This week, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the company will perform the The Legend of Apsara Mera. This dance epic is made up of two stories, both of them deeply embedded in the Cambodian cultural identity, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, and the Legend of Kambu and Mera. Both are foundation myths: one about the creation of the universe, the other about the birth of the Khmer. They will be interpreted in the highly codified, graceful language of Cambodian classical dance, an art form which almost disappeared during the period of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Now, after years of painstaking reconstruction, the nation’s dance culture has been restored. It faces what is perhaps a more insidious threat: modern life.
I saw Souleymane Badolo last night at New York Live Arts. He performed two solos, Barack and Buudou, Badoo, Badolo. Both addressed issues of past and present, and both were steeped in a thick sadness that was hard to throw off, even after the evening had ended. What has happened to this man that makes him so profoundly sad, I wondered as I let the theatre? At the same time, he is a remarkable dancer, who can make every muscle in his body dance, down to the tips of his fingers. Here’s my review, for DanceTabs.
And a short excerpt: “It’s a strange image; this compact, muscular man, wearing skin-tight, bright red trousers and a yellow hoodie, open at the chest, bowing slowly at center stage, then stage right, stage left. His face, especially his eyes, express total desolation. Then Edith Piaf’s powerful, rasping voice rings out: “Rien de rien, je ne regrette rien.” I regret nothing. Badolo moves his arms, powerful and vulnerable at once, fluttering, undulating them almost like wings, fingers trembling.”
Two Dying Swans in a week might seem like two too many—it probably is—but I’m surprised at how my outlook changed when one of the two happened to be a performance by Nina Ananiashvili, making a brief, characteristically self-possessed appearance at the Youth America Grand Prix gala. This year’s gala—“Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”—was held at the Koch Theatre, on April 18. And yes, Mr. Koch was there, in the flesh, surveying the theatre renovated with his money and the crop of young dancers before him. What does he think about as he sits there in the dark, I wonder? Was he privately gloating over the defeat, earlier in the day, of legislation calling for expanded background checks for gun-buyers?
But I digress. The gala followed its usual format—kids in the first half, international stars in the second—but felt more polished than in previous years. There was a lively host (Mark Wahlberg, of the television series Antiques Road Show), a lighter lineup of acts, and live music. The pieces were introduced by well-edited filmed interviews. Various commissioned pieces were sprinkled between the obligatory ballet chestnuts. The opening number was an impressive—and diminutive—violin prodigy, Elli Choi, just eleven or twelve, dispatching the showy Carmen Fantasy. Not only did Choi play a dizzying number of notes, extending to the very limit of her instrument’s range, but she created an impressively rich, confident sound, surprising in someone so tiny. And her party dress! It was brick red and had an enormous silver bow in the back. These prodigies are such a mystery. Where does the confidence and physical prowess come from? Has she ever seen Carmen? Does she know what it’s about? Does she care?
As usual, the first part of the show was both impressive and slightly depressing. The kids, all medal-winners in the YAGP competition, ranged in age from ten to nineteen, and were, as always, very accomplished. Technically, they were, if not flawless, near-perfect. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone land in a perfect fifth position after every jump with such regularity as Joo Won Ahn (age nineteen, gold in the senior division) from South Korea. Jorge Barani, a Cuban studying at the Magaly Suarez school in Florida, nailed his solo from Flames of Paris, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree barrel-jumps and all, staring at the audience all the while. The few wobbles in the routines came as almost a relief, a sign that even with constant rehearsal, some things are still subject to the randomness of the moment. I hope all of these kids will go on to marvelous careers and have the chance to discover the joy, and freedom, of real dancing, of communicating emotion and expressing music through movement in the company of other dancers. The three most touching moments of the evening were Lada Sartakova’s charming “Clown Variation” (set to the music Ashton used for the coda of his “Pas de Quatre” in the third act of Swan Lake), Lou Spichtig’s solo from the first act of Giselle, and the grand défilé, put together by the in-house choreographer, Carlos dos Santos. Sartakova, because, despite being slightly behind the beat the entire time (in the Russian manner), this ten-year-old silver-medalist was so leggy and gleefully child-like, with her lopsided hat and long spindly legs, that you couldn’t help but be won over. Spichtig (gold medal), because, at fifteen she showed inklings of a real emotional response to the music and an all-too-human fragility, the very qualities that draw one to the character of Giselle. And the grand défilé because, well, how can one not be filled with joy at the sight of hundreds of kids (some incredibly tiny) dancing in near unison, arms and legs filling every centimeter of the stage?
Then, came the stars. The ever-dapper Clifton Brown, accompanied by a jazz quartet, did a suave little number (by Fredrick Earl Mosley) to Paul Desmond’s Take 5. Svetlana Lunkina, from the Bolshoi, a somewhat dour (and out of place) rendition of Nikiya’s pleading dance from the betrothal scene of La Bayadère. (But where was the rubber snake?) The winning duo of Viengsay Valdés and Osiel Gouneo—the highligt of National Ballet of Cuba’s stint at BAM a few years back—danced a cutesy, pseudo-Latin number by Peter Quanz set to monotonous, vaguely syncopated music by David Lang. (But when is Lang’s music not monotonous?) The hit-or-miss young female ballet choreographer Emery LeCrone created a pleasant, free-flowing pas de deux (on pointe, for once) for the luminous Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, both of New York City Ballet. The musical accompaniment, a Bach partita, was played live, by the pianist Vassily Primakov. Chase Finlay of City Ballet, who looks more authoritative with each performance, performed a solo created for him by Marcelo Gomes, Tous les Jours, a self-conscious meditation on the torments of the dancer’s lot: daily class, the barre, exercises, etc. It was like a cross between The Lesson, Études, Prodigal Son, and Apollo, with a healthy dose of explosive jumps mixed in with crouches and crawling on the floor. In any case, Finlay, who performed bare-chested (the better to see his torment), gave it his all. The kids in the top tiers of the theatre nearly blew the roof off.
One of the best moments of the night, to my eye, was Kenneth MacMillan’s balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, danced by Marcelo Gomes (beyond ardent as Romeo) and the gloriously unmannered Dorothée Gilbert, of the Paris Opéra Ballet. She danced with a purity of line and lack of melodrama—clearly delighted to be partnered by Gomes—that made the scene look newly minted. A low point: Wayne McGregor’s acrobatically unflattering “Borderlands Pas de Deux,” with sentimental music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney. It wasn’t the dancers’ fault. They, or rather she (Maria Kochetkova) did not stint on the hyper-extended, raw, contorted poses and relentless, flailing steps that flow unabated from McGregor’s imagination. (Lonnie Weeks, her partner, had less to do, but acquitted himself admirably in the impossibly knotty partnering.) Unfortunately, I will not soon forget the final image, of Weeks grasping Kochetkova’s thighs in a suspended pas de chat in front of him, as if trying to pull her groin in half. McGregor’s relentless dislocation for the natural line of the body is something I can never quite get used to.
The closing number was the compulsory slave pas de trois from Le Corsaire, with Misa Kuranaga (rather dry), Alejandro Virelles (an effective if unexciting Ali), and Herman Cornejo (Conrad). Cornejo was not quite on his game, but no matter. The high point, for me, was one of the slightest items of the evening, a cameo by Nina Ananiashvili in The Dying Swan, alongside the Jookin’ master Lil Buck. It was a gimmick, for sure, meant to highlight the strange convergence of two completely different dance styles. Both went for maximum effect: Buck hovered on the toe of his sneakers forever, Ananiashvili rippled her arms like a snake in heat. It was fabulous. Ananiashvili still has that wonderful combination of qualities that always made her such an appealing dancer: warmth, intelligence, a sense of humor, crazy musicality. Her dancing reveals an absolute confidence and self-knowledge. She knows Dying Swan is a cliché, and she embraces it for all it’s worth, and lets us in on the joke. But it’s not so completely tongue-in-cheek that it’s not moving. In fact, a surge of real emotion surprised me as she raised her creamy, moonbeam arm one last time. Buck, upstaged for once, was nonetheless a willing partner in this tour-de-force. Both are generous, musical, completely natural stage animals, and the rapport between them was evident. Of course they would get along.
And just for fun, here is a video of Nina Ananiashvili performing the infamous thirty-fouettées from Swan Lake:
The evening before (April 17), I had seen an example of just how tired this swan number can look. BalletNext held two performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space. (The small theatre was half empty.) The good news is that most of the ballets were accompanied by an excellent musical ensemble. The troupe’s commitment to live music is a real rarity, to be celebrated. But of course the music is only half of the story. From what I saw (I had to leave at intermission because of a coughing fit) the choreography did not hold up its side of the bargain. What really weighed things down was the feeling that BalletNext is not yet an ensemble, but rather an assortment of part-time collaborators. Each of its two founders, Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles, seems to be on his or her own trajectory. There’s the New York City Ballet contingent and the American Ballet Theatre team. Askegard (formerly of City Ballet) danced in one work, which he created for himself and Georgina Pazcoguin (of NYCB), a sprightly Balanchine-esque scherzo set to Stravinsky. Wiles danced in everything else, except the aforementioned Dying Swan, which was performed by a guest, Misty Copeland, of American Ballet. Another guest, Alexandre Hammoudi (also ABT) filled in as Wiles’ partner in Mea Culpa, a pretty, but insubstantial pas de cinq by a young choreographer (Tobin Eason), set to a Mozart piano sonata. An excerpt of Brian Reeder’s “Different Homes”—a pas de deux for Wiles and the very intense Jens Weber set to a suite for cello by Benjamin Britten—was the most substantive, and most musically interesting, piece of the evening. I’d like to see it in its entirety. Reeder shows off Wiles’s still impressive technique, her almost preternatural balance, easy turns, and beautiful arms. Why did she retire so early from ABT, I still wonder? Perhaps no choreographer ever managed to awaken her imagination. She dances as if trapped in her own world. Copeland’s rendition of Fokine’s avian solo was studied and filled with forced touches that made her look uncomfortable. It made absolutely no case for why Dying Swan is still such a constant in the ballet repertory. BalletNext’s dancers are all good, but is that enough? I wish Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard well, but for BalletNext to survive and thrive they will need to figure out what, exactly, they want their company to be.
The original dying swan, Anna Pavlova:
Earlier the same day, I watched an extraordinary performance by Kathryn Hunter in the one-woman-show Kafka’s Monkey(at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). Hunter, who has performed such cross-gender roles as Richard III and King Lear (and collaborated often with Peter Brook), here plays the cross-species role of a chimpanzee who has learned to imitate human behavior and speech. The monologue, based on Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, a short story published in the German magazine Der Jude in 1919, is the bildungsroman of an ape hunted down in Africa and brought back to Europe by ship. Along the way, he learns to ape human behavior, drink rum, even speak. This education allows him to live freely among men, performing in music hall shows and becoming, in a way, the toast of the town. The monologue describes the psychological process behind the transformation—motivated by the desire for freedom—but also, quite transparently, satirizes the brutal nature of the human beings he imitates. Red Peter has been shot at, prodded, and turned into an alcoholic by his fellow men. The consciousness of his degraded state is a source of both revulsion (for humans, for himself) but also of a kind of wounded pride. (The story, which has been interpreted as a parable of Jewish assimilation, reminds me of a moment in the musical Cabaret. In If You Could See Her, a man sings to his sweetheart, a giant gorilla, ending his ballad with the words, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Creepy, yes? Assimilation and its discontents.)
Kafka’s Monkey is a total bravura performance. Hunter, a tiny woman, not young, is able to completely transform herself—her gait, the way she carries her arms, her face—into something not quite human, filled with an energy that is almost frightening. She dangles her right arm from her shoulder with a range of motion more suited to swinging from trees than to walking upright. She climbs up a ladder on the side of the stage and hangs from it by one leg. She crouches and leaps and screams chimpanzee noises, scratches an ear. Demonstrating Red Peter’s vaudeville exploits, she tap dances (another reminder of Cabaret) and lifts one leg to her ear, then slides down into a split. She also interacts—with disarming spontaneity— with the audience, prodding a few of the spectators for reactions. On the day I went, a woman in the first row refused to play along (out of shyness or reticence, who knows), but Hunter would not let her off the hook, keeping at it until she got a reaction. Later, she referred back to the incident: “she doesn’t like anything, that one.” Despite the datedness of the material—the idea that humanity is rotten inside does not feel that revelatory these days—Hunter gave a performance that was completely alive, of the moment.
It seems like every museum is trying to come up with ways of integrating dance into its activities. The latest is the Frick Collection, one of my favorite spots in the city, housed in the Beaux Arts residence of Henry Clay Frick, legendary financier of New York’s Gilded Age. On April 18-20, the museum hosted “Degas Dances,” an evening inspired by Degas’s The Rehearsal—the painting hangs in the East Gallery—in which four Paris Opéra dancers stretch their legs to the side while a violinist accompanies their efforts. As we entered the gallery, a woman (impersonating Mary Cassatt in another Degas painting, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre) sat on a banquette reading a guidebook. Ms. Cassatt (played by the Frick employee Olivia Powell) looked extremely fetching in her black flounces, narrow waist, and wide velvet hat. (The dress could have come straight down from the Metropolitan Museum’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” show, but was in fact from TDF Costume Collection.) In the museum’s small, round music room—walls lined in faded yellow silk damask—a ballerina (Kristen Stevens) in nineteenth-century gauzy tutu and velvet choker stretched at an old-fashioned barre, accompanied by a violinist (Michael Roth). Roth played bits from Sylvia, Coppélia, and Bizet’s L’Arlésienne; she did her tendus. Then, Clinton Luckett, a ballet master from ABT, entered, dressed impeccably in white, tapped his cane, and gave a few instructions. He was meant to represent Jules Perrot, the choreographer of Giselle. A blonde waif (Mia Potter), dressed like Degas’s Little Dancer, observed and asked questions. “Can I be a ballerina?” Then Luckett and Stevens danced a few excerpts from ballets of the late nineteenth century repertory. At moments, it was magical, like waking up in a Parisian ballet studio, circa 1870, or, better yet, in a Degas painting. The illusion was broken, however, by the somewhat clunky text–composed, with obvious didactic intent, by the museum staff with input from the performers. Still, it’s a charming idea, worth developing.
Last but not least, I attended a flamenco tablao presented by the American Bolero Dance Company, at a social club, the Chian Federation, in Queens. As usual, it was an informal affair, put together through the efforts of Gabriela Granados, dancer, teacher, and tireless impresario. The first half was devoted to her students and an energetic salsa duo, Karla Choko and Franklin Liranzo (Liranzo’s plunging neckline was, itself, a showstopper). But it was after the intermission that things really got going. The excellent young cantaor Félix de Lola, sang a slow, brooding seguiriya, accompanied only by the guitar of Basilio Georges. Granados, dressed all in black, head covered with a mantón (as if in mourning), gave a dramatic recitation of García Lorca’s “Romance de la Pena Negra,” eyes flashing as she intoned “¿Y a ti qué se te importa? / Vengo a buscar lo que busco, mi alegría y mi persona.” Then she danced an earthy soleá, dipping and turning, fearless in her sadness. Aurora Reyes, a force of nature, sang an upbeat number about toreros in her strong, brazen voice, while also dancing, her small, solid frame exploding with vigor. (One of the great things about flamenco is that it’s not just for the young and lithe. In some ways, the dancing improves with age, as all inhibitions melt away.) The final number was for La Conja, an eagle-eyed master of rhythm, whose syncopated footwork and claps carved their way into the interstices of the music. The momentum of her solo (a soleá por bulería) grew and grew, until the whole stage was swept up in the flame of her dancing. This was not a night of virtuosos, but something far more rare: real people, masters of a specific tradition, really dancing.
As part of the Season of Cambodia festival in New York, the Khmer Arts Ensemble performed Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s “A Bend in the River” at the Joyce. Shapiro’s dance-drama draws upon the traditions of Cambodian Classical Dance—elegant shapes, refined hand gestures, codified positions—and combines them with a story drawn from folklore and an original score that extends the range of the pin peat orchestra. Like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, it is a story told on many levels: through narration, music, and movement. You can read my review for DanceTabs here.
And here’s a short excerpt: “Once in a while, a real modernizer comes along and shakes things up more radically. In the realm of Cambodian dance, it is Sophiline Cheam Shapiro….In past works she has combined the vocabulary of classical Cambodian dance…to stories like The Magic Flute and music by Western composers, including the New York experimentalist, John Zorn….With A Bend in the River…she has come up with a hybrid form that needs no justification.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem is back, after a hiatus of almost ten years. You can read my review of one of their programs, for DanceTabs, here.
And here’s a short excerpt:
“What is the place of a predominantly black American ballet company today, in our supposedly “post-racial” America? We have a black president and a black ambassador to the United Nations, and yet, if one looks at most of our ballet companies, there is nary a black dancer to be seen….The problem is more frustrating than simple racism.”
…which I had somehow missed. It ran in the Dec/Jan edition of Pointe Magazine. You can read it here.
She seems altogether straightforward, as one might expect. My favorite line: “I’m young. I’ve already done so many ballets. I can’t imagine life without dance. But it’s not like a religion as it is for some people. In the future I’ll maybe have a child, maybe two. I would hope that I could be happy as a woman.”
The distinguished dance writer Mindy Aloff, author of Ballet Anecdotes and Hippo in a Tutu, sent me this comment, which I think is worthy of a post of its own:
Gabriel Misse and Analía Centurión do more than lead one to admire their skill: They inspire great joy in the audience. Their dancing is more than steps–but more what? While they were in New York, they gave four hard-working days of workshops at the Dardo Galletto Studios. As an observer, I attended one called “Tango Sequences of Famous Milongueros,” for intermediate-level dancers. The first thing one notices about Misse, who conducted the class, with Centurion assisting the students, is how grounded and centered and focused he is. Although his straight-legged stalking walks travel a lot, he uses a great deal of demi-plie in the course of dancing, and he calibrates the depth of it carefully. He also achieves what the greatest dancers alone can, which is to isolate the movement of his legs from the carriage of his torso. (In a performance, this is especially visible in the jitterbug, which, if one were to film him only from the waist up, would present an image of imperturbable gliding, even though, from the waist down, he’s doing crazy-leg rhythms.) Another observer–Nancy Reynolds, research director for The George Balanchine Foundation–was there when I arrived and filled me in on the previous session, in which Misse had lectured in Spanish (with another dancer translating, as would happen in this session as well). “Tango isn’t for fun,” he said in that earlier workshop. “It’s an art.” During the two hours of the “Famous Milongueros” workshop, Misse taught just three steps, three phrases, really–one each for a different milonguero step-author. Several times he cautioned the dancers, “It’s not in the steps,” meaning by “it,” I gathered, the dance. “First, you manage your space,” he told the leaders (some of them were women, as were all the followers), “then, when you have your space, you perfect the step.” The three steps were of increasing levels of difficulty. The first was called “Bird,” because “in this dance, he [the milonguero whose nickname was also “Bird”] looks like he’s flying. You should look like your paragliding.” The phrase is essentially walking, with a wheeling pivot; however, the “flight” is a tiny maneuver at the end, when the follower comes out of the tight phrase with a delicate, almost imperceptible spiral. The second step-phrase, also bearing the nickname of its author (who is still alive, at 86), was the “Small Pear.” “Tango is not an age-related thing,” Misse said. “He’s a very aggressive dancer, but not in a bad way. He’s got a heavy energy.” The “Small Pear” has a kind of story to it, with the follower suddenly challenging the leader by flash-directing her foot toward him, between his legs. The challenge is resolved by the leader taking two tiny, pincering steps inward to frame (or trap) her assertive foot and then shifting his weight so that she can closely pace around him, like a goat edging around a mountain pass. This step embodies that puzzle-solving aspect of tango improvisation that makes it a dance analogy for chess. The third step is called, I believe, “Paralyzed,” to reflect the style of its step-author, also aggressive, yet his dynamism punctuated by sudden pauses. I believe his name was Cachico Mateo la Casa. A spectacular phrase, it begins quietly and works into a rhythm that gives the effect of the leader’s body becoming the handle of a whip and the follower’s body becoming the whip’s responsive lash: Pause together. Walk, walk, flash-flash! This step-author died in 1995, at a milonga, apparently. He asked the orchestra to play his favorite song; disrespectfully, they placed it last. The dancer waited to the end to hear it, sat down after dancing, and expired then and there. Misse also asked the students to listen to a recorded song featuring a singer named, I believe, Ruffino, 16 years old at the time of the recording. “When you hear the phrasing of the singer [on the word “luna,” or “moon”], it’s like walking on the moon.” With Centurion, he demonstrated a dance fragment with the lyric tenderness appropriate to the song. Misse explained that, when he dances to this recording, he imagines himself as the young singer, who had worked so hard to perform at such a young age with a great orchestra. He also said: “The most important thing in this class is not how many steps you learn but that, when you do each step, you’re celebrating the life of the milonguero who made the step. If you do it without life, you’re destroying the work of 60 years.”
As everyone has heard by now, Natalia Osipova has joined the Royal Ballet as a principal artist. She’ll be splitting her time between that company, American Ballet Theatre, and the Mikhailovsky (as well as a million other freelance gigs, I’m sure). Here is an interesting piece by Ismene Brown of the Arts Desk on the ins-and-outs of the deal.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“Kommersant reports that ABT’s director Kevin McKenzie has reacted with anger to the news of her Royal Ballet contract…..Her agent told Kuznetsova, ‘I did managed to discuss the new situation with Kevin McKenzie, and he did not hide his frustration, as the spring season in London coincides with New York, but this is a new reality that will have to be dealt with somehow. It is difficult to say how it will be settled, but the fact remains that there are conflicting interests, and we will hope for the wisdom of the leaders of the two companies to settle it.'”
Her frequent partner, Ivan Vasiliev, is not part of the deal; he’ll continue as a principal at ABT and at the Mikhailovsky and, one assumes, a frequent visitor at the Royal Ballet as well.