Friday, April 30, 2010

Fieldwork for Mixed Desciplines-The Dinner Party

DC Arts Center - Washington, D.C.
April 28, 2010

The Field/DC's presentation of The Dinner Party was one of the first dance events that I attended after moving to DC last summer. So, as I prepare to return to California, it seems fitting that another episode of The Dinner Party will be one of my final DC reviews. A wonderfully diverse program awaited the audience with nine individual offerings. Choreographic works still dominated the program, though this time, music and photography were also included. The breadth was an accurate representation of 'fieldwork for mixed disciplines' as opposed to my first Dinner Party where there was only dance and only solos. This broader scope also permeated the choreographic works themselves: two solos, a duet and three group pieces. Variety was the common denominator on Wednesday night.

The four solo performances (2 music, 2 dance) were the highlights of the evening. Patrick Smith's Creation Suite, a tripartite acoustic guitar composition, was beautiful. In particular, the first movement, Kinnara, explored the space between major and minor keys using arpeggiation. I felt the presence of a Baroque prelude where the purpose was to explore different keys to the enth degree, including notes and intervals that are not necessarily a part of that original key. This type of experimentation is really the only way to unlock the mysteries of and discover the possibilities within the major and the minor. The electronic music of Yoko K. involved audience participation in composing her soundscape. She was so genuine, authentic and passionate about her message of 'small changes' that you could not help but be charmed by her and her musical goals. Bridget Kelly's Center explored and examined points of origin in the body and how they translate into choreography. Positions were achieved (the arm behind the body, a pointed index finger, arabesque extension), though the intent was focused on how the body got to those postures. Nothing was peripherally placed; it organically emerged from a central point, traveled through transitory space and then achieved the final pose. These resting places were very beautiful in their own right, but for me, the impetus and transitional movement were most compelling. Feel This, composed and danced by Ilana Silverstein, was the final piece of the program. The costuming and choreography suggested a Duncanesque, Egyptian quality as she moved through a series of very dramatic poses. Silverstein is a strong performer and her choreography interesting, but her gaze was very distracting. She constantly looked around with no clear focal point, taking away from the overall piece. This is something that is incredibly difficult to recognize if you are choreographing on yourself. I wonder if she should spend some time out of her work setting it on other dancers. A lack of visual focus would be obvious if she was choreographing on someone else.

Of the group pieces, the most developed were two by Orit Sherman, Sphere and Inside a Cell. Sphere has a very consistent image throughout the work, starting right with the opening pose. The dancers stand in 2nd position, with their hands grasping an imaginary ball. As they moved through the dance, the volume of that spherical space remained clear in their bodies. Inside a Cell reminds us that sometimes biological progressions can be both calm and organic or abrupt and jarring. Sherman sought to illustrate both aspects - quiet flow alongside punctuating change. Although the dancing and choreography were strong in both of these pieces, I must admit that at times, I was worried about the safety of the dancers. Each piece had seven women and the performance space at the DC Arts Center is tiny. There was some holding back and some actual collisions due to the restrained working area. I would be interested to see these pieces in a larger venue to get a fuller understanding.

The idea of works-in-progress is necessary in the performing arts, but it is also leaves me feeling a little lost. I want to see another showing of all these pieces at their next level of development. I think this would provide a much stronger relationship between the audience and the work. Then again, maybe it's completely valid to not have a sense of resolution.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

NY Export: Opus Jazz

PBS Great Performances
Dance in America
"NY Export: Opus Jazz"-2010
original airdate-March 24, 2010

The relationship between dance and film has several layers and dimensions. First and most common, dance is usually filmed. Videographers generally record most work (in rehearsal or performance) for archival, press or company purposes. Second, with the rise of 'interdisciplinary' and 'new media' movements, film has a home in live performance as an additional element conveying the message of the choreography. Then there is the dance film - a separate entity where dancemaking and filmmaking purposefully fuse in the creation of a cohesive artpiece. For a successful dance film, there must be a two-way give and take where choreography adapts to film and film adapts to choreography. Most dance films fail to meet this criteria and the film portion takes over, resulting in a completely inaccessible and weird product. Some level of weirdness is okay, but can there be more to the choreography than one dancer sitting on a chair twirling her hair for an hour and a half? The post-moderns would counter by saying that this pedestrian, gestural movement is just as valid a dance choice as a pas de deux. Fine, but can we have a little balance? I don't mind experiencing deconstructed movement but, if a film is billed as a dance film, it would be nice to include some formal technique as well. I think that a true dance film is a rather elusive animal.

Enter NY Export: Opus Jazz, a new 2010 film version of Jerome Robbins' Ballet in Sneakers (1958). This may be the only real and actual dance film I have ever seen, where the choreography remained technically and authentically intact, the abstraction of filmmaking was captured through landscape and scenework and most important, Robbins' examination of youth was constant in both media (film and dance). The opening visuals of the film are a short journey through everyday youth activities: relaxing at the beach, playing video games, skateboarding, bicycling, riding the subway, doing laundry. Before any dance step enters the picture, the narrative of young urban life has been established. The context is there from the very beginning and holds true through the entire film. The first group dance sequence takes place in an outdoor space where circle dances and couple dances pervade. This provided a strong indication of both the social role of dance and the flirtation and romance behind it. Another open space, warehouse-style this time, housed a variation for the men where the movements embodied struggle, anger, abandon and freedom. The filmed locale provided a place where these feelings could be explored and the choreography itself - lunges with hands reaching out and quick pirouettes followed by abrupt falls to the floor - told of the internal emotions. In all of the segments, real jazz steps helped forward the story: rule-breaking parallel pirouettes, laid-back step-ball-changes, flirty hip isolations, sexy fan kicks, showy hitch kicks, and unrestrained axles and lay-outs. Robbins was able to bring this unique physical syllabus to life in a way that fed his narrative vision.

Not only was NY Export: Opus Jazz an excellent dance film, but also an example of solid jazz choreography. Jazz dance is in a precarious place right now; at a crossroads of sorts. Currently, jazz is abundant in dance studios, performance teams and on reality television. At the same time, it is not very successful in professional or semi-professional choreography. The dance genre itself is not to blame; jazz dance has an incredible movement vocabulary on which to build interesting and artistically challenging work. But the reality is that jazz dance, as used today, lacks artistic maturity and choreographic rigor. For jazz to participate and flourish in the repertory of professional companies, we must look beyond its adolescent performance team identity. Not every movement has to mean something, but it doesn't have to look like a dance studio recital either. Jerome Robbins' choreography shows that jazz has a important and valuable role alongside ballet, modern, and post-modern dance: the depth of this art form is there, it just isn't being adequately accessed right now.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Deborah Riley Dance Projects - Chew on This

Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
April 17, 2010

Our relationship with food is complex. There are weighty yet pertinent topics to be addressed: sustainability, hunger, obesity, greed. Though in the quest to give these serious issues their due attention, it is easy to forget the other end of food's spectrum: community, enjoyment, fun, celebration. In Chew on This, Deborah Riley Dance Projects succeeded in balancing both sides, without downplaying or emphasizing either. In addition, Riley did not attempt to solve any problems relating to food. Rather, through the interdisciplinary performance, she introduced various topics and let the audience sit with them. There were no conclusions or calls to actions, just ideas and information. An unresolved story, like this one, forces the audience to look at how the subject matter plays out in their own lives. A risky and vulnerable undertaking for a choreographer, but incredibly relevant.

A sense of inclusion was apparent as soon as you walked into the theater. Instead of the usual drawn curtain, the performance space was open and filled with dancers engaged in a picnicking scene; they were talking, snacking and interacting with each other and the guests. The audience was encouraged to partake of food tables set up at the front of the stage. It was a very relaxing and inviting environment where food was a soothing, calming presence.

The formal part of the program began unobtrusively while the house lights were still up and everyone was still chatting. The company members from Chew on This then led us through a plethora of emotion and action surrounding food. The first major group section integrated pieces of fruit into the choreography, where we saw the dancers treating each apple and orange with significant care and attention, as if the food held a sacred meaning for them. This section had a surprising end when the movement abruptly turned to grabbing, hoarding and hiding the food. It was interesting to see this place of respect spiral into one of selfishness. A subsequent segment featured short duets employing contact improvisation as the primary choreographic tool. Here the couples shared various points of weight in order to accomplish the steps, speaking to our mutual need in achieving common goals. One final variation revealed the dichotomy that often exists in the world of food. One couple performed a haunting, almost hopeless pas de deux surrounded by a circle of other dancers. The circle individuals were passing fruit back and forth to each other in the true spirit of sharing. While that was occurring, the two dancers in the middle were clearly excluded from partaking in this meal. They tried (several times) to break away from the circle and move to another space, but each time, they were followed and enveloped again. A brilliant juxtaposition of how we include only those we choose, without looking right in front of us at those in need.

Deborah Riley has created a brave composition where somber and lighthearted material can peacefully co-exist. Peter DiMuro even provided moments of true humor with his narrative interludes. Modern dance that tackles societal problems is so often jam-packed with angst, sometimes to the point that the importance of the issue gets lost. Balance is the key and Riley's Chew on This reflected a necessary parity.

The Washington Ballet-Bolero(+)

Harman Center for the Arts, Washington, D.C.
April 14, 2010

Before most Washington Ballet performances, Artistic Director Septime Webre greets the audience with a brief comment about the evening's program. Besides being a very genuine moment where the fourth wall disappears, this provides valuable context. At Bolero(+) on Wednesday night, Webre shared two important observations. First, he noted that the three dancemakers on this particular bill celebrate a new generation of ballet. They are contemporary artists, creating current, new work. Second, Webre shared that the Washington Ballet was able to work directly with each of these choreographers. Wunderland was created on the company one year ago by Edwaard Liang, Karole Armitage's Brahms on Edge was a world premiere and Nicolo Fonte was available to set his Bolero on this talented group. These days, the gift of working in the studio with a ballet's creator is becoming less and less frequent; now more of a luxury than the norm. This personal interaction was very apparent in all three pieces; the attention to detail proving that no other method of staging dance works quite as well.

Wunderland unfolds like a steady crescendo. Filled with several divertissements, it is hard to imagine that each section could be better than the last. They were. As Liang built on what had come before, each segment transcended expectation. Several specific moments deserve mention. Near the beginning of the ballet, there was a short combination, featuring the men. They were unbelievably on. A double pirouette followed by a double tour en l'air not only ended in unison, but each internal rotation was also completely together. I think I actually said "wow" out loud. I don't believe that I've ever seen Maki Onuki and Luis R. Torres dance as a couple, but I was hooked after their duet. Both are beautiful, technical dancers, but it was their chemistry that electrified the stage. Theirs was the best connection in the entire evening. Jonathan Jordan's pirouettes and fouettes were fantastic and it was fun to see some brief glimpses of innovative capoeira in his solo. Lastly, Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson's slow, intense pas de deux had the most fantastic and inventive partnering moves. Without much preparation, Gaither leapt backward into a pseudo-backbend over Nelson's head. The lift came out of nowhere, which made it even more astonishing. Having said that, I must say that Wunderland's opening scene has always been a disappointment for me. The visual element is stunning: the curtain rises to find five women balanced en pointe in a deep plie (2nd position) with their upper backs curved down toward the floor. I've seen this ballet more than once and I've never seen all five nail this difficult balance. Last Wednesday, two dancers looked like they might fall over.

Karole Armitage's Brahms on Edge had some interesting moments, although the choreography was not particularly deep. One exception to this was its compelling start, utilizing seven women in the company. It looked like an adagio center combination in a ballet class - a good representation of this learning environment. Every dancer has different degrees of flexibility, strength and internal timing and the classroom is where they are encouraged to build their technique, challenge themselves and take risks. Armitage really captured this essence. Beyond that short segment, the compositional elements were par for the contemporary ballet course and the piece not very well-defined. The dance explored elements of the abstract, narrative, and deconstructed narrative, though at the same time, not really fitting into any of those choreographic forms. Some choreographers enjoy this ambiguous presence in their work, however, the problem with this dance is that ill-defined read as imprecise.

Nicolo Fonte's Bolero, the namesake of the program, was a fascinating examination of tempi. This work explored the extremes of speed: accelerandos and ritardandos coupled together in the choreography. The juxtaposition of fast and slow movements was interesting in its own right, though even more so, when underscored by Ravel's monotonous, recurrent music. There was a continual, pulsing undercurrent with which the choreography's speed could play. Fonte's comment on tempo also spoke to the energy required for different types of movement. Bolero questions the assumed and required energy output for all movement, fast or slow.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

New York Theatre Ballet-Dance on a Shoestring

NYTB Dance Gallery, New York City
April 10, 2010

These days, audience development for ballet companies must be high on the priority list. The situation is dire; the economy is bad and funding opportunities for the arts seem to dry up a little more every day. In such a climate, fostering long-term relationships with subscribers is of utmost importance. For some groups, it may even be the key to their survival. Repertory choices need to be broad - new exciting ballets that appeal to a wider audience coupled with classics that balletomanes adore. But, a well-rounded repertoire is not enough anymore. Audience participation has to be more than 6-10 trips to the theater every season. Entrenched involvement should be the goal; a two-way conversation between the company and the patrons. Events, parties, and receptions are fine ideas but they are really 'old school'. Everyone needs to start thinking outside the box like they are doing at New York Theatre Ballet. Under the guidance of Artistic Director Diana Byer and Associate Artistic Director Christina Paolucci, they are cultivating a true community spirit in support of the company. Their 'Dance on a Shoestring' program provides magnificent but intimate performances in their studio space for only $15 a seat. This is what inspires audiences to make long-standing commitments to dance, not fancy champagne auctions.

The joy of the company was palpable in each of the five works on the program. The waltz from Sleeping Beauty took two children from the school and put them onstage with NYTB dancers. This is very special because it is accurately represents the breadth of any company. Seeing the school is important, and the kids who danced this waltz were very good. Some performers could learn a thing or two watching the young boy's (Kai Monroe) double pirouette. Marco Pelle's Transit is a visual triumph. The soloist, Kieran Stoneley, began with his back to the audience, and wore a mask on the back of his head. As he moved his arms through the choreography, an optical illusion was created where the back of the body was being transformed into the front. Once that sequence was complete, he removed the mask and arose from the floor. Then, Stoneley performed the most beautiful promenade in attitude, a movement missing from so many men's variations. We were fortunate to see this breathtaking position again in Antony Tudor's Soiree Musicale; his is maybe the best example from a male dancer of the correct line in attitude. The Tirolese section of this work, danced by Elena Zahlmann and Mitchell Kilby, was joyous. Petit allegro sequences like this one need sufficient plie, suspension and ballon so as to not appear labored. Zahlmann and Kilby met these technical demands, though the quality of their variation displayed much more than textbook accuracy. The final mention must go to Carmella Lauer, who performed in three of the works. Her presence onstage was both stunning and compelling. Whether dancing or just watching her fellow company members, she was always in the moment.

The final piece, Suite from Mazurkas (choreography by Jose Limon), did present some challenges. This particular dance is full of fast footwork, running steps, and leaping sequences; very playful combinations of movement. The NYTB dancers have definitely grasped the spirit and emotion in this choreography, but they are still missing some of the groundedness required for this type of modern dance. The 'up' was there: flow, suspension and height inarguably present in all the jumps. Giving into the floor needs more attention. The upper body curve that is characteristic of Limon technique was also a bit stunted. The women, specifically, need to let go a bit more to reach greater freedom in the torso. The piece is close and is good on this company, it's just not quite there yet.

After my first 'Dance on a Shoestring' event , I am a little sad that I don't live in New York. If I did, I would come to see New York Theatre Ballet in any performance I could. This is what really thoughtful outreach can do. This company should be applauded for its efforts toward building a lasting dialogue between its patrons and its company activities.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Idan Cohen-Swan Lake

Center for Performance Research – Brooklyn, New York
April 8, 2010

Swan Lake in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - mismatch or marriage? Establishment dance in a land of ironic T-shirts, asymmetrical bangs, giant horn-rimmed glasses and sleeve tattoos? Pairing these two entities does seem a bit strange. Swan Lake is about as conventional as you can get in dance, and the Williamsburg District is anything but conventional. Thankfully, the title of a piece is not necessarily definitive of the work. Such is the case with Idan Cohen's Swan Lake, presented last week at The Center for Performance Research. The dance may be set to Tchaikovsky's score; but the story is only a jumping off point; the title contextual. Cohen's avant-garde, experimental examination of this classic is perfect for a setting that breeds mod coolness. Through his interdisciplinary analysis, Idan Cohen has created a piece that punctuates the dualistic elements of Swan Lake (good/evil, love/betrayal, life/death, human/animal), while uncovering the deeper underlying theme of manipulation. It is this discovery that is the work's most significant accomplishment.

Manipulation plagues the story of Swan Lake. Throughout the entire ballet, the character interactions relay this rampant virus. We see the evil Von Rothbart as the king of duplicity whose forceful hold on Odette and Prince Siegfried is unyielding. In addition, there are others whose actions are insidious, notably the Prince's mother and in some instances, even Benno (although, perhaps unconsciously). This same theme (manipulation) appears in Cohen's Swan Lake, though its manifestation is unexpected. His Swan Lake had a kinesthetic, archaeological rigor, the result of his intense research into this historic tale. He chipped away at the peripheral nonsense, and produced an honest comment on what manipulation means in the body and to the soul.

The harp variation in Act I spoke to the dichotomy between what the body can accomplish with dance and the demands that dance makes on the body. In this section, the solo dancer maneuvered and arranged her limbs into various poses. At times, her attempts to adjust her body were deliberate but calm, while at others, she was bullying and forcing her anatomy into extreme positions with a fury of coercion and force. This visceral example of manipulation speaks to the relationship between dance and the body. Years of studying ballet (and most other dance forms) does not automatically afford you with kinesthetic knowledge; in fact there is often a lack of attention to anatomy and body mechanics. Dancers are constantly told to lift this, tighten that and turn out without the necessary information about the muscles that they must access. Some muscle groups are not even where you think they are (turn out muscles being the perfect example). A clearer understanding of kinesiology means everything in dance; it can change even common exercises, like grand battement. Grand battement is a thrown kick; the accent occurring at the highest point followed be a controlled return to 5th or 1st position. This textbook description is only part of it. If you understand that the trajectory of the leg is an arc, your engagement of that movement changes dramatically. With this added insight, the 'out' becomes just as important as the 'up' or the 'down'. Sadly, this crucial guidance is not always provided, even by advanced teachers. Dance does not have to be a manipulation of the body, but when kinesiology and body mechanics are missing from the equation, it can feel that way. This Swan Lake did not attempt to provide solutions or answers to this problem; instead it simply brought this important issue to the table for discussion.

This juxtaposition of old and new made Idan Cohen's Swan Lake perfect for Williamsburg. This enclave of “hipsterdom” stylizes in the now, yet with a clear reverence and celebration of what has come before. Cohen's Swan Lake was on the same page; his was not an adaptation or even a re-make of the classical Swan Lake. Instead, the important messages and lessons from the old were taken through a transformation into something new and applicable for today.