The upshot of my trip to Peak Performances at Montclair: LA Dance Projects is a worthy enterprise, despite Millepied’s own limitations as a choreographer, at least so far. The performance of William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” especially, is enough reason to give the new ensemble the benefit of the doubt.
“If one is able to forget about the celebrity hype and the Dior perfume ads, one begins to see Benjamin Millepied for what he is: an ambitious young choreographer and impresario, trying to find his place in the cacophonous, quarrelsome dance world. He has chosen to set up shop in L.A., far from his old stomping grounds. Of course, the celebrity and the perfume ads are inevitably part of the story, since to a certain extent they make the enterprise possible. The exposure provided by one facilitates the other. But the question remains: what does Millepied mean to accomplish with this small ensemble of six dancers which he has called the L.A. Dance Project?”
A group of dancers from the Royal Ballet came to Works and Process to discuss and show excerpts from their new production of La Bayadère. I wrote about it for DanceTabs.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Petipa’s Bayadère was set in a typical nineteenth-century Orientalist fantasy, a mythical India of the distant past in which temple dancers performed fire rites and submitted to (or rejected) the advances of high priests. Hübbe has scrapped that idea and moved the action to the late nineteenth, early twentieth, century, the height of the Raj. Nikiya is still a Hindu temple dancer – or devadasi – but her lover is no longer an Indian warrior, but rather a British officer, Sir William. William’s betrothed (Emma) is now the daughter of a British Vice Consul, not an Indian princess. In effect, William must choose between a white woman of his class, and an Indian woman far below his station. Hübbe has injected both race and colonial politics into the story – it remains to be seen whether the flimsy, fairy-tale plot can sustain such a dose of historical realism.”
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that “American Ballet Theatre will announce Wednesday that it has signed a three-year deal to perform at the David H. Koch Theater, starting in October 2013 with a two-week season.”
That means the end of City Center seasons, though the decision won’t affect the Met season or the Nutcracker run at BAM. Still, it’s a big change. More fallout from City Opera’s desertion of Lincoln Center.
Last February, Akram Khan’s company performed “Vertical Road” at Montclair State University. (I reviewed it at the time, for The Faster Times.) This week, it returns as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.
Here’s an excerpt from that review:
“As the piece begins, a shadow appears behind the membrane, suddenly pushing against it, producing a loud noise that makes the audience gasp. He does it again. The shadow, now clearly a male form, draws circles on the membrane, then writes on it with his finger, creating beautiful, shimmering ripples. Then, at the end of the piece, the membrane falls to the ground with a dramatic flutter; transcendence has been achieved, the barriers to enlightenment cut away. It’s a little obvious, but still, esthetically pleasing.
The dancers are beautiful and strong, powerfully present without being showy or over-dramatic. They interact with great intimacy; it’s not “here, I’m touching you in order to lift you,” but “I put my hand on your hip and you trust me.” After a long erotic pas de deux—I read it as an illustration of transcendence through sexual ecstasy—a man (I believe it was Andrej Petrovic) removed his partner’s outermost layer of clothing (I believe she was Eulalia Ayguade Farro) and one could feel the sexual tenderness of his touch. If these two dancers are not lovers, they damn well look like they are and the truthfulness of their performance elicits echoes of recognition in our own minds. We too have known moments like this.
Khan’s dancers move with weight and a strong sense of thrust. The choreography here combines the sinuousness and focus of martial arts with the quick, powerful changes of direction and whip-like arm movements of Indian dance—the dancers look like warriors and spiritual seekers, drawing circles with their arms and torsos, dragging their bodies along the ground, squatting in preparation for animal-like leaps, spinning like dervishes. There is a powerful section in which two men enter into combat, without ever touching each other. The force fields of their hands ripple through the space that separates them, sending them flying or crashing down to the ground. But there is not quite enough variety of tone to keep things interesting throughout the seventy-or-so minutes of the performance. There is too much unison dancing, and the rhythms stay too close to the thumping beat of the music, like an insistent pulse. It’s over-literal. Enlightenment is one thing, but as they say, half the fun is getting there.”
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Art is one of the most subjective experiences around. I’m reminded of that often when I’m at the theatre, feeling elated by something I’ve just seen, and hearing someone complain about the self-same thing, or vice versa. I’m always shocked, for example, when someone says they’re bored by Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room—how can one not like In the Upper Room?! Or the films of Wes Anderson? Or Schubert’s songs? They seem so immutably fine, so well-constructed and intelligent and essential. All of which brings me Pina Bausch, and her final opus Como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si, completed just weeks before her death. It is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Oct. 27.
Bausch’s works are adored by fans the world over. Almodóvar has included passages in his movies, Wim Wenders has rendered them in 3D in Pina; great dancers dream of performing them. But I’ll just come out and say it: for the most part, they leave me cold. There are moments, I’ll admit, when an image or an idea will ignite something in my brain. I’ll think to myself: here it is, finally, I am about to enter Bausch’s enchanted garden. But it never lasts; the image passes, the idea is replaced by another, usually less compelling, and then another, and the door closes again. The colorful ball gowns, the high-heeled shoes, the feigned smiles and anguished moues, the little vignettes that lead nowhere, the Dadaist humor which almost never strikes me as funny, not to mention the endless repetition…it all wears me down. As soon as you see something clever, you can be sure you’ll see it again, six or seven times. Most of all, I find the solos—where most of the real dancing happens—unimaginative, essentially variations on the same small repertory of movements. Once in a while a particular dancer will accentuate a specific ingredient, and things snap into focus: I’m quite moved by Dominique Mercy’s deconstruction of balletic poses and awkward musical contrasts, for example, or Ditta Miranda Jasjfi’s shimmering fingers, or Fernando Suels Mendoza’s beautiful, precise footwork. But for the most part, the solos blend into each other; the dancers fold at the waist, swish their hair, roll, squat, whirl their arms, touch various parts of their body, twist, spiral one way and another. The men’s solos cover more ground, but for the most part the elements are very similar. They look improvised, and probably spring from some form of directed improvisation. It’s clear they are not meant to be experienced as dances, exactly, but rather as impressions, portraits of mental states and emotions.
Musguito is filled with these private dances, even more so than other Bausch works; they are strung together, separated by the usual Bauschian vignettes. This is how the second half of the three-hour evening begins: A man (Mendoza) sits on a chair and flirts with one woman after another—“Pero qué chica tan linda, qué linda eres, wow”—and then Jasjfi is carried onstage by another man, and Mendoza and Jasjfi do a tender little dance (he raises her in rocking lifts, caresses her hair, gently pulls up one of her legs, etc.). That done, a woman appears with a plastic bag full of sparkly costume jewelry; smilingly, she puts on a necklace, a ring, a bracelet and then, finally, the plastic bag itself. (Laughter.) Then the dancers place tiny lamps on the floor and someone says “it’s the constellation of Pisces,” and the dancers lie down on the stage and stare at the sky. This is followed by Mendoza’s solo, peppered with delicate coupé turns and accompanied by the raspy voice of the Argentine singer Daniel Melingo in the wonderful song “Cha Digo.” And then a another statuesque beauty—Bausch’s dancers are all ravishing and ravishingly different—comes onstage and begins to scream something that sounds like “Haider!” and a man appears and kisses her hand, and she slaps him, hard. Then, another solo, more swishing hair, more squats, more languorous foldings at the waist.
This is not to say the evening does not have its compelling moments. A scene in which a man and a woman are violently pulled apart again and again by a group of men is a stark reminder of fact that Musguito was developed during a residency in Chile—it is one of Bausch’s World Cities projects—and that Chile has a dark, not-too-distant past in which families and young couples were ripped apart, innocents tortured and killed by the military dictatorship of Pinochet. Also: a nightmare image in which a man crawls across a rope strung from one corner of the stage to the other, while a woman pulls desperately at her own rope, to which she is attached at the waist, like prisoner or a dog. And then there are two of Bausch’s wonderful “chains” in which the dancers line up to perform synchronized movements, together, like a bunch of kids. In one, they caress each other’s hair—hair figures prominently, as you can see—and their smiles remind us of how intensely pleasing it is to have one’s hair played with; in another, they lie on the floor and sway, cross their arms, cover an eye, clap out a rhythm, and whisper 1-2-3, 1-2-3. The music in this section is “Deja la Vida Volar,” a melancholy ballad by the Chilean folk-singer Victor Jara, who was tortured and killed by the militares. (In prison, his torturers broke his fingers and then told him to play for them.)
The best, most moving part of Musguito is the music, songs like “Deja la Vida” and Violeta Parra’s “Volver a los 17,” from whose lyrics the show’s title was derived. The words are haunting, poetic, and bleak, and the arrangements spare, faintly Andean, lilting and chant-like. They express a profound sadness. Their sadness infuses the dances, but because the dances are completely self-referential, the emotion they produce is non-specific, the expression of a vague malaise. Musguito has almost nothing to do with Chile. In fact, when the image of the two separated lovers returns as part of a general recapitulation at the end of the long evening, it no longer has the same effect at all. Perhaps Bausch never meant it as a reference to the violence of the junta. Perhaps it’s simply another example of Bausch’s ongoing fascination with the relations between men and women. For this is the dominant theme in Musguito and much of Bausch’s oeuvre: the dynamics of love, power, and attraction. A man complements a woman and she answers “bla bla bla”; another man pours a bottle of water on a woman’s head as she applies makeup with great dignity; a couple walks arm in arm while a sneaky seducer steals a kiss. It’s always about men and women in the end (interestingly, homosexual love does not enter the equation, at least in Musguito). This is the real heart of the matter. Of course, it’s the stuff our lives our made of. But not only this.
The opening of Alexei Ratmansky’s new “Symphony #9” American Ballet Theatre (Oct. 18) was a moment of real excitement—ballet is alive and well, and has a lot to say. Like much of Ratmansky’s work, the new ballet is witty, grand in design, and full of detail. It seems to spring organically from the music, Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. One keeps discovering sounds one might never have noticed because Ratmansky has brought them to the surface and revealed them in the choreography. Sometimes his methods are clearly illustrative—as when the woman in the first movement “plays” the drums—but usually, the dialogue between music and movement lies at a deeper level. Shostakovich and Ratmansky understand each other, they get along. The ballet is also an impressive vehicle for the dancers—they look absolutely radiant in it. Especially Herman Cornejo; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him pushed so far. What more can a dancer ask for?
On second viewing, with a different cast, the ballet offered up even more layers. Different details emerged, and the performances of Roberto Bolle and Veronika Part—particularly Veronika Part—revealed a thematic thread I had not noticed before. The symphony was commissioned as a celebration of Russia’s victory over the Nazis. It is essentially upbeat, snappy, even frenetic in its good spirits (at least at first). But it protests its cheerfulness too much, thus introducing a darker undertone. In the first slow movement, there is a sinuous clarinet melody that Ratmansky clearly hears as an intimation of danger. The tango-like pas de deux that dominates this section is furtive; the man and woman constantly turn their heads to make sure they are not surrounded by spies or enemies. A creeping crescendo in the strings seems to evoke great forces encircling the couple.
Here and in the movement that followed, the alternate-cast Veronika Part—a great dramatic ballerina—revealed powerful undercurrents of sadness. Where Polina Semionova’s twisting, supple body had given the duet the feel of an illicit tryst, Part’s powerful back and shoulders made it clear that the peril came from without. She communicated fear, desperation, and the desire to protect her lover from harm. Thus, it made even more sense to see the lone male figure—Jared Matthews, in this cast, Herman Cornejo in the first—as a guardian angel protecting the couple.
The feeling of conflict was echoed in the second slow movement (the largo), in which Part’s partner, Bolle, appeared to do battle with a group of men. He fended them off powerfully at first, but gradually lost steam and finally collapsed. Part gently touched his chest, his face, his mouth, with great intimacy. She tended to him. Across the stage, a row of women, reclining in horizontal poses, held fingers to their eyes, the mimed gesture for crying. The moment passed and then all was well again. Of course, none of this was as blatant or as heavy as it sounds from my description. But it was there—the story, deconstructed, braided into the glorious patterns and exhilarating dances. Ratmansky’s ballet, and, perhaps, Shostakovich’s music, is a deconstruction of war: the empty euphoria at the beginning, the danger in the middle, the shadow of death, and, finally, the jubilation of victory. As the ballet ends, the “angel” spins eternally, in an endless spiral; life goes on. Who knows what will happen in the other two Shostakovich ballets that will make up this trilogy? I can’t wait to find out.
On the evening of Oct. 19th, the company also gave an extraordinary performance of Mark Morris’s “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” The dancers have settled into the ballet’s casual, limpid, touchingly awkward choreography. They looked relaxed. The warmth flowed from the dancers onstage to the audience—one of those quiet, almost charmed moments at the theatre when all is well with the world. The whole company, but especially James Whiteside (who recently joined from Boston Ballet), Herman Cornejo, and Isabella Boylston, danced with total lack of reserve, their steps blending with the notes from the piano as if the music were pouring out from their bodies. It was a joy to behold.
The première of Ratmansky’s new “Symphony #9,” set to Shostakovich, was one of those moments when, within seconds, you know you are in for a wild ride. Like much of his work, it’s witty, grand in design, and full of detail. It’s also an impressive vehicle for the dancers—they look absolutely radiant and extraordinary in it. Especially Herman Cornejo; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him pushed so far. What more can a dancer ask for?
“Wisely, Ratmansky hasn’t given Cornejo a partner, the better to show off the musicality of his dancing, the stretch of his legs in the air, the way his body reveals the shifts in dynamics and the melodic line. In the final movement Ratmansky pushes him even further: Cornejo seems to be moving faster than is humanly possible. If it doesn’t kill him, it will place him on the Mount Olympus of male bravura.”
Last week, I happened to share a flight to Sarasota with the Kuchipudi dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa. She was on the way to the Ringling International Arts Festival, where she performed Shiva Ganga. Taking it as a sign, I asked her for an interview, to which she graciously agreed. I think you’ll find her answers as graceful as her dancing.
And here is a short excerpt:
“What I love about [kuchipudi] is the combination of contrasts: something very strong in the legs—it’s very intricate and quick in the footwork and also very anchored into the earth—but the upper body is full of grace and swaying and undulating. I love the contrast between something very strong and rooted and powerful and at the same time extremely graceful and fluid and lyrical.And musical. Dance in India is inseparable from the music. They are just one [places the palms of her hands together to illustrate]. Actually it’s one discipline in the beginning: dancing, music and theatre.”
Just a few disconnected thoughts on Schechter’s “Political Mother,” currently completing its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The show comes wrapped up in a radical package: it’s loud, it’s angry, it’s a commentary on power and conformism! Suck it up! In reality, it’s vacuous: sound and fury, signifying nothing. The politics are vague and outdated: even the style of our dictators has changed. The authoritarian despot who screams and intimidates from atop a balcony (like the faceless man in Schechter’s nightmare vision) has, for the most part, been replaced by cajolers and folksy types who know where the real power lies—in the media and the services of the secret police. Today dictators know that lies and fast-talk are far more insidious than browbeating. What’s so enraging about Schechter’s critique is that it’s so un-specific. Who is the enemy? Third-world despots? Israel? The West? Ourselves? Your guess is as good as mine. The only clue comes at the end, when the words “where there is pressure there is folk dance” appear, spelled out in lights. Much of the dancing has a vaguely Middle-Eastern folk feel: circle-formations, arms upheld or intertwined, bouncy steps, and bent knees. Aha! perhaps the “system” Schechter is rebelling against lies somewhere in that part of the world. (After all, he was born in Israel; though his company is based in the UK.) If so, the figure screaming atop a raised platform, grunting gutturally into a microphone, seems even more misplaced, more Hitler or Perón than Netanyahu or Ahmadinejad.
The production values are impressive; really beautiful, sculptural lighting creates cones and beams and triangles of light which, with the help of a thick, omnipresent fog, appear solid enough to bite into. (The lighting design is by Lee Curran.) Tireless, liquid-moving dancers, seemingly able to morph into any shape, sink soundlessly into the ground only to spring up again with mad bursts. In the final section, they take it up another notch, dancing at a velocity meant to evoke sped-up film, without losing clarity. They are impressive, and impressively diverse to boot, and they make the most of Schechter’s very limited vocabulary, which combines the communal feel of folk dance with the boneless liquidity of street-dance forms like Jookin. But Jookin displays a far greater variety of moves than this choreography (and a sense of humor) and folk dance is capable of a far wider range of emotion and rhythmic complexity. (Not to mention that Schechter’s vocabulary in this work is very similar to that of a recent work he set on Cedar Lake, “Violet Kid.”) The first image, of a Samurai preforming hara-kiri to Bach choreal music, seemed to hover in a dreamlike, cinematic space that lingered in one’s mind more tenaciously than the dancing that followed.
Not to mention that most of the movement is done in unison—some counterpoint creeps in at the end—and to a relentless, ear-splitting 4/4 beat. The score is by Schechter, who used to play in a rock band, and consists of heavy percussion and wailing rock guitars, with further assistance from the aforementioned screamer and electronic backup. Four percussionists beat their drums onstage, cloaked in half-darkness, wearing military gear. The guitarists rock out from their perch above the stage, under beams of creamy light. Except for a few brief moments of Bach and Verdi—also broadcast at top volume—and some welcome passages of silence, the audience is treated to an hour-long barrage of un-varying rhythm, a relentless march toward oblivion. Little scenelets emerge, divided by blackouts, obviating the need for development of any single idea. The dancers kneel, tremble, run, grapple, and fold into themselves or, conversely, stand in submissive poses with their hands above their heads. They are the victimized, or, as Pink Floyd called them, the bricks in the wall. But then, Pink Floyd’s “Wall” was a more convincing, more anxiety-producing indictment of conformity and the abuse of power than “Political Mother.”