a reminder of how small and cloistered American modern dance has become. We have few choreographers with the resources and the daring to attempt the bold and brash statements that Morris harnessed in L’Allegro.

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo: Gadi Dagon

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora,” photo: Gadi Dagon

Another company that leaves everything on stage but in an entirely different vein is Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, which I caught at Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. Hora, an evening-length study in gamesmanship and internalized worlds made visible was created by company artistic director (and current world-renowned dance icon) Ohad Naharin. With his facetiously named Gaga movement language, dancers attained heightened sensitivity, not dissimilar to the work butoh masters and post-modernist strove for in earlier decades. And yet the steely technical accomplishment and steadfast allegiances to dancing in the moment that Gaga pulls from its best proponents makes Batsheva among the world’s most prized and praised contemporary dance companies. At BAM, the 60 minute work with its saturated colors and pools of shifting lighting by Avi Yona Bueno and music arranged by Isao Tomita featuring snippets from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Mussorgsky offers a smorgasbord of familiarity as the dancers parse oddly shaped lunges with hips askew, pelvises tucked under, ribs thrust forward and heads cocked just so. Odd and awkward, yet athletic and graceful, and undeniably daring Naharin mines his Batsheva dancers for quirks that become accepted as fresh 21st century bodily configurations. Though named Hora, the work has nothing whatsoever to do with the ubiquitous Jewish circle dance, yet after an evening with Batsheva, it’s hard not to feel like celebrating.

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather," with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in “Necessary Weather,” with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

In April, Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz glimmered in “Necessary Weather,” a subtle tour de force filled with small moments of great and profound drama and even, unexpectedly, a smile or two. The glide of a foot, cock of a head, even a raised eyebrow or tip of a hat from Rudner and Reitz resonated beneath the glow of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, which in American Dance Institute’s Rockville studio theater, performed a choreography of its own glowing, fading, saturating and shimmering.

Also at ADI in May, Tzveta Kassabova created a rarified world – of the daily-ness of life and the outdoors. By bringing nature inside and onto the stage, which was strewn with leaves, decorated with lawn furniture, and, in a coup de theatre, a mud puddle and a rain storm. Her evening-length and richly rendered Left of Green, Fall, choreographed on a wide-ranging cast of 16 child and adult dancers and movers, featured sound design and original music with a folk-ish tinge by Steve Wanna. The work tugs at the outer corners of thought with its intermingling of hyper-real and imagined worlds. The senses also come into play: the smell of drying leaves, the crackly crunch they make beneath one’s feet and the moist-wet smell of fall is startling, particularly occurring indoors on a sunny May afternoon. Kassabova, with her flounce of bouncy curls and angular, sharp-cornered body, dances with a laser-like intensity. She’s ready to play, allowing the sounds and sights of children in a park, sometimes among themselves, other times with adults. She’s also game to show off awkwardness: turned in feet, sharp corners of elbows, hunched shoulders and flat-footed balances – providing refreshing lessons that beauty is indeed present in the most ordinary and the most natural ways the body moves.

The Paris Opera Ballet in "Giselle," photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet in “Giselle,” photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet’s July stop at the Kennedy Center Opera House brought an impeccable rendering of one of the pinnacles of Romantic ballet: Giselle. And should one expect anything less than perfection when the program credits list the number of performances of this ballet by the company? On July 5, 2012, I saw the “760th performance by the Paris Opera Ballet and the 206th performance of this production,” one with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot dating from 1841, transmitted by Marius Petipa in 1887 and adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991. Two days later it was 763. The POB still uses the 1924 set and costume designs of the great Alexandre Benois, adding further authenticity to the work. But nothing about this production is museum material. POB continues to breathe life into its Giselle.

Aside from making a pilgrimage to the imaginary graveside of the tragic maiden dancer two-timed by her admirer, it’s hard to find a more accurate and handsome production of this ballet masterpiece. Aurelie Dupont was a thoughtful and sophisticated Giselle, care and technical virtuosity evident in her performance, while her Albrecht, Mathieu Ganio, played his Romantic hero for grandeur. While the 40-something husband and wife duo of Nicholas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta on paper make an unlikely Albrecht and Giselle, in reality their heartfelt performances were so intensely and genuinely realized at the Saturday matinee that they felt as youthful as Giselles and Albrechts a generation younger.

The production is as close to perfection on so many levels that one might ever find in a ballet, starting with a corps de ballet that danced singularly, breathing as one unit, most particularly in the act II graveside scene. The mime passages, too, were truly beautiful, works of expressive artistry many that in most companies, particularly the American ones, are dropped or given short shrift. Here the tradition remains that mime is integral to the choreography, not an afterthought but a moment of import. Most interesting was a (new to me) mime sequence by Giselle’s mother about the origins of her daughter’s affliction and how she will most definitely die (hands in fists, crossed at the wrists, held low at the chest). Later when the Wilis dance in act II, it becomes abundantly clear why their arms are crossed, though delicately, their hands relaxed: they’re the walking dead, zombies, if you will, of another era. Another unforgettable moment in POBs Giselle, is its use of tableaux at then ending moment of each act. Each act ends in a moment of frozen stillness – act one of course with Giselle’s death, act two with the resurrection of Albrecht. Each of these is captured in a stage picture, then the curtain dropped and rose again – and there the dancers stood, still posed in character. Stunning and memorable.

Each year in August the Karmiel Dance Festival swallows up the small northern Israeli city of Karmiel as upwards of reportedly 250,000 folk and professional dancers swarm the city for three days and nights of dance. From large-scale performances in an outdoor amphitheater to professional and semi-professional and student companies performing in the municipal auditorium and in local gymnasiums and schools to folk dance sessions on the city’s six tennis courts, Karmiel is awash in dance. I caught companies ranging from the silky beauty of Guangdong Modern Dance Company from China’s Guangzhou province, France’s Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, the youthful and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, where artistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Rami Be’er in a program of new works by young dancemakers. Maybe not the best that I saw, but the unforgettable oddity of the three-day festival was the headlining company, billed as the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia. In the grand folk dance tradition of the great Moiseyev company of Russia, these dancers, musicians and singers – numbering 60 strong – let the sparks fly, literally. With breathtaking sword play where white hot sparks truly did fly from the swords, to astounding acrobatic feats and graceful, feminine dances featuring smoothness, precision and delicate footwork parsed out in heeled character boots, the troupe was a hit. Few in the appreciative Israeli crowd – many of whom sang along to the old Russian folk songs buying into a mythic pastoral vision of the Cossack warriors – seemed aware of the irony of an audience of predominantly Israeli Jews heartily applauding a show titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” The last time Jews were heard to say “The Cossacks are coming,” things didn’t turn out so well.

Nan Jombang in "Rantau Berisik," photo: Fiona Cullen.

Nan Jombang in “Rantau Berisik,” photo: Fiona Cullen.

In September, Dance Place was fortunate to book one of the State Department’s CenterStage touring troupes at the top of its season. Nan Jombang, a one-of-a-kind family of dancers from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, provided a remarkable and moving evening in its North American premiere. Rantau Berbisik or “Whisperings of Exile” begins with a siren call, a female shriek that’s an alarm and cry of pain, that begins a journey of unexpected images. Ery Mefri, a dancer from Padang, on the western coast of Sumatra, has created a surprisingly original dance culture drawing from traditional tribal rituals, martial arts – randai and pencak silak – captivating chants and unusual body percussion techniques. But most unique about Mefri’s artistic project, and the company he founded in 1983, is that it is truly a family affair: the five dancers are his wife and children. The live, sleep, eat and work together daily in intense isolation crafting dances of elemental power and uncommon dynamism through an intensely intimate process.

The work features a trio of gloriously powerful women who exhibit strength of body and will in the earthbound manner they dive into movement, oozing into deep plie like squats and then pounding the taut canvas of their stretched red pants like drummers. Moments later they spring forth from deep lunges, pouncing then retreating, only to strike out again. The hour-long work is filled with mystery and mundanity: dancers carry plates and cups back and forth from a tea cart, rattling the china in percussive polyrhythms, and one woman sits in a chair and keens, rocking and hugging herself for an inconsolable loss. Later the women pass and stack plates around a wooden table with an urgency and assembly-line precision that brings new meaning to the term woman’s work. The one thin boy/man in the group attacks and retreats with preternatural grace, sometimes part of this female-dominated social structure, other times apart – an outcast or loner. And throughout amid the bustle, the urgent calls, the unmitigated pain and sense of loss, there remains a stunning impression of yearning, of hope. The ancient rituals of home and hearth, of work and rest, of group and individual it seems are drawn from a language and way of life that Mefri sees disappearing. Quickly evident in this riveting evening is how Mefri and his family can communicate so deeply to the heart and soul in ways that strike at the core, of unspoken truths about family, community and cultural continuity and conveyance.

Step Afrika!

Step Afrika!

One final note of continuity and cultural conveyance was struck resoundingly in December with Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Juba: Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. While the program was long on youth and short on masters – an indication that we’ve reached the end our last generation of true tap masters — Dianne “Lady Di” Walker represented the early tap revival providing the link to old time rhythm tap of the early and mid-20th century. The program, emceed and curated by Lane Alexander of CHRP, brought together a bevy of youthful dance companies, among them Michelle Dorrance’s Dorrance Dance with an interesting excerpt for two barefoot modern dancers and a tapper. D.C. favorite Step Afrika! brought down the first act curtain with its heart-raising rhythms and body slapping percussion. And, closing out the evening, Walker served up “Softly As the Morning Sunrise,” a number as smooth and bubbly as glass of Cristal, her footwork as fast as hummingbird wings, her physics-defying feet emitting more sounds than the eye could see. This full evening of tap also included Derik Grant, Sam Weber, and younger pros Jason Janas, Chris Broughton, Connor Kelley, Jumaane Taylor, Joseph Monroe Webb and Kyle Wildner. The evening with its teen and college aged dancers sounded a note that tap will continue to be a force to reckon with in the 21st century. That it occurred on a main stage at the Kennedy Center was – still – a rarity. Let’s hope the success of this evening will lead to more forays into vernacular and percussive dance forms at the nation’s performing arts center. The clusters of tap fans young and old gathered in the lobby after the show couldn’t bear to leave. If they had thrown down a wooden tap floor on the red carpeting, no doubt folks would have stayed for another hour of tap challenges right there in the lobby.


And I can’t forget a final, very personal experience. During the annual Kennedy Center run of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in February, I found myself pulled from my aisle seat to join the dancers onstage in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” which the company had just added to its repertory in late 2011. Clad in slim fitting business suits and stark white shirts, the dancers make their way to the lip of the stage and stare. The next thing you know, they’re stalking the aisles, climbing over seats, crawling across laps to bring up randomly selected members of the audience. The sequence is fascinating – a mix of the mundane, the ridiculous and the dancerly – inviting in the human element as these god-like dancers canoodle, slow dance, cha-cha and indulge their new-found partners. Soon they corral the group, circle, and in ones and twos the dancers begin to lead the participants off stage, leaving just one – most frequently a woman – standing in the embrace of her partner as the others hug themselves in a smug slow dance. On cue the dancers fall. The woman remains alone, in the spotlight. Frequently aghast, embarrassed, she slinks away.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," photo: Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” photo: Paul Kolnik

Dreamlike is the best way I can describe the experience. Audience members seem to be selected according to a particular color, most frequently red judging from the previous times I’ve seen the work. As a “winter” on the color chart, I, of course, frequently wear red from my beret to my purse to a closet full of sweaters and blouses. When the dancers lined up, I felt one made eye contact with me right away. I didn’t avert my gaze and I thought that I could be chosen. But as they came into the audience, he passed me by and I exhaled slightly, relieved not to be selected. The stage re-filled with dancers and their unwitting partners as I watched. Suddenly, the same dancer who caught my eye was at my side beckoning, pulling me from my seat. My hand in his I followed him down the dark aisle and up the stairs. There the music changed frequently from kitschy ‘60s pop to rumba, cha cha, and tango – all recognizably familiar, a Naharin trait. Yet the choreographer definitely wants to keep the novices off guard, which is disconcerting because there are moments when the dancers are completely with you and you feel comfortably in their care, then they leave you to your own devices and all bets are off.

I realized quickly that I had to focus fully on my partner and not get distracted by what others on stage or in the audience were doing. We maintained eye contact throughout and went through a bevy of pop-ish dances: I recall bouncing, lunging, throwing in a bump or two and a great tango – wow, what a lead. Then they mixed things up, pushing all the civilians into a circle then a clump before reshuffling things. Somehow I came out with a new partner and things really heated up as I followed him and he me. I felt my old contact skills tingling back to life as I tried to give as good as he gave. He dipped me and I suspect that when he felt I gave in to it, he realized he could take me further. I don’t know how, but I found myself lifted above his head in what felt like a press. As he turned, I thought I might as well take advantage of this. I’m never going to be in the arms of an Ailey dancer again. I put one leg in passe, straightened the other, threw my head back and lifted my sternum, while keeping one hand on my head so my beret wouldn’t fly. He likely only made two or three rotations, but in my mind it felt like a carnival carousel: incredible. Back on earth with my feet on solid footing, he tangoed and embraced me. I knew what was coming. The slow dance when they lead partners off stage. I realized I might was well give in to the moment, I melted into his embrace and we swayed. Two bodies as one. Eyes closed. I momentarily opened them when I sensed the stage emptying. The only words spoken between us are when I said, “uh oh.” He squeezed me and then dropped to the floor in an X with the remaining Ailey dancers. There I was. Alone. Center stage in the Kennedy Center Opera House. I have been seeing performances there since I was a child in 1970s. I had seconds to decide what I was going to do. “%^&#) it,” I said to myself. “I’m standing here in the Opera House with 2,500 people looking at me. I’m going to take my bow.” I moved my leg into B+, opened my arms with a flourish, dropped my head and shoulders and rose, relishing the moment for all it was worth. Seconds later, the audience roared. I was stunned. I made my way gingerly off stage, still blinded by the spotlights as I fumbled up the aisle to find my seat.

Dreamlike. Throughout I knew this was something I would want to relish and remember and tried to find markers for while maintaining the presence of the moment. I was able to find out who the dancers were (yes, there were two) who partnered me. But I believe that Naharin wants the mystery to remain both for the onlookers and the participants. At intermission people were asking if I was a “plant,” insisting that I must have known what to do in advance. But, no, Naharin wants that indeterminacy, that edginess, that moment of frisson, when the audience realizes that with folks just like them on stage, all bets are off on what could happen. While we often attend dance performances to see heightened, better, more beautiful and more physically fit and skilled versions of ourselves (one of the reasons, I think, that we also watch football, basketball and the like), there’s something about seeing someone just like you or me up on stage. If the middle aged mom who needs to get the kids off to school then go to work the next morning can have such a rarified experience then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us can rediscover something fresh, untried, daring, out of sorts, amid the banality of our everyday lives. In this brief segment – and I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but I’m sure not more than five minutes at most – Naharin, through the heightened skill and beauty of professional dancers, offers escape from the ordinary. Audiences live through it vicariously by seeing one of their own up there on stage. For me the experience was unforgetable.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger

Published December 30, 2012


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on November 8, 2010

“Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance”
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 2, 2010

“Fare Well: The End of the World As We Know It OR Dancing Your Way to Paradise!”
Maida Withers Dance Construction Company
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
November 7, 2010

By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

“We need more women presidents, like in Brazil,” declares the forceful, smoky voiced Germaine Acogny as she marches down the aisle of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” she chants in her butter-melting French accent, a black feather boa glamorously tossed over her shoulders, her shaved head shining. The Senegalese dancer, making and teaching movement since 1968, is a stunner: tall, lanky, arms that reach on forever and beyond, legs as solid as tree trunks. She walks accessing the full power of her pelvis, not with a thrust, or a bump and grind, but a simple, direct foot stamping or caressing the ground, as necessary. Later on stage, an internal whir stirs her hips with fulsome relish. But Acogny’s dance is not one that takes mere pleasure in her physical instrument: it’s a call to action, a political demonstration, and, taking place on election eve, it’s a call for woman spirit and woman strength to topple what has become the power of the status quo. Joined by video of traffic and slashes of rain and finally a tree in the moonlight, “Songbook Yaakaar” or “Facing up to Hope,” as the piece is called, is a demand for a change of course.

But Acogny’s cry for more women presidents in a dance-centric crowd — and the “Fly” program, devoted only to women dancer/choreographers — can also be heard as a call for more fearless women choreographers. We know modern dance’s history, birthed a century ago by powerful, independent women. Yet today the form suffers not only from a lack of funding, but an absence of prominent female leaders. Of late, the field lacks powerhouse women who are creative forces — where are our Martha Grahams, Doris Humphreys, Anna Sokolows, Katherine Dunhams? With our founding and even second generations gone, our next cohort of women dance matriarchs has not attained the same power, status, prestige and notoriety these earlier women garnered. So much so, that Dance magazine editor Wendy Perron was concerned enough by the lack of prominent women’s voices in the modern dance field to keep a running tally of women choreographers. The accolades, alas, these days seem to go to the Marks, Bills, Joes and Stephens of modern dance. That makes this program — five women, five dances, five distinctive voices — all the more necessary, even in 2010.

In “Fly” we have the prescription, if not a cure, for this issue of under-recognized female modern dance role models. The five African-American women of “Fly: Five First Ladies” are not merely notable female choreographers, but “women of a certain age” — all 60 or older — who continue to assert a powerful stage presence. There’s Bebe Miller, 60 this year, reprising her 1989 solo “Rain,” a juicy evocation of earth and spirit, danced before and upon a grassy rectangle of sod. Clad in a deep red velvet dress on the green grass of an otherwise bare stage, Miller’s spare and intentional movements — a swinging arm, a hand reaching backward, a deep, chewy plie, nuzzling and burrowing into the ground — are accompanied initially by a sparely minimalist score by Hearn Gadbois, then the piece blossoms with Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. Part priestess, part contented nature lover, Miller attends and attunes to earth, air, sky and, the title, rain, through her subtle but not inconsequential gestures.

From 1972, “The Creation,” a solo richly spoken and danced by Carmen de Lavallade, too, draws on ideas of earthly grandeur and creative spiritual forces. In this case, using poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of the Biblical creation myth from “God’s Trombones.” The piece is a dramatic and forceful rendering of other worldly forces and grace, exquisitely performed by a ravishing de Lavallade. Draped in a red gown, her chin lifted and gaze direct, her fingers caress and conjure the still air around her as if ordering up the heavens and earth from whole cloth. In “If You Didn’t Know,” wiry but steel-girded Dianne McIntyre’s solo features jazz inflections, poetry and an audio montage of late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne speaking on the challenges of being a black artist. Tiny, but muscular, draped in a white full-length tunic and skirt, McIntyre offers up her own posturing, leveling the jazz notes with a flutter of her arm, puncturing a well-directed point with a fist, standing in defiance as Gwendolyn Nelson-Fleming sings on tape and pianist George Caldwell winds his way through a song called “If You Don’t Know Me.” It’s both a hot and cool performance, regal yet testy, even impatient in the flings, and leg swoops that bubble and swish around her skirt. McIntyre still has a hold over her audience, and still makes work that matters in pointed ways.

Finally, in tandem with Acogny’s political defiance, Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Bring ‘em Home” offers a rejoinder, equally political and personal. Pumping music by Rebirth Brass Band romps and rolls as Zollar lays crumpled, raising a white handkerchief in surrender. But stoically she rises, rolls back her velvety shoulders and catches the beat. Second lining, Zollar calls her performance, and it reflects the down, but not nearly out, status of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, injecting its rich music and dance culture into her solo. Main line paraders who walk among the first string of bands in a funeral or other procession are, in New Orleans fashion, typically followed by a second line. These amateurs and hangers on are not without skill, as they join the parade to twirl parasols, wave handkerchiefs and march to their own jovial beat. Zollar, too, honors these second liners who made up the most damaged wards of the washed out but not drowned city. With her simple and unaffected steps, she manages to make a statement about dispossession and racism, especially in her vocal call to “Bring ‘em home.” As she marches off, one arm rises, a signifier of praise and defiance.


Washington has its own grande dame of modern and post-modern dance: 74-year-old Maida Withers, who founded her Dance Construction Company in 1974. Continuing to make and tour new works, Withers, still a professor at George Washington University, brought her current piece, the excessively titled “Fare Well — The End of the World As We Know It OR Dance Your Way To Paradise!” to Washington after touring to New York, Kenya, Utah and Brazil. A lengthy solo featuring Steven Hilmy’s electronic sound score performed live, as well as poems by David McAleavey and Alex Caldiero, the work is an unrestrained call to action. Never one to shy away from hot-button issues, here Withers, swathed in a white tunic over bright red undergarments, her shock of matching white hair, becomes Gaia, a literal mother earth, a crone warning all to heed the environmental chaos. The video backdrop by Ayodamola Okunseinde features a moving landscape of dried earth, cracked ice, mountains, deserts, smoke and fire, along with wildlife. First carrying an empty water jug, Withers, still lanky and fearless, engulfs the Dance Place black box stage. She’s all sharp elbows, wide lunges, expansive low leaps and crashes to the ground. At one point from a stooped position, she arises to a tremor, fists vibrating as drums beat a warning. At another, her jaw drops open, face contorted in a silent scream. Withers remains tireless and “Fare Well” proves to be her tour de force. The quietly introspective trio, “Naked Truth” followed, danced by broad-chested but gentle partner Anthony Gongora, quirky, quick-footed Tzveta Kassabova and petite, gazelle-like Giselle Ruzany. This first performance beats with a lifeforce, especially in the wake of Withers’ urgent admonition: “What do I know about … children … dwindling rivers … deserts … groundwater used up …?” There’s more zest and ease to “Naked Truth” with its restful, friendly partnerships intertwining and separating then re-aligning. It serves as an apt anecdote, following Withers’ razor-sharp screed.

Photo Maida Withers in “Fare Well” by Ayo Okunseinde
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on September 27, 2010

Arachne Aerial Arts in “Mixed Use Space”
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
September 26, 2010
By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

AAA-Adamantine_(hi-res)_by_Steve_Canning_Photography[2] Stripped of its theatrical accoutrements – curtains, sidelights, window coverings, dance flooring -– Dance Place reverted to its former state as a welding warehouse September 25 and 26, for its season opener, a striking evening of works by Arachne Aerial Arts. All that was missing in the stripped down space? A pickup truck, parked where thousands of dancers have left their marks, soulful afterimages, over 25 years of performances and classes. Immortalized in a black-and-white photo one cold, winter morning, that pickup truck was significant if only because it looked small enough in the space to suggest to founding co-artistic director Carla Perlo that there would be enough room for a theater in the unheated brick-and-cement structure.

On the occasion of Dance Place’s 30th anniversary season -– the first five spent above a five-and-dime in Adams Morgan — this fitting return to the period a quarter century ago when Dance Place first set down roots in Northeast Washington’s Brookland neighborhood felt perfectly right. The raw, industrial look — drywall and chalk dust permeating the air, voices echoing without the muffle of curtains, cardboard and duct tape covering the windows and mirrors — provided the unadorned backdrop aerial artists Andrea Burkholder and Sharon Witting desired for “Mixed Use Space,” an evening of six pieces and a performed action painting, which inhabited a higher plane than one typically experiences at a dance performance.

Tzveta_Kassabova_by_Lillian_Cho[1] Using low-flying trapeze, Chinese circus silks, a hoop, ropes and pulleys, the pair swing, swivel and swoop, suspended above the raw floor. Beneath, two dancers, Tzveta Kassabova and Lillian Cho, make concerted effort of chalking the floor in complementary swoops, swirls and arcs that replicate the sweep of the pair’s aerial pair on an earthbound plane. By evening’s end, the stripped down space has been transformed in a performative tattoo of body-centered visual art, giving new meaning to the mid-20th century school of action painting: Cho and Kassabova walk, drop, roll, all the while constantly marking up the stage floor and back wall.

Above, another version of work occurs, most baldly in the premiere, “Work,” created for the dancers by locally based choreographer/improviser Daniel Burkholder (and husband of dancer Andrea Burkholder). The pair could be construction workers, window washers, welders, roofers, reliant on one another in a ballet of counterbalance as they run, soar and swing, harnessed to two ends of a rope rigged up by a pulley. Later the distance of that counterbalance is eschewed: they harness themselves together, pelvis to pelvis, and lean back, their weight equalized, their eyes steady, their conversation dripping with drolly bored banalities, all interspersed with a coffee break. Andrea Burkholder unspools a floor-bound phrase -– slashing arms, static curves, springs away before giving into gravity. Later, when she repeats the phrase tethered to the rope, Witting serving as puppeteer, controlling the lift and release while Burkholder dangles above the floor before collapsing in a heap. Like the other pieces on the program, “Work” remains mindful of its modern dance roots -– there are no circus tricks for the sake of wooing or wowing an audience. Throughout the evening, the pair, who both studied with circus-schooled artists, insist on fully integrating each sweep, balance and dead drop into the work as a whole, mindful of meaning and nuance far beyond dazzling tricks.

That means that even a show-piece like “Exhibition” –- with its appliquéd unitard costumes by Eric Gorsuch and the face glitter — takes the viewer beyond the flashy, here using a double swath of Chinese red silk. The piece mediates the theatricality of being “on” while onstage. Entering with a deliberate dancerly walk, the pair create a curtain with the silk before revealing themselves and mounting the silks to pause and pose in splits, entwined horizontal balances and c-curves, and upside-down bat-like hangs, ankles trapped in the silk.

“Portal,” choreographed and performed by Witting using a low-hung hoop, presents itself as a beautiful aide memoire — a remembrance of things past. Witting, clad in a silvery blue party dress dabbed with a pink rose, recalls the dreamy girl in the chair from Fokine’s 1911 “Spectre de la Rose.” Witting sweetly primps, the hoop momentarily serving as her mirror, before it becomes her partner, allowing her to be swept up by the elegant KGB piano score as she spins, winding and unwinding as if swept up in an unseen partner’s arms. Burkholder’s solo, “Refuge,” features rope netting that in twists, tension-filled spirals, and torque spins becomes a protective cocoon for the dancer. “Turf” pits the two against one another in a push-and-pull tug-of-war accompanied by the incessant sawing of strings by the Low End String Quartet.

Arachne’s signature piece, “Home,” resonates deeply as the evening closer. The Arachne pair share a single trapeze in a breathtaking series of balances and supports –- some astoundingly risky, including Burkholder supported prone on Witting’s flexed feet; the two dancers latched together at the knees or crooks of elbows carrying and sharing one another’s weight in fearless symmetry. “Home,” though, like the rest of the evening is much more than parlor tricks. It’s about finding a place, a space, a partnership and a sense of connectivity in human, physical terms. In an era when relationships are created, conducted and severed through high-tech means, “Home” serves as a testament to that which remains deeply human in us -– the need to set down roots, find a place to experience solace, wonder, sorrow and joy. Dance Place, Witting and Burkholder have stated, has long been their artistic home, as it has for multiple generations of dance artists in its three decades of service. There was no better way to begin the next 30 -– or more — years of incubating new artists and new works.

Top: Andrea Burkholder and Sharon Witting of Arachne Aerial Arts, photo Steve Canning
Bottom: Tzveta Kassabova, photo Lillian Cho
Photos courtesy Dance Place

Published September 27, 2010
© 2010 Lisa Traiger