Four premieres at City Ballet and a few surprises at Fall for Dance

New York City Ballet had its gala on Sept. 30, featuring new works by four youngsters: Robert Binet, Myles Thatcher, Troy Schumacher, and Justin Peck. Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

New York City Ballet in Troy Schumacher’s Common Ground, with costumes by Marta Marques and Paolo Almeida of Marques’Almeida. Photo by Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in Troy Schumacher’s Common Ground, with costumes by Marta Marques and Paolo Almeida of Marques’Almeida. Photo by
Paul Kolnik

Over at City Center, Fall for Dance kicked off with two varied programs, each containing a surprise. See my review here.

Rachelle Rafailedes and L.A. Dance Project in Murder Ballades. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.
Rachelle Rafailedes and L.A. Dance Project in Murder Ballades.
Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

 

 

Catching up

This time of year, it’s hard to keep up with the goings-on in the dance world (particularly ballet). Here is a round-up of recent performances and news:

Evgenia Obraztsova in <I>Romeo and Juliet</I>.<br />© Rosalie O'Connor. (Click image for larger version)
Evgenia Obraztsova in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

1. Herman Cornejo and Evgenia Obraztsova performed a touching rendition of Romeo and Juliet at the Met. It was Obraztsova’s début with the company—here’s hoping this new partnership will blossom in coming seasons. Here is a link to my review, for DanceTabs.

https://i0.wp.com/cvj1llwqcyay0evy.zippykid.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/gs-herman-cornejo-happy-jump_1000.jpg
Herman Cornejo at the same performance. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

 

2. New York Theatre Ballet, alias “the little company that could,” held its first season in the sanctuary at St. Mark’s Church, its new home. On the program were works by Frederick Ashton, Richard Alston, David Parker, Antony Tudor, and the young choreographer Gemma Bond. The space fits the company beautifully, and the inclusion of live music (piano and voice) made all the difference. Here’s a link to my review, for DanceTabs.

New York Theatre Ballet in Anthony Tudor's Dark Elegies.© Yi-Chun Wu. (Click image for larger version)
New York Theatre Ballet in Anthony Tudor’s Dark Elegies. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

3. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater closed out the season with a Rennie Harris’s moving Exodus (new this season), Robert Battle’s No Longer Silent (a company première), and, of course Revelations. Here’s my review, for DanceTabs.

4. And finally, Julie Kent gave her final performance with ABT, a finely-etched portrait of Juliet in the well-loved Kenneth MacMillan production. As always with this thinking ballerina, every detail was beautifully distinct. It is difficult to imagine works like A Month in the Country without her.

Julie Kent, the soul of simplicity, as always. Photo by me.
Julie Kent, the soul of simplicity, as always. Photo by yours truly.

 

Matthew Rushing’s Song

Hope Boykin in Matthew Rushing's ODETTA.  Photo by Steve Wilson
Hope Boykin in Matthew Rushing’s ODETTA. Photo by Steve Wilson

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.

Matthew Rushing by Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe
Matthew Rushing by Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

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.)

The cast of "Odetta," by Steve Wilson.
The cast of “Odetta,” by Steve Wilson.

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.

 

Ailey Does It

Rachael McLaren and Kirven Douthit-Boyd in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Rachael McLaren and Kirven Douthit-Boyd in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Alvin Ailey is dancing at the Koch Theatre in Lincoln Center this week, with its singular mix of exuberance, power, and finesse. Here’s my review of some of the new works (including Robert Moses’ The Pleasure of the Lesson and Wayne McGregor’s Chroma), for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt: “As a secondary consequence, it has been fascinating to see how these choreographers’ works are in turn transformed by the Ailey dancers. They don’t just do the steps, they mold them to their style and personality.”

 

 

 

 

Alvin Ailey, Rebooted

 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Chroma, D-Man in the Waters (Part I), LIFT New York, City Center 20 December 2013 www.alvinailey.org www.nycitycenter.org Ailey, Recharged Since stepping into Judith Jamison’s shoes just two-and-a-half years ago, Robert Battle has set in motion a quiet revolution at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Like his frequent curtain speeches, Battle’s leadership seems to combine a lack of flash with a determination to honor and extend the virtues of his dancers. He may appear low-key, but don’t be fooled. As he said, with a self-deprecating chortle, before a recent performance, Ailey fans should tighten their seatbelts. Battle seems intent on demonstrating that Ailey dancers can dance anything, no matter what the style or mode of composition (contemporary ballet, modern dance, post-modern dance, hip-hop). But what is in a way even more striking is how the repertory he chooses – often, it must be said, by trendy choreographers – is transformed by the Ailey dancers, with their combination of individuality and collaborative spirit. Despite registering strongly as individual personalities, they are equally involved with each other onstage; like the members of a family, each dancer has his role to play. And one can feel the dancers’ hunger for new challenges – I have yet to see a less than full-throttle performance, even when a choreographer’s style does not quite fit the company’s technique, as with Paul Taylor’s Arden Court last year. Often, they reveal aspects or colors I’d never noticed before. I’m always surprised by how, in the finale of Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 – a portrait of postmodern Israeli alienation – the Ailey dancers manage to show concern for the audience members they lure onto the stage. Instead of feeling terrified and embarrassed, their “victims” sense that they will be looked after; because of this, they are able to really let themselves go.   Jacqueline Green in Wayne McGregor's Chroma.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) Jacqueline Green in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. © Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) The new works this season – Chroma, D-Man in the Waters (Part I), and Lift – are a typically eclectic mix. Chroma, by the British choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose whiplash-inducing style and penchant for cool lighting displays have propelled him to the forefront of contemporary ballet, seems geared to show that the Ailey company can be as contemporary and dazzling as anyone today. Ailey is also the first non-ballet company in the US to take on Chroma, originally made for the Royal Ballet (in 2006). (It is performed off-pointe.) Whatever the values of the ballet – and I’ll admit its de-humanized, often sexual contortions, blaring score, all-white set, and fierce presentationalism leave me quite cold – Battle has proved his point. These dancers can twist and split their legs and slide and grapple with the best. And they look good doing it. In a slow, stretchy pas de deux, the gorgeous, long-limbed Alicia Graf Mack, especially, transforms herself into something not quite human, capable of bending and twisting to almost frightening extremes. (McGregor has a way of turning dancers into a catalog of body parts.) At times, her long, curled-over leg is reminiscent of a scorpion’s tail.   Alicia Graf Mack and Vernard J. Gilmore in Wayne McGregor's Chroma.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) Alicia Graf Mack and Vernard J. Gilmore in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. © Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) But not even these dancers can imbue Chroma with rhythmic variety or subtle accents – there is nothing subtle about McGregor’s arm-yanking couples or the way the men constantly pry the women’s thighs apart – but they do manage to color the movement with theatrical undertones and style. The work comes across as less violent, more attitude-driven, like a music video.   Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in BIll T. Jones's D-Man in the Waters (Part 1).© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in BIll T. Jones’s D-Man in the Waters (Part 1). © Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) D-Man in the Waters (Part I) is perhaps the best-known work by the American modern dancer and choreographer, Bill T. Jones, (it was revived by his own company just this year). Created in 1989 at the height of the Aids crisis, D-Man is a cry of defiance against the disease. It is less notable for its actual dance vocabulary than for its energy and joy. (Similarly the Mendelssohn Octet to which it is set is built upon the insistent repetition of a single motif.)  It is a dance of life, clearly meant to evoke a community of people fighting for survival, with exuberance and love. Lines of camouflage-wearing dancers form and dissolve, bodies dive and fall, dancers “swim” vehemently against the tide. At Ailey, the balletic notes of the work stand out: feet are pointed, pirouettes are rigorously vertical, feet skitter in petit allegro. The clarity allows certain details to pop, as when one of the dancers (Michael Francis McBride) returns to the stage to pick an invisible flower and hold it delicately in his hand. The Ailey dancers capture the work’s warmth and underlying innocence, toning down their big personalities to allow the piece to speak for itself. In a quartet for a man and three women in which each teeters toward the floor, Jammer Roberts – who is having a fantastic season – stands out for his gentle concern, so remarkable in a man with his Atlas-like physique (he is six foot five).   Belen Pereyra, Michael Francis McBride and Rachael McLaren in BIll T. Jones's D-Man in the Waters (Part 1).© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) Belen Pereyra, Michael Francis McBride and Rachael McLaren in BIll T. Jones’s D-Man in the Waters (Part 1). © Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) That physique is put in dramatic relief in the third première, the only completely new work this season, Aszure Barton’s Lift. This is Barton’s first collaboration with the company; the Canadian choreographer has her own modern dance ensemble, and has also worked with Netherlands Dance Theatre, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and American Ballet Theatre (among many others). Even so, as often happens when a choreographer is exposed to this company, she has – consciously or unconsciously – created an “Ailey” piece: high-energy, with a strong rhythmic impulse and a not-so-subtle African flavor. (The bouncing steps, the wing-like arms, the grass-like frayed skirts.) That said, it’s the only work on the program that allows us see the dancers in a new light, revealing aspects of their technique and physical qualities untapped elsewhere. Barton seems particularly fascinated by Jammer Roberts’s back, a knotty landscape of muscle and concentrated energy. As he rolls, twitches, and billows his torso beneath a bright light, facing away from the audience, his arms fluttering and beating like the wings of a pterodactyl, his body becomes a rocky landscape. He crouches, on his tiptoes, and slowly expands, becoming twice his original size, seeming to fill the whole stage.   Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts in Aszure Barton's LIFT.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version) Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts in Aszure Barton’s LIFT. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts in Aszure Barton’s LIFT. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

My final review of the season is of three premières at Alvin Ailey (by Aszure Barton, Bill T. Jones, and Wayne McGregor). The company, under the still-new leadership of Robert Battle, is looking great. Here‘s my review.

And a short excerpt:

“But what is in a way even more striking is how the repertory [Battle] chooses – often, it must be said, by trendy choreographers – is transformed by the Ailey dancers, with their combination of individuality and collaborative spirit. Despite registering strongly as individual personalities, they are equally involved with each other onstage; like the members of a family, each dancer has his role to play. And one can feel the dancers’ hunger for new challenges – I have yet to see a less than full-throttle performance, even when a choreographer’s style does not quite fit the company’s technique, as with Paul Taylor’s Arden Court last year.”