Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Baltimore Ballet-10 Year Anniversary Gala

The Lyric Opera House-Baltimore, MD
March 28, 2010

A Gala is a much-anticipated event in any ballet company's season. It is even more special when it commemorates a milestone, like the 10 Year Anniversary Gala for the Baltimore Ballet. But, behind the jubilant nature of a gala lies a ton of work and effort. In addition to the usual logistic issues associated with such a production, this particular celebration had to weather and deal with the unexpected: Mother Nature. The original performance had to be canceled because of this year's epic snowstorm. Rescheduling could not have been easy (juggling everyone's timetables, re-booking the venue, advising the patrons, etc.) but they made it happen. The result - an inspiring evening of dance, rewarded with a lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation.

The program's varied skill level was refreshing: students of the school, dancers from the Baltimore Ballet, guests artists - some seasoned professionals and others at early points in their careers. Cem and Elysabeth Catbas assembled a wonderfully diverse cast, reflecting the scope of any ballet company. Many directors are afraid to put their students onstage with professional dancers and many professional dancers feel that it is beneath them to perform with students. But, in reality, all dancers are students; they exist in a constant state of learning. How fitting to show this journey of the artist in concert with the journey of this company.

The sixteen pieces in the program also showed incredible breadth. Of all the solo variations, the most technically-sound were Katherine Williams (Aurora's Variation from Act 3 of Sleeping Beauty), Devon Teuscher (Gamzatti Variation from La Bayadere) and Jade Payette (Medora Variation from Le Corsaire). Payette's turns in second were extraordinary. Amanda Cobb and Alys Shee also gave compelling performances which highlighted both their electric stage presence and technical aptitude. Cobb performed two divergent works – Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's haunting Chaconne and the charming, light-hearted Bluebird pas de deux. She always dances with her entire being; an inherent quality that is truly transformative. Alys Shee's role in Catbas' Carnival of the Animals also deserves particular mention. Her performance in this controlled variation demonstrated a deep understanding and knowledge of how adagio choreography must be danced. Turns and pirouettes are easier when done quickly, but in adagio work, every rotation demands a steady, equal pace mirroring the rest of the movement. This is a rare skill and Shee has mastered it.

I was fortunate to have had a sneak peek of In Between Time; choreographer Tony Powell invited me to watch him create this work. And, the excerpt performed in the Gala was the section that I saw in rehearsal back in February. The beginning duet, danced by Devon Teuscher and Junio Teixeira, was full of rich movement material, and what I noticed in the performance is that, under Powell's direction, they were able to mold all the ideas and motifs into a steady stream of consciousness. The transitional steps were there, but there were no visible stops and starts; the whole work was seamless. This is an excellent example of polyphonic technique, which does not have any phrasal breaks. Polyphony needs an unbreakable flow and In Between Time has captured this essence.

Gala performances are really all about the dance; it is exposed and revealed without any of the peripheral 'stuff'. This vulnerability definitely tests the strength of the choreography and the performer. Yes, each dancer, or group of dancers, have their costumes and their music, but they are performing entirely out of context (no set, no story, no corps, no conceptual framework). In most cases, the Gala stage is bare with minimal lighting so each variation must compel in its own right. It is a pure forum in which to see dance; where the choreography and the dancer's performance become the only commanding elements. At times, it can feel a little manic to be in the audience while the action moves from Sleeping Beauty to La Bayadere to Swan Lake to Le Corsaire, but if you can get past those abrupt transitions, you will realize that the Gala format, like that of Baltimore Ballet's 10 Year Anniversary Gala, gives a truly genuine celebration of dance.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dance on DVD

Ballets Russes (2005) – Directed by Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989) – Directed by Anne Belle & Deborah Dickson

We live in a world where public libraries are downsizing their performing arts collections and video stores are becoming extinct. Even when video rental institutions were on every corner, they rarely had a good selection of dance films and documentaries. And, unless you live close to a major city, your library may not shelve any scholarly dance titles. We are so lucky to have Netflix. This superior service (still relatively new at thirteen-years-old) gives its subscribers access to newer releases and archival gems. This week I saw one film from each category, Ballets Russes (2005) and Dancing for Mr. B.: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989). Both documentaries alternated historical dance excerpts with interview segments, educating the viewer and celebrating dance. The films also moved beyond pure entertainment and challenged two assumptions that I (and others, I'm sure) hold about twentieth century ballet.

Many modern dance biographies and much modern dance theory describe early- to mid-twentieth century ballet as stringent, establishment and unoriginal. Further, this body of scholarship suggests that ballet's rigidity motivated choreographers and dancers to explore freer movement, which in turn, led to the creation of modern dance. Ballets Russes rightly contradicts this thesis, by illustrating the depth of inventiveness that existed in mid-twentieth century ballet. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, under the direction of Leonide Massine, performed works that confronted choreographic boundaries, introduced new relationships between music and dance, proposed a more prominent role for the male dancer (beyond the pas de deux) and incorporated costume and set design by distinguished up-and-coming artists. Ballets Russes tells the story of a company that constantly pushed the envelope and by doing so, reached new pinnacles in dance. Some of the excerpts (in particular Massine's Rouge et Noir) were far riskier than today's modern dance.

The Balanchine ballerina is another topic very prominent in dance discourse – a "type" that George Balanchine felt best suited his technique (small head, short torso, long neck and limbs). We hear a lot about this "type" and know that the female dancers in his company did in fact, share many of these physical attributes. But, what we don't hear enough of is the vast degree of individualism that also existed amongst his dancers. The common denominator for the six women in Dancing for Mr. B was that they all danced for Balanchine. But as you listened to them and watched clips of their dancing, their individuality was as compelling as Balanchine's technique and choreography. And, it seems that their unique qualities (style, artistry and personality) were encouraged: the gentle, extra extension of Maria Tallchief's hands; the 'ta-da' flourish present at the end of Melissa Hayden's solo variations; Allegra Kent's fragile, almost translucent innocence; the clear, crisp speed of the very tall Merrill Ashley. They were not cookie-cutter imitations of each other. Dancing for Mr. B taught me that a Balanchine ballerina was and is much more than a particular body type capable of a perfect tendu.

I am fickle when it comes to dance on film; I still can't decide if I like it or not. When dance is made for film, the choreography seems somewhat contrived and limited. Some movements may be avoided or omitted because the camera cannot capture them adequately. When dance is simply being filmed (not specifically made for film), the viewer is at the mercy of the camera-operator. They are deciding what you see and how you see it. In both circumstances, the scope of the work is being controlled. At the same time, dance on film allows you the rare opportunity to re-watch material as many times as you want or need. Dance onstage is impermanent and no two performances (even with the same casting) are ever really the same. So, if you need to see something again exactly how you saw it before, dance on film is perhaps the only way to go. I was glad to have that option while watching both Ballets Russes and Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas. Being able to rewind was incredibly helpful. Though, does this positive benefit of dance on film outweigh the negative implications? I still don't know.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CityDance Ensemble-Catalyst

Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC
March 14, 2010

The relationship between narrative and abstract dance is tough to navigate. So, we still cling to a very basic differentiation between the two: in narrative dance, the choreography unlocks the premise, and in abstract dance, the choreography is the premise. This statement seems harmless, but it unwittingly separates content and form into two competitive camps. This struggle for artistic worth is fueled by scholars, theorists and academics. While they are stuck bickering over these stringent categorizations, choreography has moved on. Most dance exists somewhere in the middle, blurring the line between narrative and abstract dance a bit more every day. CityDance Ensemble's recent concert, Catalyst, showcased five works that revealed both story and structural elements. All five pursued some message, whether linear, conceptual, or based in imagery. Concurrently, they all committed to a structural interdependence of music and dance, reflecting musical form within choreography.

I had the opportunity last month to preview Little Adorations and Entangled, two works by Paul Gordon Emerson that examine flirtation: the fun, the risk, the excitement and the abandon. At this weekend's performance, the musical polyphony was still well-integrated into Little Adorations. At times, the three dancers had their own lines of movement and at others, they came together in unison. This is the magic of polyphonic technique - that voices that can continually merge and separate while still remaining a cohesive unit. Emerson has a real gift for reflecting this complex musical form in his choreography. When I last saw Entangled, I was so captivated by the technique of Elizabeth Gahl and Maleek Mahkail Washington that I missed the relationship between the choreography and the music. This time I could see that their dance was like another musical instrument; they added to and interacted with the live jazz ensemble. Live music is odd component in dance performance. We want it to be present, but usually, there is very little (in fact, almost no) acknowledgement between the dancers and the musicians. In Entangled, the musicians and dancers worked together, to create a truly collaborative artistic experience. I have only seen this done successfully one other time, in Balanchine's Duo Concertant.

+1/-1 is brand new (Catalyst was its preview performance), but already it is my favorite Christopher K. Morgan piece. From a musical perspective, the staccatos and accented notes in the score were equally indicated by percussive movements in the body, particularly the recurring motif of shuffling jumps in parallel second. Morgan offered a brief comment in the program, explaining the conceptual side of this work: the addition and subtraction of dancers from the choreographic space. I love this idea because it takes the rehearsal process and places it into the performance realm in a very unique way. Choreographers experiment, develop and re-work sections to discover what can be said with more or with less. But, audiences rarely get a chance to see any part of that developmental phase. Here, Morgan is combining 'the creating' with 'the creation'. On yet another level, +1/-1 spoke to everyday relationships. The choreography displayed a genuine sense of meeting, relating and then parting ways; an experience that can be joyful, sad or frightening. Morgan's +1/-1 is a substantial work.

Two divergent Paul Taylor pieces completed the evening, Last Look and Images. For me, Taylor's work always demonstrates a strong narrative element - usually not a linear story, instead, a significant conceptual basis. Though this time, his commitment to musical form also stood out in both dances. Last Look is a frightening descent into the human psyche. I'm still not sure whether it is a comment on insanity, psychosis or self-loathing, but whichever, it is dark, dark, dark. The trills and arpeggiation in Donald York's music were imitated by the twitching and writhing onstage. The most ingenious marriage of music and dance in Last Look occurred in the 4th position changement jumps (which were performed overtop of dancers laying on the ground). These happened in concert with sforzando chords in the music. The immediate accent, followed by the abrupt pull back of sforzando lived in those jumps. The second Taylor work, Images, had snapshots of and glimpses into the pioneers of modern dance. We saw the tilt, contraction and spiral of Graham, the straight line profile of Denishawn, and the chorus work of Humphrey. Each picture of modern dance was its own complete entity with a very clear beginning and ending. There was little transitional material in Taylor's choreography, which is very much the same as Debussy's music. Within one composition, it is characteristic for Debussy to introduce and complete a section, and then move to a completely new and different idea, usually with a unique time signature, key and theme. Images had vignettes of modern dance styles that fit well with the vignettes of Debussy's music.

Dance scholars love to debate: ballet versus modern, interdisciplinary versus new media, content versus form and Balanchine versus everyone else. There is nothing inherently wrong with these arguments, except that our field is moving on and leaving us behind. CityDance's Catalyst illustrates that choreography exists at every point along a spectrum. Polarized views of performance are dated. Dance theory must be flexible and adapt; maintaining the status quo is pointless.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Black Grace

George Mason University Center for the Arts-Fairfax, Virginia
March 6, 2010

This weekend, George Mason University's Center for the Arts presented Black Grace, a New Zealand dance company that seeks to blend the contemporary and the cultural. Samoan and Pacific Island ethnic dance permeated the program, though the message I saw in Black Grace's presentation was one of common ground. Their movement, though distinctive, demonstrated that dance is a shared understanding; culturally and stylistically.

The use of body and foot percussion was a theme that ran through many of the pieces with all sorts of snapping, beating and clapping sequences. Physical percussion is unique because it is both dance and music at the same time. Of course, the choreography of Black Grace revealed the importance of body percussion in Pacific Island culture, yet it was also reminiscent of tap, Kathak, Irish step-dancing, Appalachian clogging, and Croatian folk-dance. What emerged from the stage was a rich cultural mosaic with an incredible dualism: the importance of diversity combined with a sense of unity. Dance that is linked to a specific cultural or geographical area still shares movement vocabulary with other dance forms, transcending boundaries.

The body percussion sections that were performed a cappella (Minoi and Pati Pati) were the highlights of the show. It is incredibly difficult, even for a professional troupe, to maintain consistency and unison without accompaniment. All it takes is one dancer accelerating slightly, and before you know it, the speed of the whole section is akin to a skier racing down an icy hill. Black Grace kept their unaccompanied body percussion incredibly accurate.

After intermission, the company danced two excerpts from a larger work, Gathering Clouds. The second, Keep Honour Bright, retained many of the cultural elements introduced in the first half of the program, but this time more heavily weighted in a modern dance framework. The structure and juxtaposition of the movement and the music literally took center stage. Set to Bach's Goldberg Variations, the subject and countersubject in his composition were equally present in the dancers' steps. Neil Ieremia, Black Grace's Artistic Director, has the necessary choreographic skill to shape movement that can reflect the complexity of Bach's polyphony. Mark Morris possesses a similar finesse with music and dance, though Ieremia was not afraid to add concept and imagery to his exploration of the score. The movement and the music were compelling in their own right, yet Ieremia surpassed his peers by adding a narrative dimension.

Between most of the pieces, Ieremia came out to speak to the audience. Usually I can do without this kind of interaction. Choreographers tend to introduce their work in too much detail and as a result, I find that my interpretation becomes clouded. I end up seeing what they tell me I should see rather than what emerges from an unfettered viewing. However, this time it didn't bother me because Ieremia was absolutely delightful. He spoke so easily and humorously to the group, it was as if he was having a one-on-one conversation with every individual there. There were no barriers, he was just talking - about his family, his heritage, his culture and his choreography, without affectation or pretentiousness. He did give a little more description of the dances than I would have liked, but his demeanor was so genuine that I didn't care. And, with his small company (most of them performed in every piece), these interludes were necessary so that the dancers could change costumes.

As I see dance from different parts of the world, I become more and more convinced that the performing arts can teach in a way that other mediums cannot. The body, moving in space, is something true across many cultures. Companies like Black Grace communicate that our similarities run deeper than our differences.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Washington Ballet-The Great Gatsby

choreography by Septime Webre
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
February 27, 2010

I love watching ballet, but I rarely describe it as fun. Whether abstract or narrative, many ballets are just not that entertaining, instead focused on the complex, obscure and sometimes somber. These serious undertones and overtones can be a bit of a downer. Art should challenge us, but is it too much to ask for there to be some good old-fashioned revelry mixed in alongside the doom and gloom? In The Washington Ballet's production of Septime Webre's The Great Gatsby, I saw firsthand that fun and depth do not have to be mutually exclusive nor in a contentious relationship. A full-length narrative ballet can actually be fun and thought-provoking at the same time! Deeper issues were treated with due diligence, without sacrificing amusement or frivolity. The sets, costumes, live jazz and outstanding vocalists combined with Webre's choreography to create a stylistic sizzle appropriate to this time of luxury and lavishness. And, the consequences of extravagance were also well-represented in moments of regret, loss, sorrow, heartache, and infidelity. These characters and their relationships are scarred and damaged, yet in the midst of that darkness, parties raged on. The decadence was not only to blame for their reality, but also an escape from their reality.

The Great Gatsby was a stage full of visual splendor and the choreography was equally opulent, specifically the lush footwork. With the women, Webre explored the foot's full range of motion, utilizing flatfoot, demi-pointe and pointework. Daisy's choreography (danced Saturday night by Elizabeth Gaither) had beautiful demi-pointe turns and flatfoot poses in attitude. In ballet, we are so used to seeing women glued to full pointe that it is easy to forget the elegance that flat and demi-pointe options can provide.

The men's choreography was infused with more petit allegro sequences than I have seen in a long time. These intricate, quick phrases skim the floor with small jumps, quick demi-plies and multiple beats. When done well, petit allegro is captivating and flashy, very appropriately matched to the story of The Great Gatsby. As Nick, Jonathan Jordan's opening solo was the epitome of debonair charisma, not because of his spectacular big jumps, but because of his detailed batterie (entrechat quartre, assemble, entrechat trois). The combination of the down (his plie) and the up (his petit allegro) was sumptuously tactile. Another marvelous example of petit allegro occurred during one of the many party scenes where four men danced a combination with their hands in their pockets. I still don't have the words to complement their series of brisees. This incredibly difficult jump places the body weight forward in space as the the back foot beats the other leg in front (all while airborne) and then lands in the back again. Doing one of these jumps properly is tough, but these guys did half a dozen or more in a row, with no help from their arms. Wow!

This ballet also confirmed for me that Brooklyn Mack is the most outstanding male dancer in the Washington Ballet. He has it all - incomparable technique and dramatic strength in character portrayals. As George Wilson, his Valley of the Ashes dance was amazing, but his final solo after Myrtle's death was transcendent. It was pure anger, pure fire, pure desperation and pure sadness all manifested in dance. His choreography was an explosion of all these emotions.

Hopefully as this new ballet continues to develop in the repertory, two issues will be addressed. First was the character of Jordan Baker. Jordan was not well-integrated into the ballet. She was present in most of the scenes, though it was not always clear why she was there. Yes, we knew she was Daisy's friend and confidant, but even that relationship was not well-established. The part was danced beautifully by Jade Payette, her performance was not the problem. At best, the treatment of this character in the ballet was peripheral and her role in the story unclear. My second issue is nit-picky, but definitely requires mention. There was one particular group sequence that had the party guests in a wedge formation, and one female dancer was at the point of the wedge, leading in a sense. This particular dancer was having a great night for balance on Saturday. With every turn and pose, she was undoubtedly on her leg. Coming out of each step, she was able to hold her position longer than the rest of the group. In solo circumstances, this would be a positive thing, but when you are supposed to be in unison with other dancers, indulging in that extra moment is not a good idea. She was at the very front and at least a half a beat late for the entire variation. With everyone else being right on time, it just looked messy.

These two small observances certainly do not detract from the wonderful achievement of Webre's The Great Gatsby. His rendition told this story of longing with equal parts drama and jubilance. New productions all go through a period of growth and change after their premiere, and I look forward to the next iteration of this beautiful ballet. If for no other reason than reminding me that going to the ballet can be fun.