Thursday, February 25, 2010

CityDance Ensemble-The Embassy of Finland

The Finnish Embassy is a consummate environmental model in Washington DC, recently receiving LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The Embassy has clearly worked hard for this significant recognition and last night their green building was all party, party; a much-deserved celebration. Guests were greeted by inviting and courteous staff, amazing food, martinis fashioned with LED ice cubes and exceptional DC entertainment: CityDance Ensemble.

The company previewed two excerpts from Paul Gordon Emerson's Little Adorations, which will have its official premiere at their next concert - “Catalyst” at The Harman Center for the Arts (March 13th and 14th). First was a sexy duet for Elizabeth Gahl and Maleek Mahkail Washington. These two dancers are well suited for each other and a joy to watch in this enticing pas de deux. Washington is commanding and edgy, while still incorporating his smoothness and gallantry into the choreography. Gahl displays remarkable fortitude in this contemporary repertoire without sacrificing a subtle, soft, playful quality. And, her strength is no joke. There were two particular moments (in second and in arabesque) where she balanced on one leg, on a very high demi-pointe. She was so secure and so centered that she looked like she could have happily stayed there forever. But, more important, Elizabeth Gahl shows that strength and vulnerability are not at all contentious entities. She is compelling on stage because she harnesses both, displaying multi-faceted dancing with genuine depth.

The second excerpt featured the trio of Giselle Alvarez, Jason Garcia Ignacio and Kathryn Pilkington. They played off of each other in movements that I thought looked impish and a little mischievous. The most exciting moment of this pas de trois was the cannon where each began a particular choreographic phrase at a different time. This is visually interesting in its own right, but it also really highlighted the polyphonic texture of the chosen jazz music. Usually when counterpoint and fugal structures in music are discussed, it is in reference to the Baroque period (~1600-1750). But, this notion of several different voices, instruments and musical lines that are both independent and interdependent at the same is much more extensive than we realize. The dance for this trio of performers really spoke to this issue through a marriage of choreographic tools and musical form.

The festivities continued on after the performance, when the guests took to the dance floor. The whole evening was so full of true celebration and it was fitting that everyone got to express themselves through music and motion.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Jason and Friends-An Evening of Choreography by Jason Garcia Ignacio

Dance Place-Washington, D.C.
February 20, 2010

Throughout his book, Choreography Observed, writer Jack Anderson poses important and challenging questions about the act of watching dance. Of all the issues this important book addresses, the exploration of focus specifically spoke to me. Are we visually drawn to choreography, to particular dancers, to the group dynamics or to the overall picture of theatrical movement? The answer for me, and for most I would guess, is that it depends. Sometimes it is the choreographic structure, or a dancer who distinguishes themselves, or the general architecture of the work. But, the more interesting underlying issue is when we make the decision of where our focus will be. There are those times when a piece or a company holds no preconceptions for you, and the recipient of your attention unfolds in real time, during the performance. I think this does happen, but it is rare. Rather, as viewers, we have often decided where our focus will fall before the performance occurs (a favorite choreographer, dancer, or variation). What we will watch has already been edited in our minds before actually taking a seat in the theater. This isn't a bad thing, it's just reality. This was the case for me at Dance Place for Jason and Friends, an evening of choreography by Jason Garcia Ignacio. I knew that there would be many elements worthy of commentary but my mind was fixed on the choreography even before the houselights went down.

The first half of the program was comprised of five shorter works, which all pointed towards the breadth in Ignacio's choreographic interest. In line with this expansiveness, many performers from the CityDance Ensemble's family participated in the evening: Conservatory students, CityDance 2, and all eight members of CityDance Ensemble. Hourglass (2009) is a captivating duet for Ignacio and Delphina Parenti that examines the relationship between ballet, modern and Kathak. The music is Kathak-fusion (if that label exists), and three integral components of this traditional Indian dance were present throughout the piece – fast pirouettes, precise foot percussion and attention to facial and eye movements. The Conservatory students performed another 2009 piece, Stampede, which again was influenced by several different styles of dance; both hula and jazz were particularly apparent in the movements and sequences. These younger performers did a great job, although struggled at times with their group spacing.

The premiere works also kept to the notions of scope and variety. I don't know if I just have Olympics on the brain right now but Heart of the Talisman, a solo for Elizabeth Gahl, reminded me of a brilliant gymnastic floor routine. The lighting and costume design were consistent with this conclusion: Gahl's leotard was very gymnastic team-like and the light was projected on the floor as a box, creating boundaries and parameters. I loved this inventive take on movement! The dance was beautifully performed and choreographed; very controlled, with every movement going through the same process: point of origin, development and point of completion. Toe The Line, a group piece for five women touched on the still simmering debate between modern dance and ballet. The performers wore long, flowing dresses, with their hair down, unencumbered. It felt a little like the ballerinas from Balanchine's Serenade were breaking out of their shell. They still had their ballet technique; exquisite developpes ecarte, and rond de jambe en l'air, yet still a tension and yearning for freer movement: running; flexed feet. The night I saw it, some of the five dancers were better able to demonstrate the tricky choreography than others. Nevertheless, Toe The Line has a valuable contribution to make to the issue of movement vocabulary. Morph, a solo which Ignacio performed, had the same control as Heart of the Talisman, but with a more alluring undercurrent. The piece had some amazing acrobatics and capoeira tricks in it, yet what I saw was accumulation. Not in the sense of adding movement to movement. Instead, Ignacio was exploring what each body part could do from small gestures to full range of motion.

The second half was made up of a longer work, The Mountain, originally commissioned by The Kennedy Center. I reviewed this piece back in September, and upon this second viewing, still share many of my initial thoughts. But, there was something different this time that requires mention. In Dance Place, the audience has a closer proximity to the stage, and thus, to the performance. This gave a much more personal viewing of The Mountain. The intended messiness of the stage was tangible, as was the joy evident amongst this layer of dirt. It emanated from the dancers in a way that I couldn't see when I was further away at The Kennedy Center.

In the past six months, I have had the opportunity to see Jason Garcia Ignacio perform onstage in several different concerts and no matter the piece, the passion, skill and risk in his dancing has always impressed me. This was still very true in this weekend's performance of Jason and Friends at Dance Place. But, this time, I went to see the choreography. And to my delight, the six works that he presented also demonstrated these three qualities (passion, skill and risk). It is not always true that gifted dancers show significant promise as choreographers; Jason Garcia Ignacio does. I look forward to watching him progress in both aspects of his career: as a dancer and as a choreographer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Idan Cohen-Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

American University-Katzen Arts Center
February 18, 2010

A good dance lecture-demonstration is not easy to find. Inherently, its formula can be fraught with problems: a forced and contrived sharing of ideas, too much talk and not enough movement; all choreography and no framework. Finding a balance in this format is tough, and American University succeeded with Idan Cohen-Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward. This evening had it all: a brilliant, eloquent and generous choreographer in conversation with a thoughtful, passionate professor and historian (too often, a rarity in academic circles).

Dr. Nina Spiegel began by taking the audience on an informative journey exploring some general aspects of Israeli culture, while accenting the expression of it through dance. In one session, it is impossible to relay everything that makes a people unique, but the main point that I took from her lecture was the strong presence of dualism in Israeli culture. The audience then was able to see a tangible example of this dualism as Idan Cohen took the stage in an excerpt from 3 pieced swan, op. 1.

The short sequence that Cohen performed was a staccato myriad of animal-like choreography. He so integrated crawling, rolling, and arching into his movement vocabulary that at times, he appeared to be a true member of the cat, reptile or amphibian families. In the middle of his solo, he also introduced some more fluid passages, still strongly linked to animals, but of a very different quality. Here we saw circular head rolls and serpentine massaging of the spine playing against the still present angular motions. All the choreography shared a very strong element of grounding; a passionate yearning for connection to the earth.

Cohen and Spiegel then reflected on this work as well as other dances shown on film, relating all to Israeli culture. It was thrilling to see two scholars committed to discovering and sharing these connections. The most interesting analysis (for me, anyway) was how dualism -which we learned is deeply rooted in Israeli culture - is evident when comparing 3 pieced swan to the original and quintessential ballet, Swan Lake.

Spiegel highlighted several differences between Cohen's piece and the traditional Swan Lake, observing how these contrasts spoke to dualism. First, she presented the discrepancy in expectation versus production. For Cohen's musing on Swan Lake, he chose to retain the original music. When 3 pieced swan is performed, Spiegel noted that the audience is not expecting the movements that appear onstage. The adherence to the original score suggests certain choreography, and the reality of his piece does not meet these assumptions. Second, she pointed out the tension between community and the individual. In much of the classical Swan Lake, largely populated celebratory scenes erupt into jubilant group dances of the village and the court. Cohen danced his excerpt as a solo, and later in the evening, we saw that usually this piece has only three dancers. Spiegel argued that this is a far cry from the dozens of bodies onstage during most of Swan Lake. Last, the space between male and female was considered. Of course, the main role in Swan Lake is danced by a woman, and in Cohen's solo, a man became the primary character. I agree that challenging the gender roles in Swan Lake is another dimension of difference and duality. But, when dissecting this particular topic, reference should be made to the choreographers who have examined this issue before, specifically Matthew Bourne.

I did feel that the acknowledgement of sameness between 3 pieced swan and Swan Lake was missing from the discussion. In academia, there is often an assumption that sameness is not as valuable as difference. I don't believe this is so. I also don't think that these similarities detract or erase the presence of duality in Cohen's work. Swan Lake comes from a dualistic place, and Cohen explained that the starting point for his piece was this original story. With being conceived from the original, degrees of sameness with a strong presence of duality should be expected and commended.

Groundedness was the first characteristic of similarity. Earlier, I described the excerpt from 3 pieced swan as being drawn to the earth. On the surface, the ballet version of Swan Lake appears to be the opposite: vertical, airy, and light. I understand how lifts and pointework can give that incorrect impression. In truth, ballet is incredibly grounded. One of the best ways to describe ballet technique is that "you must have your down to have your up". Every lift, every turn, every releve depends on feeling, using and giving in to the floor to achieve the desired result. So, yes, the modern and ballet choreography are very different, but the impetus and the strength comes from the same place: the ground. Another point of sameness is the messiness of Swan Lake. Again, on the surface the ballet version conjures beauty and love, while 3 pieced swan seems rooted in the rough and unkempt. The classic is actually a dark, ugly story about captivity, control, longing and death. I don't leave Swan Lake saying "how beautiful"; I leave Swan Lake saying, "how sad". Underneath the costumes, the sets, and the choreography, both works illustrate a similar darkness and loneliness.

These two works are in consonance as much as they are in dissonance; and both states of being are interesting ruminations on duality.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Concern for Dance Archiving

“Dancing is the most fleeting of all the performance arts because there is no decent way to notate it; so a dance really only exists at the moment it is experienced; in the dancer's body and in the dancemaker's head.”
-(source-Sally Banes, “Substanceless Brutality”, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing, edited and with an introduction by Andrea Harris, forewords by Joan Acocella and Lynn Garafola, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007, 15, original article published in The Reader, February 15, 1974).

Next week, this quote will be thirty-six years-old; and sadly, its message continues to reflect the current state of dance archival systems. The dance community still lacks a comprehensive plan to reconcile inadequate records and the survival of repertory. Archiving largely exists outside of the creative process and the different archival practices are not being fully accessed or integrated into the creation of new work.

I recently published, “Archiving Dance: The Necessity of Collaboration”, in Bourgeon: a survey of the current available archival systems and a call for a more interdependent approach to their usage.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Between Time - choreography by Tony Powell

Lessons from Rehearsal

In Between Time-choreography by Tony Powell
February 4, 2010-Studios of The Baltimore Ballet
by Heather Desaulniers

“When reviews bother me it's because the journalists are reviewing a dance that they wished had happened instead of the one that existed.” (Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft, Joyce Morgenroth, New York: Routledge, 2004, 178).

A few months back, I stumbled upon this quote and its truthful bluntness has haunted me ever since. Today's dance reviews are heavy-laden with 'I' statements: 'I wanted'; 'I wished'; 'I remember when'. Commentary has become less about the piece and more about the writer. We let our opinions cloud our judgment, we revel in our own theoretical acumen and we can hold a grudge like you wouldn't believe. Having said that, I don't think that writing's downward spiral is entirely our fault. Thoughtful critique requires significant access to the work and, in dance, that is rare. Our exposure to each individual piece is incredibly restrictive; we see most performances only once, maybe twice (though unusual). This limited window of observation is contributing to reviews that are less than rigorous. A fleeting glimpse does not facilitate perceptive nor genuine reflection.

Last week, choreographer Tony Powell generously welcomed me to a rehearsal of his new work, In Between Time, which will be part of The Baltimore Ballet's 10th Anniversary Gala-March 28th at The Lyric Opera House. This invitation gave me both time and opportunity with the dance, and solidified my belief that critics must devote more effort to the 'work-in-progress' phase of choreography.

The day I was there, Powell was completing the middle section of the ballet: a pas de quatre for 1 woman and 3 men. The movement centers around the female dancer, Devon Teuscher from American Ballet Theatre, and follows an intricate system of layering as each man, one by one, enters the picture. The partnering and lifts are physically complicated because all three men have an active role in Teuscher's support. Watching Powell, these four dancers, and the rest of the cast work through the choreography was a unique experience. It was an exercise of true community; a creative environment where the goal was to actualize Powell's vision. The atmosphere was happy, fun, while still being diligent, and I know from personal experience that rehearsals are seldom like that.

Watching the rehearsal process definitely helped me to understand the mechanics of this particular movement. But, more important, being there allowed me to see the piece multiple times, revealing a deep relationship between the composition of music and of dance. The score for this middle variation is Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight", a selection that exudes the feeling of traditional counterpoint. Powell's choreographic response was an equally rich contrapuntal statement. Teuscher was the cantus firmus; her choreography was the base; the necessary ingredient; the stabilizing foundation. As each of the men entered the dance, they embodied first, second, and third species counterpoint. Each of these choreographic lines had to be both independent and interdependent for the polyphonic texture to work. Each individual's choreography had to be significant enough to stand on its own, yet integrative enough to merge with the other three lines of movement. In Between Time is counterpoint done well, where each part is compelling and the aggregate picture is prismatic.

It's hard to say whether I would have made these connections if my only chance to see In Between Time had been in performance. I do know that my thoughts were clearer at the end of the rehearsal, after seeing the cast work, mark and dance the section several times. The repetition may not have been the only key to unlock the dance for me, but it certainly helped.

Clearly, my opening quote is a sweeping, simplistic generalization, but there is definitely truth to it. This comment confirmed and re-iterated that the theater is only one of the many places where dance critique should occur. The rehearsal studio needs to become the writer's research laboratory: a space to gather information, reach a deeper level of understanding, and prepare for reviewing work in its finished form. Critique should reflect conception, generation and production. But, this more holistic approach is only achievable when artists allow increased access to their creative process and critics commit more of their time outside of the theater.

(all photos courtesy of Tony Powell)