Earlier this year, I had the chance to spend some time with the Kuchipudi dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa, first in Lausanne—where she and her mother were teaching a workshop— and then on Skype. In a series of long conversations, we talked about her upbringing in Paris, her studies of Indian dance, her “master” Vempati Chinna Satyam, her work with Peter Brooke and Pina Bausch, and the importance of both the erotic and the holy in Kuchipudi. My profile of Shivalingappa is in the current issue of The Nation.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre is having its last run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before moving to the west coast next year. For the first time since its premiere in 2010, the theatre is full… Can’t help feeling a pang of loss. It’s a wonderfully imaginative rendition, a great antidote to Balanchine’s pitch-perfect version. Here’s my review of last night’s performance for DanceTabs, with Cory Stearns and Hee Seo in the lead roles.
It’s that time again, when little girls dream of sugarplums and ornery critics reflect back on a year of performances. What moved us? What made us laugh, surprised us, or forced to pay attention?
Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite things from the year that is coming to a close:
Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
This new work for New York City Ballet took Mussorgsky’s piano suite in a direction no-one expected, toward an abstraction that was nonetheless colored by stories, folk elements, a little touch of madness. The ballet was funny, mysterious, and, most of all, exploding with life. Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle danced an extraordinary, bird-like pas de deux. Everyone looked energized.
Jennifer Ringer and Wendy Whelan Farewells at NYCB
Two extraordinary, beautiful, unique dancers bade farewell to the stage with grace, generosity, and joy. Ringer’s performance was characterized by her usual musicality and ease. Whelan took her leave with a tailor-made program that included a brief new work created just for her by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky.
See my tribute to Whelan here and my review of the Ringer performance here.
Frederick Ashton Festival at the Sarasota Ballet
These four days filled with Ashton ballets, lectures, panels, and films were really a full immersion in the choreographer’s world and style. Thanks to the leadership of Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri, the company brings a real affection and sense of ownership to the ballets. They’re not museum pieces. They let the wit and charm speaks for themselves.
You can read about my trip down to the festival here.
Ashton’s Cinderella at American Ballet Theatre
Ashton is having a bit of a come-back and thank god for that. The warmth of his ballets really has no equal. They’re the perfect foil for the cool idealism of Balanchine. Ashton’s Cinderella replaced a rather hokey version by James Kudelka. From the silliness of two sisters—played by men— to the crisp, doll-like movements of the corps and Cinderella’s stitch-like bourrées at the ball, this Cinderella is a winner.
Matthew Rushing’s Odetta for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
This première, a tribute to the folk/gospel/jazz singer Odetta Holmes, seemed to reach beyond the stage into the cultural life of the nation. The sadness and anger in Odetta’s voice lent the work its power, but Rushing’s choreography reflected his own generosity of spirit and hope. These feelings seemed especially relevant given recent reminders that racial injustice is still very much part of daily life in this country.
The company is giving some of the most exciting performances I’ve seen. The dancers, especially the women, are on a tear. There are so many to choose from, and why choose? Each has her own style and approach. Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Bouder, Ashley Laracey, Lauren Lovette, Teresa Reichlen, Claire Kretzschmar… An embarrassment of riches. The Balanchine repertoire is looking as good, and as fresh, as I’ve ever seen it.
Here’s a review of two weeks of Balanchine this fall.
The young English-born dancer of South Asian descent specializes in kathak and barata natyam, two classical Indian dance forms. His solo, “Nritta,” was one of the highlights of the festival. It had the speed, spins, and silvery quality of kathak, and the attack and lightness of kuchipudi. He has a phenomenal jump that comes out of nowhere. Hopefully, he’ll be back. You can see a clip here:
Not dance, but….
Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki troupe in The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.
The company, which has been staging Kabuki theatre for eighteen generations, brought a show full of magical quick-changes, comic-book villains, beautiful hand-made sets and charming special effects, including a waterfall. One performer, Nakamura Kankuro, played three different characters, sometimes even doing battle himself. It was impressive, and it was fun.
The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtensk at the Metropolitan Opera
The new Prince Igor, Onegin, and Two Boys were disappointments, but these two productions were a shining example of how vibrant and vital opera can be. Strong casts, intelligent stagings, and the innovative, visceral, and always surprising music of Dmitri Shostakovich.
It’s almost too much to ask that that an abstract art like music or dance address the issues of our times. And in fact a lot of bad, or at least heavy-handed and programmatic art has been made in the name of big ideas. But sometimes, for whatever reason, a work seems to expand beyond the edges of the stage, vibrating in sympathy with feelings and thoughts floating around the streets. We can talk and read and argue about social issues like racism, exclusion, and disillusionment. We can march about them, as many are now doing. But there is something stirring about the experience of hearing such feelings expressed by a voice raised in song, translated for the instruments of a symphony orchestra, illustrated by a moving body. The experience can bring people together in a moment of collective understanding, however fleeting.
This is what I felt on Dec. 10 at the première of Odetta, Matthew Rushing’s new work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It may have been a purely subjective feeling, and who knows, I may be completely off the mark, but my sense was that I was watching a timely and somehow important work, one that was begging to be made and had captured a feeling in the air. Partly, the piece succeeded because it wasn’t directly about race or change or politics. It was conceived as a tribute Odetta Holmes—known as “Odetta”—the gospel/folk/blues/jazz singer who became one of the leading voices of the Civil Rights movement. It was Odetta’s extraordinary voice—low, pungent, by turns foghorn-loud and caressing—that led the way.
I’ll admit I had never heard of her; my musical education leaned more toward Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau than Bob Dylan, for better or for worse. But not knowing who she was was no impediment to being instantly walloped by that voice, operatic in scale, unsparing, and emotionally transparent. Rushing’s Odetta was set to a selection of her songs— religious hymns, work chants, folk melodies, and Bob Dylan’s scathing anthem “Masters of War”—intercut with passages of her speaking voice. Both communicated an immense anger and sadness, feelings justified by her own personal experience.
Odetta was born in the heart of the Jim Crow south, in Birmingham Alabama, 1930, and grew up to march alongside Martin Luther King. She saw first-hand the ugly side of white folk. After college, she found her home and artistic family in the folk music scene, a milieu that sought authenticity and relevance through a return to roots. She brought to her music a wealth of experience and a voice like a freight train.
Rushing’s choreography and storytelling are less pungent than Odetta’s songs; he does well not to try to compete. But the songs color the dances. And the dances, in turn, soften the sometimes monolithic force of the songs. In the Ailey veteran Hope Boykin the choreographer has found a protagonist who, like a beloved sister or protector, can be both stern and soft, despairing and hopeful. He gives to her the work’s moments of grace; she luxuriates, with warmth and lightness, in his sensual, precise movements, mixing elements of African dance with Ailey, Caribbean touches, samba. The cast of eleven is mixed, giving the lie to the notion that Alvin Ailey is a “black” company. Rushing pushes us to see the dancers in a new light, opening up hitherto unknown aspects of their dancing and their stage personalities. For Kanji Segawa, he has created a solo of aching loneliness, all slow unfoldings of the limbs and lingering balances, and set it to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” (“Long long way from home,” Odetta moans in the background.) Segawa looks as if he were pulling himself out of a morass of solitude.
“Masters of War” is an indictment of the seemingly endless cycle of American military entanglements, of men (and women) pulled away from their lives and loves to kill and be killed. Here, Rushing has given the main role, of a man afraid to die, to Michael Francis McBride, normally a smiling classicist who happens to be white, and whom I often think of, privately, as “The Little Prince.” In “John Henry,” a song about a man whose life of hard labor sends him to an early grave, Renaldo Maurice’s solo becomes angrier and angrier as he rages against the injustice of his life. The other dancers, perched on benches or sprawled on the floor, pound out an increasingly insistent tattoo. (A set of benches is well used throughout the work, demarcating spaces that evoke a church, a train, a community hall or a stage. The designer is Travis George. The costumes, by Dante Baylor, are appealingly un-hip: fringed and patched and hippy-ish.)
There is beauty and humor too, and love. A pas de deux for Sarah Daley and Jermaine Terry set to “Cool Water” shows off Daley’s eloquent, sorrowful line and pristine classical training. A clownish duet set to the humorous call-and-response ditty “A Hole in the Bucket,” sung with Harry Belafonte, provides a moment of levity. (It also reminds me of “Shutters Shut,” a piece for the Netherlands Dance Theatre set to a poem by Gertrude Stein.) In the end, Rushing offers a kind of reconciliation. Hope Boykin embraces Megan Jakel and the company returns for a final, harmonious ensemble. The ending may be too consolatory, too soft, but then, one senses that Mathew Rushing is a generous man, more gentle than Odetta, more willing to forgive. And after the despair and anger provoked by the violent deaths of Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there is something to be said for a piece that offers some hope that things will get better, for everyone.
Last night I saw my umpteenth performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker at New York City Ballet, and was once again impressed by the construction, power, and fluency of this version. Yes, it was a particularly tight performance, without a weak link—even the kids were especially lively. But it’s not just that. There is something in the way the choreographer paced the action, the dancing, and the music that both streamlines and enlarges it. I talk about it some more in my review for DanceTabs.
And if you just can’t get enough, here is an excellent piece by Laura Jacobs about the history of the ballet, from Vanity Fair.
Last week, the choreographer Jessica Lang presented her new, fully-staged version of Shubert’s song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin at BAM’s intimate Fishman Space. In it, she takes on the the lyricism of Schubert and the poetry of Wilhelm Müller and gives it physical form. Her eight dancers fill the roles of protagonist, miller’s daughter, huntsman, and, more intriguingly, of the forces of nature and the brook in which the protagonist eventually drowns himself. Lang made a valiant effort; her approach is sensitive, well-informed, and consistently engaging. But the two languages—dance and son—only occasionally spoke to each other with eloquence, bringing about something more than the sum of various parts. Here’s my review, for DanceTabs.
And a longer a piece I wrote for The Nation, on the difficulty of combining vocal music and dance.
I sat down with Ethan Stiefel a few weeks after his return to New York from New Zealand where, for three years, he was the artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. We talked about his time there, his transition from dancer to director, his choreographic aspirations, and his plans (and non-plans) for the future. You can find the interview here, at DanceTabs.