Friday, October 30, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-The John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts

CityDance Ensemble has brought egalitarianism back to the Washington D.C. modern dance scene. Their new mixed repertory program, Latitude, premiered this past Thursday night at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. CityDance productions are always eclectic and Latitude was no exception. Yet, it offered something else besides a commitment to diversity. The common thread that wove through the five disparate pieces and bound the evening together was the pursuit of democracy in performance.

In three of the five dances, this egalitarianism was visible through partnering. I have loved the concept and choreography of Kate Weare's Scorched since I first saw it. However, this time, the Tango section spoke on a deeper level than before. Like any social dance, the Tango has a leader and a follower. Weare understands and acknowledges this convention but also puts her own spin on things. She challenges the gender roles and makes the leader-follower dynamic variable. Each dancer has the opportunity to play both parts: the dominant and the submissive. Pathways, by Alex Neoral, was an ode to dance history, and its partnering was crafted like post-modern contact improvisation. The giving and receiving of weight was amazing and created cantilevered shapes that defied gravity. And, again the control in each pair shifted between the two performers, celebrating an equality that was truly beautiful. Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite was the most entertaining contribution to the program, with the key still being a study of collaboration. His theme of relationships and clever movement vocabulary illustrated the give and take that we experience in all human connections. These three pieces were very different yet each grew from an underlying source of shared responsibility, manifested in partnering.

Rachel Erdos' Alma was a different side to performance egalitarianism. Here, the equality was reflected in how the dancers related to and incorporated their environment. Alma unfolds on a stage full of green apples. Through the entire work, the apples became part of the movement; they were not peripheral elements nor stage decoration. They transferred from one body to the other, via mouth, neck, bicep and knees. And, when this transference was happening, each performer displayed an acute awareness of the body, the object and the environment. As strange as it may seem, I think this piece is realistically made for three performers: the two dancers and the apples. The environmental objects became as much a part of the performance as was the choreography.

The final piece, Thirst, started out adhering to the evening's theme. Christopher K. Morgan's environmental analysis is an interdisciplinary work complete with video, audio, text, and props. When it began, I was encouraged by the integration of mixed media elements and choreography. The initial video image was of sand running through a pair of hands. The first dancer of the piece, Jason Garcia Ignacio, made a deep, meaningful bond with this reflection on the back scrim. And, the remaining dancers also entered the stage through this 'video curtain', again showing the integration of that set element in the work. However, as the piece went on, this early cohesiveness disappeared. There was just too much and too many things happening on the stage at once. When choreography and other performance elements work together, the result can be powerful, like it was at the start of Thirst. But, when choreographers add and add, their vision becomes clouded and obstructed. This piece can work, it just needs some editing.

The dancers of CityDance Ensemble have incredible breadth, range and adaptability and the artistic staff have an uncompromising vision. This company has a special formula where choreographic diversity is sought, without compromising the importance of cohesive themes, like egalitarianism in performance.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Washington Ballet-The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Conveying a story is the purpose of a large-scale narrative ballet; a sequence of events unfolds over time. The essential components are characters, their relationships, their interactions and the general plot. But, the more interesting aspect of narrative dance is the underlying theme. In Don Quixote, the hope and search for ideal love is this obvious premise. Though, a secondary and subtler message is also present: that of homecoming. The Washington Ballet premiered their new version of Don Quixote this week at the Kennedy Center. Staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, this production had a technical ferocity that re-invigorated a classic. Artistic Director Septime Webre has assembled an incredible group of dancers that were more than able to fulfill Holmes' vision.

Friday night's performance gave us Maki Onuki as a consummate Kitri. She performed the most difficult sequences with elegance, poise and calm, particularly the spectacular double fouettes in Act III. She also gave equal attention to the less flashy choreography, like Kitri's balance and waltz turns in the Port scene. These circular sequences were stunning. She showed the audience the value that should be held for every step, not just the fantastic and the grand. Though her overall technique was exquisite, my focus was pulled to Miss Onuki's use of demi-pointe. The arch of her foot on full pointe was incredibly developed, but it was her diligent attention to rolling through demi-pointe that was intoxicating. It is in these transitional moments that you finally notice the mechanics of ballet. When beginning to dance on toe, the first thing you learn is how to roll through your demi-pointe on the way up and on the way down. This transitory space is your salvation; it protects your ankles, your calves and provides a crucial opportunity to use the floor. Often, ballerinas of her caliber have forgotten this lesson and as a result, cut their career short.

Brooklyn Mack took a little while to warm up, but once he did, the audience was rewarded with his dynamic performance as Basilio. His pas de trois with Kitri's friends (danced by Sona Kharatian and Amanda Cobb) was the defining moment when he really came into the role. From that point forward, Basilio and Mr. Mack were one. The Kitri/Basilio pas de deuxs were very impressive, especially one particular lift. Several times, Mr. Mack had to balance Miss Onuki well above his head with just one hand on her hip; she was both stable and buoyant in each instance.

Two other cast members must be mentioned, even though their respective parts were relatively short: Ayano Kimura and Norton Fatinel. Ayano Kimura as Amour, or the cupid character, was absolutely delightful. Her interpretation of the choreography perfectly matched this impish and playful character. Mr. Fatinel's performance as the gypsy man stole the show as far as I am concerned. The jumps that Holmes choreographed for him really defied the laws of nature. His execution of these movements seemed super-human and received the loudest reaction of the evening.

Anna-Marie Holmes truly captured the idea of homecoming with Kitri and Basilio. For them, home was their love for each other and when they were finally united (though they accomplished it through trickery), they had arrived at a place of comfort and contentment. This theme could have been further augmented in the character of the Don. Don Quixote is driven by the search for his ideal, which has appeared to him in his dreams. Therefore, it may seem strange to suggest that homecoming is important to him. But it is. Perhaps his place of solace is the personal clarity that can only come once his quest is over. Maybe he needs to look everywhere for perfection in order to realize that his contentment and comfort truly reside in reality, not fantasy. His character depth was missing in this version, primarily because parts of the Don's story were omitted. A deeper connection with the Don is possible even with the missing sections. There just needs to be further character development.

A live orchestra was the only other missing element in this delightful production. The taped music was a mismatch to the drama unfolding onstage and it presented some challenges with timing. The Washington Ballet was well rehearsed, but some dancers still looked surprised by or unprepared for accelerations and decelerations. Without a conductor physically present, it is tough to anticipate significant tempo changes, no matter how many times you have run the ballet with the recorded score. I'm sure that the company would have preferred to have a live orchestra, but in uncertain financial times, difficult decisions and compromises have to be made. Go and support The Washington Ballet; the performances are fantastic and a larger audience base may ensure that live musicians will be there in the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

LADO-The Music Center at Strathmore

For more than a decade, Irish-themed performing arts have been on an upswing. The spectacle of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance appealed to the general public much like reality dance competitions do on television. Reaching a larger audience is a notable and significant achievement; however, at the same time, these overly produced shows have a sense of falseness to them. I, too, was blown away by the uniform choreography the first time I saw Lord of the Dance; the technical excellence was undeniable and absolute. But what I remember more about that evening was the artistic emptiness on the stage. The dancers wore constant eerie smiles, making them look more like plastic and less like people. The narrative format was also circusy, phony and contrived. It was nearly impossible to make any substantial connection to what was happening on stage, mostly because the performers themselves were so disconnected from what they were doing. It was sad; they had achieved such a high level of technique and such a low level of artistry. This past weekend, The Music Center at Strathmore proved that an evening of ethnic dance can be both technically brilliant and deeply emotional. They welcomed LADO, the National Folk Dance Ensemble of Croatia, in a performance that was generous, gracious and a sincere sharing of their customs and their national dance.

Though it is very difficult to reduce a two-hour performance to just a few thoughts, there are three words that best describe LADO: smooth, calm and joyful. The dances were steeped with fast footwork, continuous jumps and traveling hops. Their feet were moving so quickly and energetically that maintaining any degree of composure seemed impossible. Yet, composed they were. Dances From Prigorje, the final piece before intermission, added a shaking quality to the basic steps, overcoming the entire body. This type of movement can appear frenetic, chaotic and out of control. But, the dancers of LADO executed it perfectly, while still managing to retain an essence of tranquility. One thing I learned by the end of the evening was that Croatian dance is full of spinning: individual spinning, spinning in couples, spinning in groups, spinning in concentric circles. You could get dizzy just from watching the dancers perform all of these turns. Yet again, they were calmly in control, making their turns look effortless. Laura Dean only wishes that she had this many dancers who could spin so well! LADO was technically exquisite. The choreography was exact, the staging was perfect, and the unison was completely in sync. Yet, what impressed me the most was the absolute elation that was exuded from every dancer on the stage. They radiated pure joy with each other, with the audience and with the dance. The pride was in their culture, not in flashy theatrical demonstrations; theirs was an intimate honesty expressed through a lineage of movement.

I have not attended many full-length ethnic dance concerts, especially not those that represent a single cultural heritage. Much of what I have seen has been in mixed repertory or festival format, which only provides a taste of the richness that traditional dance can express. As it continues, LADO will be instrumental in bringing ethnic performance to an even higher position of popularity and prominence.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Cie. Willi Dorner-Bodies in Urban Spaces

The audience, and its role in the performing arts, has been in transition for the last forty years. Watching a dance has grown from a passive spectator activity to a mentally involved exercise. Thoughtful audience members are required to actively contemplate what they are seeing. Where is their focus drawn? Was it to one specific dancer or to the overall picture created by the entire company? Does the choreography represent a story, an emotion or nothing at all? How do the movements fit with or work against the music? These questions help the audience connect with the work, and perhaps, decipher it the best they can. Yet, sometimes, the audience is called on to further supplement these intellectual queries with a physical participation. Willi Dorner's, Bodies in Urban Spaces, examines the notion of viewership in both cerebral and corporeal planes.

Bodies in Urban Spaces is a mobile, outdoor performance that takes dancers and spectators on a tour through the streets of a particular city, this time, Washington, D.C. The dancers jog between a dozen or so designated settings. And, in each individual location, create a different sculpture using their bodies and D.C.'s architectural terrain as the materials. Because the piece is set outside, and Friday's performance took place at the height of rush hour, the notion of the audience was immediately challenged. Yes, there were those of us who were present for the sole purpose of the performance. Others just happened upon the piece through the course of their day. Viewership was made permeable by the unique setting of Bodies in Urban Spaces.

There were many observable sensations with Dorner's work, starting with a significant anonymity. The performers were all dressed in brightly-colored sweatpants, T-shirts and hoodies. The costuming definitely helped the audience find the dancers in their sculptural creations. Sometimes, they were hidden in between newspaper boxes or in a small space between two buildings. The brightness of their clothes made them stand out against the city landscape. But, they were all dressed the same as each other, and their faces were purposely hidden in the formations. The audience did not know who they were looking at, just that what they were looking at someone. Second, there was an aura of mystery with the piece. Because the dancers jogged ahead of the audience, we were not able to see them construct the work. Some of the postures seemed impossible, yet the dancers managed to very quickly (before the audience caught up with them) arrange themselves into their static position. Though they missed the initial composition, the audience was privy to the dismantling of each human monument. This did not erase the mystery, but it did provide a brief glimpse into the enigmatic poses. Finally, the line that exists between the dancers and the audience was made more transparent. Everyone, regardless of their role in the work, was mixed together in the same space. There were distinctions as to who was who, but there was also a camaraderie that all present were practicing and participating in art-making.

Willi Dorner's innovations are thought-provoking, for sure. And, Bodies in Urban Spaces elicits a mindful questioning of the accepted roles of viewership, performance and space. It definitely gives the feeling that there is something deep and important happening, and I think there is. But, maybe the piece also teaches the audience that watching dance can not only be an analytical conundrum, but also a fun adventure through your city.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance-Dance Place, Washington, DC

Narrative's role in modern dance has been in a desperate state for some time now. Storytelling got a bad rap in the 1960s, when formalist choreographers turned away from meaning and representation in favor of structure and minimalism. What followed was decades of contentious debate over what was more important: form or content. Strong opinions existed and still exist in both camps. With all this bickering, dance, and its power to affect and move an audience, has gotten lost. But, there is reason to hope. Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance's Wallstories, which premiered Saturday night in D.C., points us toward a new and exciting explorative trend in the narrative. Yatkin has successfully re-invigorated this aspect of modern dance with her particular use of a true historical entity: the Berlin Wall. The piece was not a linear chronology of the Wall, nor was it a conceptual musing. Wallstories represented actual emotions and memories linked with this historical structure. She has breathed new life into narrative modern dance; audiences have been waiting for this.

I, too, have struggled with the issue of content in modern dance. To me, many modern choreographers mask the narrative so deep within their own strangeness and oddity that it becomes completely obstructed. Still, the narratives that are deeply buried like this must have valuable lessons to teach. But, they are often conveyed with extreme theatricality or supernatural myths. Nejla Yatkin's use of a real entity as her narrative made it both accessible and relatable. With such realistic imagery, audience members are likely to feel a personal connection in some way. They may remember something that links them to the work; they may perceive the same event much differently than the choreographer. Regardless, there is some tangible association. No matter what anyone says, relating to art is important. The audience does not need to understand every moment in a piece, but there must be that speck of inspiration. Otherwise, they will not come back the next time.

Additionally, the narrative in Wallstories had an evenness to it; there were multiple emotions represented with respect to the Berlin Wall: despair, fear, sadness, frustration, excitement, joy, freedom and anticipation. Numerous accounts and differing perspectives are always present; very little can be understood with one explanation. The complexities of this situation were not hidden nor was there an effort to solve them. Every feeling and every action was permitted as valid, important and present. This work celebrated the whole.

Wallstories was also the first time that I had seen effective mixed media elements. In this piece, it was because the dancers were engaged and involved with the video and audio components. Usually, I find these additions peripheral and too often, they compromise the cohesiveness of the piece. It has become a bit of a trend to add extra 'things' to dance, yet, the additional work to relate these entities to the choreography has rarely been done. Nejla Yatkin has done the work. I don't know if the text score was actually the voices of the performers, but when that audio accompanied their movements, the body and the words were one. When video was projected on the white brick wall at the back of the stage, the dancers were aware of it; they watched in awe as if those images were informing their reality. The addition of shin buster lighting which shadowed choreography onto the wall was genius. In an instant, the dancers that we had been watching all evening became anonymous. They could have been anyone and were everyone.

I don't have a personal history with the Berlin Wall, and when it came down twenty years ago, I was very young. Yet, because of the comprehensive narrative, I still felt that I could relate to what was happening onstage. Near the end of the work, there is a section where the choreographer's taped voice talks about barriers and moving past obstacles. A simple message that is incredible hard to live out.

VelocityDC Dance Festival-Harman Center for the Arts

The DC dance scene thrives with diversity and the VelocityDC Dance Festival has truly captured its essence. Friday night's performance was a rich expression of fullness and breadth; all that dance can offer an audience. The participating companies represented a real cross-section of the dance community: modern, Flamenco, post-modern, contact improvisation, African and ballet. All the groups were amazing and incredibly well-received. But the real achievement of the evening runs much deeper than what was produced on the stage. What the audience was actually witnessing was a powerful individualism combined with a deep commitment to the cooperative spirit. It is unbelievable how rare this in dance. The VelocityDC Dance Festival is special.

Many US cities have a splintered dance community, if you can even call it that. It almost mimics the antics of high school, where separation of who's in and who's out reigns supreme. Cliques and popularity have taken over and the ethos of dance has been lost in the process. There is little effort to work together, or just get along. Ballet companies tend to stick with their own, and even the modern groups that espouse collaboration and interdisciplinary work are often limited in how far they will reach out. With its two sold-out performances, VelocityDC Dance Festival proves that it does not have to be this way. Cooperation and collaboration are key right now; every suggestion, every idea is valid. With performing arts in real economic and financial peril, we are stronger together than we are apart. And, as was apparent in the festival, inclusiveness does not mean a loss of identity. VelocityDC was not aiming to be a melting pot of dance; rather, range and distinctiveness were celebrated.

Edgeworks Dance Theater fuses liquidity and grace with a masculine strength that is truly unique in modern dance. Their excerpt of In Progress: Traveling also gave us a moving section of contact improvisation, where three different duets appeared simultaneously. Theirs was the true nature of contact improv technique. Two bodies shared weight, listened to each other's impulses and presented an egalitarian connection of give and take. Edwin Aparicio's Flamenco solo followed and literally exploded onto the stage. Aparicio is clearly playing with some interesting fusions in his traditional dance. He has managed to incorporate elements of tap, clogging and step dancing into his work without sacrificing the historical quality of the Flamenco. The last piece before intermission was CityDance Ensemble's presentation of Paul Taylor's Last Look. Between the music, the set and the costumes, the audience was transported into an earlier time, perhaps the 1950s or 1960s. This piece is disturbing with its writhing, twitchy, nervous choreography. It felt like we were watching a psychological thriller set in an asylum, and were privy to how mental health and emotional disturbance affects the body.

After intermission, Ronald K. Brown and Evidence Dance Company offered an energetic excerpt, Upside Down. This was definitely a stand-out crowd pleaser. Most sections were filled with joyful and exuberant African dance, yet, there were several interludes where the movement turned inward. During these sequences, the gestures were small, controlled and somewhat obstructed. Then, there would be a return to vigor. It really represented a rondo form of choreography (A, B, A, C, A), with different middle segments followed by a constant return to elation and excitement. Lastly, The Washington Ballet danced Wunderland by Edward Liang. The opening scene immediately sets the mood, with five women in a deep 2nd position plie on pointe. There were some balance problems on Friday night, yet the visual strength of the image was still powerful. The women in the company do need to relax their upper bodies a little more. Their classical lines are flawless, but Liang's choreography is full of movements that require upper torso release. The men had a better sense of this. About two thirds of the way through the ballet, the stage became immersed in precipitation. It looked like snow, but the way the pieces hit the floor sounded more like rain. Though so simple, it added such strong emotion to the accompanying pas de deux. Added elements need not be complicated; the single sound of rain transported the ballet to a different place.

More choreographers and companies participated in the second concert on Saturday, and there were also pre-show and post-show performances to take advantage of. What an extraordinary feat for the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Dance/MetroDC. They know how to inspire teamwork amongst their geographical and artistic communities.