Monday, December 21, 2009

Beyond The Sugar Plum Fairy-Three Nutcracker Performances

New York City Ballet-George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Lincoln Center, New York City, NY
December 9, 2009

The Washington Ballet-Septime Webre's The Nutcracker
Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
December 11, 2009

Grand Rapids Ballet Company-Gordon Pierce Schmidt's The Nutcracker
DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, MI
December 20, 2009

The holiday season is full of combinations: Santa and reindeer, tinsel and ornaments, and an excess of food and wine. Children and The Nutcracker are yet another inseparable mixture. Every December, dressed in Christmas finery, they experience the festive and colorful story of Clara and her beloved Nutcracker. For some, the trip to this particular ballet is part of their annual winter traditions, akin to making snowmen and shaking gifts under a well-lit, well-decorated tree. But, there is one group of children for whom The Nutcracker is something else entirely. For them, it embodies hopes, dreams and expectations. These are the young people cast every year in the scores of Nutcracker productions. They see the yuletide celebration from a different perspective: from the rehearsal hall, from the wings and onstage. It is one of the only opportunities for these 'ballet hopefuls' to share the stage with professional company dancers. And, for many of them, imagining their future selves performing a most-coveted role is big part of the experience.

The most desired role is not necessarily the central one. Yes, some little girls picture themselves as Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy but others may be drawn to one of the distinctive and compelling characters in their respective production. A less idolized part may in fact have better choreography, higher technical demands and garner more admiration. I would guess that the children in the three Nutcrackers I saw this season (New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet), are likely as drawn to the outstanding performances below as they are to the main characters.

The greatest inspirations in The New York City Ballet's Nutcracker were the three featured performers in the Waltz of the Flowers. The Dewdrop (Ana Sophia Scheller), with the help of the two chief flowers (Kathryn Morgan and Brittany Pollack), led a dozen corps members through this lengthy and extremely well-known variation. It is hard to make the Waltz of the Flowers unique and fresh. Most versions are mundane copies of each other; inventiveness not being their strong suit. Enter the NYCB's Waltz. The awe in it comes from Balanchine's technique and choreography, exemplified by Scheller, Morgan and Pollack. They are masters of Balanchinian movement and are able to transmit it flawlessly through performance. Two specific steps shone in these solos: the 45 degree arabesques and the demi-pointe turns. 135 degree legs and arabesque splits have become so common nowadays that they border on boring. To the detriment of artistry, the current ballet climate has come to celebrate and encourage these circus tricks. Thankfully in this Nutcracker, one can still see the simple beauty, clarity and elegance of an exquisite low arabesque. It is so unpretentious, so refreshing and so memorable. In addition, Balanchine infused the dances for the Dewdrop and two lead flowers with ample chaines, piques and en dedans turns on demi-pointe. Balanchine's blending of demi-pointe and full pointe work illustrates a broader set of choreographic options, utilizing the foot's full range of motion. Aside from that, these demi-pointe turns were faster, cleaner and more impressive than many turning sequences on full pointe.

The Washington Ballet's Nutcracker celebrates a regional focus with a number of different characters. In this unique version of the traditional story, there were two standout performances. First was the Frontiersman, danced brilliantly by Brooklyn Mack. His solo, set to the Trepak music, was brimming with the most inventive, technically challenging jumps that I have ever seen. It was a small part of the overall evening, yet, it was the most virtuosic and had the biggest wow factor. Second was the corps de ballet, which was comprised mostly of the Studio Company, plus a couple of extra dancers, who I assume were senior students at the Washington Ballet School. With this mid-size company, these 'corps dancers' had to perform much more than a typical corps de ballet; they were onstage constantly. And, when they were onstage, they were not set dressing, Septime Webre has created much choreography for them and it was challenging. Most of them were party guests, snowflakes, butterflies, cardinals and flowers. I am amazed that the Studio Company were still standing at the end of the ballet; they had some impressive endurance skills to be sure! Without a doubt, these dancers danced more than anyone, and their contribution was indispensable.

The breathtaking snow scene of the Grand Rapids Ballet's Nutcracker was the highlight of this enchanting Mid-Western rendition. The Snow Queen, Laura Schultz, and the Wind King, Stephen Sanford, were born to dance together. This section was packed with overhead lifts, well-prepared by Schultz and well-executed by Sanford. Not once did any of their partnering look awkward, uneasy or precarious. They were truly a royal pair. Schultz also exhibited the most accurate textbook attitude derriere as the Snow Queen. A correct attitude requires that the thigh and knee be higher than the foot-when did the ballet community forget this? The snowflakes were danced primarily by the senior professional trainees from the School of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company and they were on par with any set of corps dancers. In addition, the Grand Rapids' Nutcracker had a live choir from Forest Hills Northern High School providing the beautiful vocal score of the snow scene. The entire vignette was picturesque perfection.

It is hard to compare with the inherent star power of roles like Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. But the abovementioned high points reveal that there is much more to The Nutcracker than those three. I think any of the children onstage at New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet would be thrilled to one day portray any of these characters in a professional Nutcracker production. They will then be providing the next generation with their inspiration.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 2009 Eureka Dance Festival-The Jack Guidone Theater, Joy of Motion Dance Center

Performance opportunities are imperative for emerging choreographers. Artists must have the chance to develop their ideas, show their work, and receive feedback, though finding a venue in which to do so is not easy. DC area artists are fortunate to have an available presentational forum in Kate Jordan and Orit Sherman's new venture, The Eureka Dance Festival. This ambitious project will help fill a void, fostering artistic growth and choreographic mentoring.

The Eureka Dance Festival's variety is a testament to the breadth of genre in the dance community. Orit Sherman's Sphere retained a concrete and consistent image throughout. She related this conceptual framework primarily to the practice of change, although the notion of curvature also moved into the execution of movement. Two particular motions highlighted the circular path of the limbs: the penchee splits and the port de bras to second position. In both instances, the route of the legs and arms emphasized that these pathways are not straight lines; they have a spherical basis. Dissection of Process, by Daniel Zook, was one of the shortest pieces on the program, but perhaps my favorite. The choreography explored the role of accumulation and improvisation in forming movement phrases. In this piece, the audience could really see the three dancers building and mixing steps and sequences which ultimately, became performance material. Delphina Parenti's mixed media offering, Parameters, dealt with enclosure and porousness. Most of the dance took place behind a divider covered with transparent material, while a video was projected on the back scrim. Both mediums illustrated how boundaries obscure and encase, yet at the same time, reveal. The final piece of the evening, Kate Jordan's The Bicycle Project, was a meditation on mechanics. In the opening images, the dancers collectively created shapes in space. This process was serene, deliberate and thoughtful, really celebrating that bodies can be active participants in architecture. Mid-way through the piece, all the performers faced upstage in 4th position. They proceeded to pop onto bent demi-pointe while moving through a segment of angular arm movements. In this section, each of them was a real, tangible example of apparatus and instrumentation. The end of The Bicycle Project was a humorous musing on cycling culture. I was not sure whether the final scene was a spinning class or a cycling club, but the determination, competitiveness, and endurance relayed by the dancers was hilarious and realistic.

Health/Care and No Heartbeat were the jazz/contemporary offerings on the bill. The dancers in each piece were highly skilled and displayed excellent stage presence. Having said that, the concept behind both dances requires further development. The program notes for Glade Dance Collective's Health/Care mentioned a focus on hurt, pain and tension, while Megan Adelsberger's No Heartbeat was representing five widows. Health/Care's prologue was encouraging with its shaking and screaming gestural motifs. However, the rest of the dance moved away from that artistic rigor and became more of a performance team piece. The dancers in No Heartbeat were technically striking from beginning to end. Unfortunately, flexibility and unison only goes so far these days. Their group was supposed to be dealing with loss, yet, they were all about pasted on smiles and not at all about narrative depth. These jazz works were trying to combine serious subject matter with choreography. In order to do that, the two groups need to leave behind their dance team personas and their tendencies toward presentational entertainment. Health/Care and No Heartbeat can be valuable choreographic contributions; they just need the opportunity to mature further.

The program drew a huge crowd on Saturday night but unfortunately, the Joy of Motion Dance Center seemed unprepared for it. At 8:00, the appointed start time, the audience was lined up out the door and the house was not open. The performance itself ended up being a half hour late in starting, with no explanation from the crew as to why this had happened. Sight lines for folks seated on the floor level were obstructed to the point that any movement happening on the ground was completely blocked. Normally, I would be hesitant to mention these venue issues because I believe that they are separate from what was happening on stage during the festival. However, when embarking upon a new and hopefully annual event, cultivating an audience base is important. The Eureka Dance Festival was well done and worth seeing. It would be a shame if organizational problems kept people away in the future.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-Capitol Visitor Center

Choreography is essentially a work-in-progress. It is a living entity, not a static one. In fact, no piece is ever performed the exact same way twice. The constant adjustments to new dancers, new spaces and new ideas require that even finished pieces remain in a continuous state of flux. This is most apparent when there is an opportunity to see the same dance performed by the same company but in different locations. Such was the case with CityDance Ensemble's Wishes of the Sailor, presented last weekend at The Music Center at Strathmore and then on Tuesday at the Capitol Center in D.C. Both locales were small enough to provide a strong personal connection with the work. And, each site necessitated its own adjustments and changes, deletions and additions. The second space brought a different perspective to the project which drew my attention to surprising elements.

The duet between Alice Belle Wylie and William Smith spoke differently at the second performance. They danced the section equally well at both showings, but the Capitol's auditorium added a new dimension. With the stage raised above the audience's eye level and a projected image of a young girl playing the piano (a new component), the portrayal of loss took on added depth. While Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata swept through the room, these two dancers performed a haunting pas de deux where they never touched. They reached and stretched for each other but to no avail. This longing depicted the precarious and fleeting notion of connection, in which bonds exist and endure even in the face of absence.

An interview section occurs mid-way through Wishes of the Sailor where the performers sit at tables and simultaneously describe the experiences of individual refugees. At Strathmore, this took place on the perimeter of the performance space. At the Capitol, the dancers jumped off the stage and sat at tables directly in front of the first audience row. Most likely, this was necessitated by the parameters of the second space. Nonetheless, it was a very powerful statement. The action of the piece really moved into the viewer's consciousness with the dancers coming from the stage to the audience's level. Issues cannot remain at a distance, they are much closer than we imagine or than we care to admit.

The original venue for Wishes of the Sailor (The Music Center at Strathmore) was my preferential setting. But, I am glad that I was able to see the work done in these two divergent spaces. Different contexts provide an imperative newness to this demanding material.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-The Music Center at Strathmore

Intimate performance settings have the power to transform an audience. In a big theater, dance audiences become invisible and anonymous; nothing more than a sea of faces. In a small venue, there is no place to hide. As an audience member, more is expected of you and you can get much more in return. Close proximity alters perception, provides new chances for observation, and magnifies risk within the work. This weekend, CityDance Ensemble presented Crush in the education wing at Strathmore. This mixed-rep program proved that small spaces provide enormous opportunities. Crush was an invitation to engage and converse with the art and the artists. It celebrated a responsibility that is not always possible in large performance venues. Challenging performances deserve an equally challenged audience.

Souvenirs by Meisha Bosma is not a new piece for me, though this time, I found new revelations in it. The nearness of the performers made the off-balance suspensions clearer and more impressive. The five female dancers were constantly pushed to their maximum point of equilibrium, followed by a visible decision: to give in or to maintain. Through their commitment to the movement, these women taught the audience that you have not taken a risk until you allow yourself to let go. Souvenirs was followed by Alex Neoral's Trajectory, performed by the CityDance conservatory students. These kids are promising dancers, who are being given a great technical education. More importantly, they are being taught to follow CityDance's ethos of pushing limits, taking chances and moving beyond the comfort zone. There was one particular moment toward the end of the piece that deserves mention. Neoral had almost two dozen enthusiastic teenagers onstage, at different facings, executing balances and swivel turns. Just the sheer number of bodies moving and turning only a few feet from us was quite something. Christopher K. Morgan's Unusable Signal featured my new favorite trio of dancers: Jason Garcia Ignacio, William Smith and Maleek Mahkail Washington. I thought nothing could top their recent performance in Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite, but their appearance in Unusable Signal was even better. This is credited to a forward thinking choreographer, who is willing and able to move beyond the traditional interpretation of the pas de trois. Working with odd numbers, especially three, is much tougher than it seems. Morgan made it work. There may be nothing better in DC modern dance than seeing these three men together onstage.

The second half of the evening brought Wishes of the Sailor, a new work ushering the plight of Iraqi refugees into our consciousness. By participating with Intersections International's Iraqi Voices Amplification Project, choreographers Paul Gordon Emerson and Kathryn Pilkington were able to interact with Iraqi refugees in three different countries. They were charged with creating a responsive work reflecting what they had learned from these dire and largely, undiscussed circumstances. Wishes of the Sailor is the powerful result of their journey. There is much in the piece that requires comment but what I found particularly moving was the narrative honesty. Too often, when faced with social or political subject matter, choreographers feel the need to transplant the topic and essentially, turn the audience into the characters. While I understand that this is an earnest attempt to help people relate to the work, it actually creates more distance from the issue. Artistic endeavors can still be personal, and deeply affecting without having to revolve around us. In fact, true empathy comes from moving outward, not inward. Emerson, Pilkington and the entire CityDance family have managed to successfully reveal genuine experiences without losing authenticity. This is because they had the integrity, respect and courage to leave the story with those who had experienced it. Wishes of the Sailor provided an accurate, informational account while retaining the level of artistic depth that CityDance Ensemble possesses.

Today, the pairing of social issues and art is desperately needed. Art has the unique ability, unlike anything else, to show social issues as human issues. This distinction is important and often overlooked. A social issue is our theoretical understanding of a need, problem or inequality. These do not become human issues until we somehow connect with them. Not in a selfish or self-interested way, but through a heightened awareness and deeper comprehension of the particular injustice. An uncensored portrayal of real events and personal stories is what can transform the social into the human.