Sunday, September 27, 2009

Emio Greco | PC-University of Maryland

I am not a literary scholar. Yet, I was about to see Emio Greco | PC’s [purgatorio] POPOPERA, a work that had drawn inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I felt competent to survey it from a movement perspective, but the literary component was uncharted and somewhat uncomfortable territory. Not being familiar with the epic poem, I did some last minute cramming, which provided the narrative story, main characters and thematic purpose. So, with what I hoped was the general gist under my belt, I ventured to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

I took more notes during [purgatorio] POPOPERA than I have in any other performance I have seen. It was a rich, complex concerto of movement and music combined with weird, strange and frightening imagery. Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten have conceived of and created not only an engaging and provocative work, but also a triumph in form and content. Usually, a dance has masterful construction or genius story telling, but not both. This choreographic team is able to harness structural and narrative elements together and effectively translate them onto the stage, a rare feat. Each individual component had such strength that when combined, the piece, as a whole, exploded with intensity.

Some suggest that Dante’s primary contribution was the ability to merge themes and images from all different aspects of life. Greco and Scholten are also masters of fusion. An astonishing structural combination of movement styles is their manifestation. I saw almost every type of dance I could imagine in [purgatorio] POPOPERA. Ballet and modern were the most prominent, but they were not afraid to draw from other movement sources, even some comical additions. In the first main group dance, to “I Got Life” from the musical Hair, there were popping and isolation sequences that come directly from jazz, hip hop and break-dancing. About half way through the piece, there was a sedate solo for one of the women that was filled with Fosse-style, musical theater dance. Near the end, the masked male character was combining old-fashioned tap dancing with new-fangled body percussion. And, of course, there was minimalist pedestrian movement, and I even glimpsed a moonwalk. In less capable hands, all this material packed into in a one-hour performance might appear choppy or frenetic. But here it was not. The compositional mastery that Greco and Scholten share, in concert with the extraordinary talents of the dancers, combined these styles together with brilliance and clarity.

[purgatorio] POPOPERA also shared an incredible sense of the narrative and successfully depicted a transition in control. During the first half of the piece, the dancers’ movements were wild; the feeling was one of angst-ridden chaos. Something bigger had come over them and they had no choice but to participate in pandemonium. Ownership of their bodies was not their own; a powerful force in the negative space was encouraging the madness and bedlam that was expressed through the choreography. Then, there was a clear moment of change. All-black guitars had been present in the piece from the beginning and at this point of transition, the dancers traded these for black and white guitars. From that point forward, the performers were very much in control; they were making music, playing instruments, and creating something, rather than forces being imposed upon them. My sense was that the outside influence controlling their movements and sending them into a whirl of motion was their sin. The latter half of the piece, as they switched guitars, indicated a shift in their sin. They were no longer bound by their transgressions, they were in control of them.

Emio Greco | PC was one of the more avant-garde troupes that I have seen in a while. Having said that, I also feel that [purgatorio] POPOPERA was one of the clearest pieces that I have seen recently. For me, avant-garde and understanding don’t often belong in the same sentence, but Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten’s unique conception of both form and content makes such avant-garde work more accessible.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet-The Kennedy Center

Technology has been a true gift to the performing arts. With the emergence of audio, visual and computer innovation comes unlimited possibilities. There are now opportunities to record choreography and teaching techniques like never before. Previously, this was limited to a few obscure and uncommon notation systems. Yes, these methods, like Labanotation, allow dances to be logged. However, few dancers and choreographers know how to write or read these practices' hieroglyphics. So, their true usefulness is dubious. Video and other technological advances are clearly more accessible and user-friendly. Nevertheless, many gifts are also curses. Dance companies, to their detriment, now rely too heavily on technology and have moved away from primary choreographic sources when staging older works. Rather than looking for someone to help reconstruct a piece, a substandard video becomes the mediocre substitution. So, when you see a troupe that has a direct lineage with the original choreographer, the difference is clear. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet illustrates that technological tools are no match for personal first-hand experience.

The true Balanchine spirit in Pas d'Action from Divertimento No. 15, Agon's infamous duet, and the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes could have only been staged by one of his dancers. Of course, the choreography was amazing; it was Balanchine. But, what was most incredible was the extent to which Farrell has imparted her vast knowledge of this choreographer's style and technique. He was alive on the stage; both in the grandeur and in the quietest moments.

The opening of Divertimento No. 15 showcased Balanchine's love of movement. He celebrated dance and music, without creating false illusion on the stage. One of the ways he accomplished this was having the onstage dancers watch the soloist being featured. So often, the corps faces directly forward and pays no attention to what is happening center stage. In this excerpt, when the others watch the soloist, everyone's focus is on those steps at that moment, nothing fake or artificial, just movement. The Agon pas de deux is an incredibly difficult and intricate work that Farrell staged brilliantly. The two dancers were able to complete partnering that is both awkward and fluid at the same time, a testament to both theirs and Farrell's talent. My favorite moment was right before the final pose, when the ballerina, who has been contorted, bent and twisted through the whole duet, passes through a clear and defined first position. Other artistic directors miss that opportunity, and it is so important. In that brief second, we are reminded where all choreography and movement in ballet comes from: the first position of the feet. All the brilliant supports and lifts can be traced back to that place and moment of stability. The Stars and Stripes pas de deux was also well-coached; however, the female lead was a bit off on Saturday night. Her developpe in 2nd looked labored and noticeably dropped during the partnered promenade. Her en dedans turns and fouettes were technically sound, but she had difficulty sticking the landing on one of her variations and had some shaky moments on pointe. I need to see this company perform that piece again to get a real sense of the Balanchinian moments that were so beautifully clear in Divertimento No. 15 and Agon. I have seen these works staged on more advanced dancers, but they did not have the magic that was present with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. That goes to show that technique only takes you so far; artistry is everything and Farrell is doing something with her company that others should emulate.

Video is a wonderful choreographic tool, but it cannot capture everything. It can miss the intricate 'isms' and true essence of the work. Technology will continue to advance and hopefully, the quality of archival videos will improve and reflect that progress. I still think that re-staging of dance is more authentic and genuine when passed from person to person rather than from a machine.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project Part II-Kennedy Center

The final installment of the Kennedy Center’s 2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project was presented this past Thursday and Friday. Tehreema Mitha was the second awardee of this important program for DC-area choreographic artists. Her troupe, Tehreema Mitha Dance Company, staged Blue Jeans, the commissioned work for the Millennium Stage, and an older piece, Cherry Blossoms in D.C. (2005).

Blue Jeans examined issues of immigration, ethnic diversity, individuality and mourning. Mitha attempted to illustrate the loss of identity that many immigrants experience when journeying to the U.S. Yet, coupled with that void, they are somehow able to find common ground in their new home through such banal items as blue jeans. Unknowingly, these jeans become a common denominator for many cultures living in the same place. Cherry Blossoms in D.C. celebrated the tourist extravaganza that happens every spring in the District during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This joy and exuberance was juxtaposed against the day-to-day political activities that still continue during that time for the non-tourists who call D.C. their home.

Mitha’s company is very entertaining and interesting to watch, but I wish that there had been a little more mystery surrounding the pieces. Blue Jeans had a very in-depth description in the playbill, detailing exactly what the work was trying to convey. I suppose that you were not required to read these notes, but even if you purposely avoided them, the video element of the piece made the message equally as obvious. The addition of mixed media was overkill; the choreography alone would have been successful in sharing the significance of the work. The same is true with Cherry Blossoms in D.C. For this piece, there was also an explanation in the playbill, but in addition, before the work began, there was an audio commentary spelling out what we were about to see. There was too much translucency; the audience needs to have some room for its own interpretation. They may not come to the conclusion that the choreographer wants, but that’s the risk you take as a performance artist. It’s all about putting your work out there, and once you have, the element of control must be surrendered.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Willi Dorner-above under inbetween

On September 15th, the Embassy of Austria presented Willi Dorner’s above under inbetween, an ode to the original post-modern work of the Judson Dance Theater. It renewed my faith that old-fashioned post-modernism (perhaps in itself a contradiction in terms) is alive and well in present day choreography. above under inbetween took the sine qua non out of the post-modern handbook and struggled to blur the line between life and art. Some of the attempts at this goal were incredibly successful and some were suspect.

Dorner’s re-definition of traditional performance began by challenging the relationship between the audience and the performers. The piece commenced with the dancers emerging from the body of the audience. They were dressed anonymously in ordinary clothing and had been scattered amongst us waiting for the performance to begin. Then, at the appointed time, they stepped out onto the performance area and the evening’s presentation started. There was nothing grand, glamorous or showy about them, which closed the gap between the performers and audience members.

The choreography itself also effectively obscured the line between life and art. The piece was a combination of pedestrian interludes and shape making. None of the movements were overly dancey; they were everyday activities, like walking and running. The dancers started by leaning against one of the walls, then, they would walk to a place on the floor and together as a group, create a shape with their bodies. These shapes developed and evolved in difficulty and with the inclusion of household items (chairs, boards and tables) and other building materials. Each shape was then dismantled and the performers returned back to the wall, where the leaning resumed. This process happened continuously throughout the work; it was like they were playing a human game of Tetris or jenga. There was a physical architecture of organizing/re-organizing, ordering/re-ordering and building/re-building. The first ten or twelve shapes were erected very slowly, and over the course of the evening, the speed and intensity with which the shapes were made increased, with a dynamic crescendo leading to the final sequence of allegro ferocity.

Unfortunately, the space itself did not work well with this choreography. Post-modern choreographers tend toward unusual performance venues with which to show their work. Again, this choice stems from a desire to cloud the lines between life and art, and introduce alternatives to the traditional proscenium arch stage. above under inbetween was performed on a floor at the same eye level as the audience. Chairs had been avoided in order to facilitate the translucent space between the performer and audience. Unfortunately, this meant that it was incredibly difficult to see. Tall people were standing at the very front, which resulted in an actual audience incident. Annoyance and frustration had been incited by a lack of access to the work. Dance is visual, so anytime the audience has difficulty viewing it, the work is in true jeopardy. I could see some of the balances and shapes whereas others were completely blocked. I have no idea how acrobatic, interesting or kinetic these lost images were. For more than half of the piece, the dancers were obstructed from view. I’m all for the re-defining the idea of the stage, but a challenging space doesn’t make up for not being able to see the dance. And, I don’t think it was done on purpose for artistic sensibility; it was just poor planning.

This was my first experience with Willi Dorner’s choreography and I am excited to see a second offering that will be presented next month in Washington. It will be interesting to see if the minimalist post-modernism that was injected into above under inbetween is an ongoing theme in his work or if it was piece-specific.

Friday, September 11, 2009

2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project-Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center’s 2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project kicked off this week on the Millennium Stage and this year’s premiere evening featured a rich, diverse program by CityDance Ensemble. One of their incredible dancers, Jason Garcia Ignacio, was the project’s first honoree commissioned to craft an original work, The Mountain. Though this debut was clearly the focal point of the evening, it was really the entire CityDance Ensemble that shone. Everything about them was entrancing: the choreography, the dancers, the inventiveness and the risk. What impressed me most about the company was how chameleon-like they were. They can easily and successfully adapt to any environment and any style of dance: neoclassical, Tanztheater, and ethnic stylings. This young group can do anything and everything, and do it all well.

There were two pieces on the program that can best be described as neoclassical modern dance. Both Scorched (2008) and Glancing Blows (premiere) were contemporary works, yet both conjured visions of Balanchine. Kate Weare’s Scorched was a sexy amalgamation of modern and ballet, with a spattering of jazz, musical theater and social dance mixed in. So many choreographers shy away from combining these styles together because of a perceived notion that jazz, musical theater and social dance are ‘less-than’. Weare’s captivating piece illustrates the strength that comes from this type of collaboration. That is what neoclassicism actually is. It is not a term reserved only for ballet, it represents pushing the limits of what any dance form has become; looking to be expansive and inclusive. That’s what Weare accomplished with Scorched. It was a neoclassical celebration of what is possible just like Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Paul Gordon Emerson’s Glancing Blows was the second neoclassical piece, not because it was the most balletic work in the program, but rather, because of Emerson’s unique take on partnering. Again, neoclassicism pushes established boundaries, and Emerson’s partnering definitely accomplished that goal. This new duet, for company members Giselle Alvarez and Maleek Mikhail Washington employed a deep connection between two bodies in space. There were very few moments in the piece when the two were not physically connected in some way. And, in the moments where they were not touching, their bond was palpable in the space between them. Emerson worked primarily with partnering that limited lifts. This requires much more imagination on the part of the choreographer and much more skill on the part of the dancers. Duets that are full of lifts may look spectacular, but that’s what they are, a spectacle; tricks. The partnering in Glancing Blows is really about two bodies connected as one, not one being paraded around by the other. Again, it reminded me so much of Balanchine, specifically Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon.

There was more than just neoclassicism in the evening’s pieces. Meisha Bosma’s Souvenirs (2007) was dance theater at its best. The deconstructed narrative of tension, nervousness, fright, and dizziness was abundantly clear in the movement. There was an off-balanced feeling in the work that left the audience also in an uncomfortable state. Something was purposely unfinished and unresolved in the movement. Yet, as with much good dance theater, this ambiguity was both emphasized to and anesthetized with the audience. In my experience, only dance theater can successfully produce both of those feelings at the same time. There was even an ‘ode to Pina Bausch’ moment, where all the female dancers were in a line at the front of the stage with painted-on smiles, doing small, percussive movements with their hands and heads. All that was missing was the negligee dresses and the long, loose hair.

The main event of the evening, Jason Garcia Ignacio’s, The Mountain, was a narrative glimpse into real-life events that occurred in Manila in the early 1990s. The most impressive aspect of Ignacio’s piece was that he was able to instill a real sense of Filipino heritage and culture into all aspects of the work. Not only did he diligently research and teach the style of dance required to all of his dancers, but also, he was able to get a level of authenticity from them that suggested these performers had been studying this form of ethnic dance their entire lives. This piece was so authentic that we could have easily been watching it at the acclaimed San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

There is nothing wrong with being compared to great traditions in dance like Balanchine, Bausch and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The comparisons simply show that CityDance Ensemble really can do anything that it wants to. It has the talent on both the creative and technical sides to pull from so many different traditions, build on those traditions, while forming its own unique identity.