A Portrait of Robert Joffrey: Dance in America, Dec. 28

Robert Joffrey in 1958. Photo by Erika Davidson.
Robert Joffrey in 1958. Photo by Erika Davidson.

Earlier this year, at the “Dance on Camera” festival, I saw a screening of the dance documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which will air on PBS tomorrow, Dec. 28. at 9pm. The film was directed by Bob Hercules, who made the recent “Bill T. Jones: A Good Man,” also for the “American Masters.” It’s an illuminating survey of a choreographer and company-director we don’t hear about enough. Once New York’s third company, the Joffrey decamped for Chicago (after a financial meltdown) in 1995. The career of Robert Joffrey, the rabid balletomane who brought Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Massine’s “Parade,” and Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table” back to life through sheer determination and love, is an important important part of America’s ballet history. The footage in the film shows a company that is excitingly diverse, with a variety of body types and a warm, engaging manner, in contrast to the high stylization of New York City Ballet and the Russo-centrism of ABT. What we see of Joffrey’s own ballets, like “Astarte” and “Gamelan,” shows a choreographer more interested in spectacle and engagement with his times than with real innovation or form. But the eclecticism of the company’s repertoire speaks to an intense engagement with and curiosity for the culture at large. Some of the dancers, especially Gary Chryst—who played the Chinese Conjurer in “Parade” and the Profiteer in “The Green Table”– are quite electric, and utterly unique. It is difficult to imagine them at any other company.

I had  three complaints about the film: first, a certain over-emphasis on the “American-ness” of Joffrey and the too-frequent references to Balanchine in negative terms, as “beholden” to European forms or overy “measured” in his approach (in contrast to Joffrey and Arpino’s dynamism). I would argue that “measured” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Balanchine, and that his dialogue with and expansion of  European ballet forms was at the very heart  of his innovation. In any case, such repeated references reveal an unnecessary chip on the shoulder that diminishes rather than augments Joffrey’s legacy. Joffrey and Arpino’s achievements should speak for themselves. Secondly, the circle of talking heads in the film is too limited; it would have been interesting to hear a wider range of points of view. And thirdly, the recent past and the present were all but forgotten. The seventies and eighties, with their real innovations—Joffrey was one of the first American companies to commission a work by William Forsythe—barely register. But much supporting material is available on a connected website, joffreymovie.com, which is well worth perusing.

Here you see Gary Chryst in Parade (skip to 0:37):

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL

Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part in ABT's Nutcracker. Photo by Andrea Mohin.
Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part in ABT’s Nutcracker. Photo by Andrea Mohin.
Alexandre Benois design for The Nutcracker.
Alexandre Benois design for The Nutcracker.
Tiler Peck as Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers. (photo by Paul Kolnik.)
Tiler Peck as Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers. (photo by Paul Kolnik.)
Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky's Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Alina Cojocaru (Masha) and Vladimir Shklyarov (the Nutcracker Prince) int he Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.
Alina Somova (Masha) and Vladimir Shklyarov (the Nutcracker Prince) int he Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.

My “best of 2012” list

There is something attractive about the idea of putting together an end-of-year list, no matter how artificial the concept. It offers us the illusion of good housekeeping and gives us permission to indulge in semi-serious nostalgia about the year that has just passed. Was it a good year for dance? Well, it has certainly had some highpoints. Here are a few, in no particular order.

1. The final Merce Cunningham Events at the New York Armory.

The final Event at the Armory. Photo by yours truly.
The final Event at the Armory. Photo by yours truly.

These were epic performances, and though technically they took place just before the New Year, for me, they marked the start of a new era, post Merce. The enormous Drill Hall, which spans an entire city block, was filled with people, six thousand strong, and the level of excitement and sadness was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The Cunningham dancers, together for the last time, danced as if in a trance. The whole thing was spine-tingling. Here’s what I wrote at the time, in The Nation:

“At the final performance at the Armory, on New Year’s Eve, the dancers gazed at the audience in shell-shocked amazement, as waves of applause rippled through the hall. Silas Riener, looking gaunt after the intensity of the tour and the relentless schedule of the final weeks, did a solo from the 1992 work Enter that led him as far as his body could go, swatting his arms and moving his head jerkily, like a man possessed, while sinking into deep squats that switched, seemingly without transition, into turns, or flipping himself from a downward facing position to an upward one, the arch in his back reversing dramatically. Emma Desjardins, a sensualist of the stage, looked as if she were about to cry. Jennifer Goggans, a company veteran, seemed the most at ease, joining Daniel Madoff in a stately, formal walkabout on one of the platforms. Andrea Weber, with her athletic, healthy, beautiful body, smiled beatifically, as if constantly amazed at the challenges presented to her. As electronic and brass sounds filled the hall (I think it was David Behrman’s “Open Space With Brass”), she bent her legs deeply, balancing on her toes, then tipped into a sideways tilt and slowly curved her spine backward and looked up at the heavens. She was dancing for Merce. They all were.”

2. Dorothée Gilbert in the Paris Opéra Ballet’s Giselle.

Dorothée Gilbert in Giselle. Photo from www.dorothee-gilbert.com
Dorothée Gilbert in Giselle. Photo from http://www.dorothee-gilbert.com

Until her performance, I admired but was not fully seduced by the company during its visit to New York. Mostly, I was impressed by the corps of wilis in Giselle, who danced with such eerie precision that they made me think of those movies where animators take one person and multiply him ten-thousand-fold to create a multitude. But Gilbert’s beauty and charm, and the freshness of her interpretation, won me over completely. In The Faster Times, I wrote:

“Like all the Paris Opéra dancers, it seems, the twenty-eight-year-old Gilbert is a very beautiful woman, without being anonymously pretty. Long, long neck, strong jawline, gorgeous shoulders, sensitive back, pronounced Gallic nose. But what is most noticeable is her eyes, which are enormous and bright, and remarkably lively…Every emotion and thought is easily legible, and more importantly, we see what she sees. In this, she reminds me of Indian classical dancers, for whom the eyes play an essential role in bringing the narrative to life, while simultaneously enveloping the viewer with their charm….In Gilbert’s Giselle, the eyes tell the whole story: from her initial shyness to her delight in Albrecht’s attentions, her disappointment with the results of the “he loves me, he loves me not” game, her love of dancing, her absolute lack of guile, and, in the end, her fatal incomprehension of Albrecht’s betrayal.”

3. Shantala Shivalingappa at Fall For Dance.

Shantala Shivalingappa in Shiva Ganga. Photo by C.P. Satyajit.
Shantala Shivalingappa in Shiva Ganga. Photo by C.P. Satyajit.

I know,  I know, Shivalingappa was on my 2011 year-end list last as well. But I just can’t get enough of this classical Indian dancer, who specializes in kuchipudi. At Fall For Dance, she performed a shortened version of her evening-length solo Shiva Ganga. As I wrote in DanceTabs, “she is one of the most musical dancers I have ever seen, in any form. Not only are the movements of her body indistinguishable from the music, but she can switch from slow to fast, muscular to fluid, potent to sensual in an instant, with total ease….Her solo ended with the dancer bent forward, near the floor, arms rippling. Her body had become a landscape.”

In October, I interviewed her, and she proved to be as gracious in speech as she is graceful in movement. She told me: “Basically, I don’t think it’s me doing anything, I think we’re just instruments for something coming from somewhere else. If we can allow ourselves to be very transparent, clear, open, empty, then it can happen. You have to be ready. But you have to be qualified, use your talents, train yourself, practice every day so that your legs are strong, to give yourself the full range, but then be quiet. Try to be in touch with whatever is inside and waiting to come out. I’m always expecting to be surprised, and I don’t know whether I can do it.”

4. Moiseyev Dance Company at Fall For Dance.

I expected the company to be dynamic and virtuosic, but I had no idea they would be so damned exciting. Great dancers, wonderful music, and highly effective stagings of folk dance from across the former Soviet Republics.  If you don’t believe me, just check out this Kalmyk Dance:

5. Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony Number 9.

Roberto Bolle and Veronika Part in Ratmansky's "Symphony No. 9." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Roberto Bolle and Veronika Part in Ratmansky’s “Symphony No. 9.” Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

That Ratmansky has an affinity for Shostakovich we already knew from The Bright Stream and Concerto DSCH. But this new work, for ABT, just got better and better as it went along. A second viewing revealed new depths: “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.”

6. Herman Cornejo’s dancing, all year long.

drinkcornejo1gs(Cornejo in Mark Morris’s Drink to me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.)

He was brilliant and funny in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Ashton’s The Dream, swooningly romantic in Sinatra Suite, noble and conflicted in La Bayadère, mysterious and blazing in Ratmansky’s Symphony No. 9, deeply musical in Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.

In November, he told me: “Well, performing for me is really about that experience of giving to the audience. In the studio you work and perfect things, you collaborate with your partner, but for me it’s about what happens on the stage, the ability to give something, to your partner, to the audience. In the studio and the rest of the time I’m just like anyone; the only time I feel different is on stage.”

As far as I can tell, the man can do no wrong.

What were some of your faves? Would love to hear…

Happy 2013 to you all.

An Island of Order: Richard Alston at Montclair (for Dance Tabs)

On Sunday, I took the bus out to Montclair (New Jersey) to see the Richard Alston Dance company perform Roughcut, Unfinished Business, and A Ceremony of Carols. In this heartbreaking week in which chaos and violence seem to have taken over our world, Alston’s dances were like a tonic, cool and crisp, overflowing with lucidity. Though I find Alston’s work less compelling, than, say, Mark Morris’s or Paul Taylor’s (to mention two choreographers working in a related vein), I admire its construction and intelligence greatly. Here is my review, for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt:

“It’s remarkable how satisfying the old-fashioned virtues of structure and form can be. Richard Alston…is a master builder; he creates islands of order in a chaotic world. (He’s not alone in this, of course, but it is an increasingly rare breed.) Alston is not reinventing the wheel or re-shaping our idea of what the body can do. Even more than Mark Morris or Paul Taylor, he uses and re-uses recognizable steps, many of which can be traced back to a simplified, de-historicized balletic vocabulary.”

Yet another Nutcracker photo

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in the grand pas de deux in the second act of Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in the grand pas de deux in the second act of Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

This one is from Ratmansky’s version at ABT. Last night, Hee Seo and Cory Stearns danced the roles of “Clara, the Princess” and “Nutcracker, the Prince,” i.e. the adult avatars of Clara and her Nutcracker doll. I must say, each time I see this version, I like it more. Last night (Dec. 13) it looked tighter than ever, which is important in a production with so much detail. I still feel the stage of the Howard Gilman Opera House is a bit small and can look over-crowded at times (as in the party scene), but as the company settles into the intricate choreography (and relaxes into the acting, of which there is quite a lot), the ballet just gets richer and its intentions become more clear. The children’s individual personalities begin to shine through, and one notices all sorts of goings-on: last night I was amused by a little scene of flirtation going on by the staircase while the children opened their presents, as Vitali Krauchenka chatted up Katherine Williams, who kept bashfully looking down at her lap. I’m always amused by the fact that after the men get up from dinner, they are a little drunk, their hair disheveled. Last night, the snowflakes were right on the music, producing that special thrill when music and steps seem to come from the same impulse. The same goes for the three Russians (Mikhail Ilyin, Arron Scott, and Craig Salstein), who have honed their comical Russian Dance to a perfect “bit,” cutting their antics short just in time to take off into a series of repeated jumps that seem to say, “ta-da!” just as the music does. And talking about about timing, Roman Zhurbin’s is a thing of beauty; he can tell you everything you need to know about Drosselmeyer by the extra time he takes to embrace Clara, but also by the pacing of his entrance. Nothing is rushed or overly theatrical. And it helps that he moves like a dancer; his acting has elegance of shape and stillness when it is needed.

I’ve fallen completely in love with the dance for the Polichinelles; the kids do a kind of rocking saunter, then drop to the ground and crawl back through each other’s legs; then they hop  from side to side with one leg in attitude. It’s so simple, but it works. The Waltz of the Flowers is still hopeless; the flowers do so little dancing, and the four bees prancing on the melody are simply not funny, nor does the whole “funny” concept fit the mood. Maybe one day Ratmansky will change it?

But all is forgotten once the final pas de deux begins. The two children face their adult manifestations but they don’t see each other.  Each couple holds hands. The children slowly walk into an opening at the back of the stage, and the adults dance an emotional pas de deux; the heart catches. It’s also and extremely hard pas de deux, requiring lots of strength, enormous endurance, and some bravery (as when the man swings the ballerina around with her leg out to the side and just hopes that she’ll stay up). Last night, Seo and Stearns had a few flubs, but the feeling was right. A joy laced with awe and even a touch of sadness. Seo was luminous; Stearns looked at her with a love-smitten smile, as if assuring her that even if things did not go seamlessly, he would be there. And he was. It wasn’t perfect, but it was moving.