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Crocodile Tales: Khmer Arts Ensemble at the Joyce (for DanceTabs)

Khmer Arts Ensemble in "A Bend in the River," by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Photo by Khvay Samnang.
Khmer Arts Ensemble in “A Bend in the River,” by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Photo by Khvay Samnang.

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.”

Some Background on a baroque opera

I recently wrote a program note on Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, which will be performed by Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music April 17-21. You can read it here.

It turns out that the opera was first composed to be performed at a prominent Jesuit school in Paris, as the musical interludes for a spoken play, Saül, which was performed by the students. Must have made for a rather long evening!

The opera, which is based on a biblical episode, tells the story of a tragic love between two friends, David et Jonathas, forced by circumstance to fight on opposite sides in a war. In a strange way, it is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story. Love does not conquer all, but it does give meaning to everything else.

Trisha Brown Takes a Step Back

It was announced this week that from here forward Trisha Brown will leave the day-to-day management of her company to two of her longtime dancers and collaborators, Diana Madden and Carolyn Lucas. What had become increasingly apparent in public appearances was confirmed: Ms. Brown’s health and ability to communicate has been compromised by a series of mini-strokes in the last few years. She will take on the title of Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer and, the company assures, remain very much involved. (Two of the pieces currently being performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it should be pointed out, were made in the last year.)  Meantime, the company will undertake a similar process to the one mapped out by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2009: a worldwide tour of Brown’s pieces for the stage,  a retrospective at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA,  the development of a new model for future stagings of her work, and the completion of a detailed and interactive archive of sets, costumes, scores, and video materials. The future of the company itself has not been decided. As the company announcement points out, “since the early 1980’s, Brown has documented every step in her creative process on video.” Someday, this footage will become an essential tool for those hoping to present her works. Meanwhile,  as the company points out, Brown is very much involved this massive project. At the moment, BAM is presenting an evening of her works, including the two that she has declared to be her final dances: I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them they’re yours and Les Yeux et l’âme. Apollinaire Scherr reviewed them, vividly, for the Financial Times.

And here is a piece in the Times explaining the company’s plans.


Three Plays: Opus No. 7, Family Happiness, and The Suit

An image from Dmitry Krymov's "Shostakovich." The actress is Anna Sinyakina.
An image from Dmitry Krymov’s “Shostakovich.” The actress is Anna Sinyakina.

I’ve been feeling the itch to see more theatre. Perhaps it’s because dance and theatre have begun to overlap in so many ways. Half the time, at dance performances, the actual dance feels like an afterthought. Many choreographers no longer seem to entirely trust movement, or to want to say the kinds of things that can be said through movement. The function of the choreographer has become more like that of a director, channeling ideas through his or her performers. Dancers are called upon to speak, sing, improvise movement and text. The trend transcends geography. Think of William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the late Pina Bausch, Bill T Jones, Ralph Lemon, Big Dance Theatre. Not to speak of the multitude of experimental choreographers working on the downtown scene. So I’ve been intrigued to see what’s happening on the other side.

 In the past two weeks, I’ve gone to three plays in New York, Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 (at St. Ann’s Warehouse), Peter Brook’s adaptation of Can Themba’s The Suit (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and Piotr Fomenko’s staging of Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). It may be a case of beginner’s luck, but all three were excellent productions, in radically contrasting styles. Krymov’s Opus was a highly choreographed, very physical exploration of history and memory. The actors created the set with their own hands. They built their own onstage world, with hammers and saws and the harmony of their voices. The second half of the program, Shostakovich, was especially powerful. In it, Krymov (who wrote, designed, and directed) depicted the great Russian composer as a kind of tragic clown, a whimpering, simpering tool of the Soviet state. The subject was the struggle to create legitimate art, and even to survive, in a state that does not allow the freedom to think. Engulfed in a giant coat and quaking at the feet of a giant puppet—mother Russia—the composer took on a grotesque aspect. His seventh symphony became a ballet for metal pianos, easily interpreted as military tanks. The tanks used to defend Mother Russia, but also to crush rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I don’t altogether agree with this interpretation of the composer’s role in Russia’s twentieth century saga, but as portrayed by Anna Sinyakina (Shostakovich) and the rest of this remarkable cast, the portrait was devastating. One could feel the weight of history hovering over the audience. What was most affecting was the way Krymov grappled with his own past and with the identity of the artist, taking on his subject with an unsparing lucidity, though not without a lick of humor. A deathly kind of humor. There was very little text other than Shostakovich’s own recorded voice, spouting the inanities he was forced to proclaim as a kind of penance for writing ideologically suspect music. Fomenko called the two plays “one-act ballets.”

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music played an important role in all three productions; all of the actors sang, and I was struck by the naturalness with which they did so, a universe away from the forced, almost aggressive singing in shows like Les Misérables or A Chorus Line. The human voice and its ability to communicate emotion, to tell stories and fill in details about a life… In The Suit, especially, songs opened a window to the realm of the senses, to pleasure, and revealed surprising new sides of the characters. The play, adapted by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne from a story by the South African writer Can Themba (who drank himself to death at the age of forty-three in 1967), is set in a suburb of Johannesburg, Sophiatown (a real place, later re-zoned for whites by the Apartheid government). It’s the story of a middle-class black woman (Tilly) who cheats on her doting husband (Philomen), and is punished by him by being forced to treat her lover’s forgotten suit as if it were honored guest in their house, and even in public. It is not until Tilly (played by Nonhlanhla Kheswa) sings her first song that she begins to come alive. Why should we care about this woman? Why does she betray a husband who treats her with such gentleness, and even brings her breakfast in bed? The answer is revealed, very simply, through her singing. Tilly is not just a victim, not only a beautiful woman and an adulteress. When Kheswa sings, Tilly becomes someone. In a way, it is her husband who wrongs her by not realizing what she is: a singer, someone who gives and receives love through her singing.

Ksenia Kutepova as Masha and Alexey Kolubkov as Sergey Mikhailovich in “Family Happiness.” Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

Similarly, in Family Happiness, a delicate thread of music leads through the play’s themes. Masha, Tolstoy’s protagonist, is seen in her youth, then as an erratic married woman, and finally as a mature woman reflecting on her past. In all these stages of life, she is played by the immensely appealing Ksenia Kutepova, a fine-boned redhead with expressive eyes, pale skin, and pre-Raphaelite lips. Masha’s thoughts are accompanied by gently nostalgic piano melodies by Chopin and Beethoven (a sentimental touch). She ponders her life at a little table, listening to the music, plucking its final notes out of the air with her fingers. Music has a physical presence as well; two pianos dominate the intimate set, which contains little else: a few chairs, a table, some curtains and a suitcase Masha is eternally leaping over in her excitement. (One of the innovations developed by Fomenko, who died last year, was the rejection of Soviet theatre’s grand scale and his focus on the intimate, the simple, the everyday.)

For all her enthusiasm and innocent appeal, Masha’s main flaw is her superficiality, and it find its expression, among other things, in her inability to play the piano. She tinkles a few notes, but soon loses interest; for all her charm and enthusiasm, she has no real understanding of music, of life. The young Masha, depicted breathlessly by Kutepova as a kind of tourbillon of continuous motion and copious eye-rolls, grows into a still-charming but perilously erratic woman. The mere sound of the words St. Petersburg—let alone the thought of leaving her country life for that of the city—sends her into paroxysms of delight. She repeats “Pe-ters-burg….”, savoring each syllable with a half-whisper, half song, eyes filling with desire. Once there, she discovers the pleasures of dancing; laconic piano-playing is replaced by antic polkas that set her heart all aflutter. She forgets about her husband and her child, waiting back home. When her husband (the very solid Alexey Kolubkov) realizes what has happened to his once-sweet wife, he tries to lure her back to the country. “Why should I sacrifice my pleasure?”  Masha cries out in almost physical pain.

Masha’s near-disgrace is captured in a scene in which she sings a silly ballad, accompanied on the piano by two languid admirers. Here, the tone shifts from lyrical realism to a gentle satire. The foreign seducers, one of whom wears a preposterous curly wig, strike indolent poses, caress the piano, stare moonily at their prey (while saying awful things behind her back, in French). Masha’s voce is tremulous and child-like; she is not a woman of the world, just pretending to be one. Even so, her simple charm, Kutepova makes clear, has not quite faded. She replaces every high note she can’t quite reach with a little shrug of the shoulders and wave of the hand. She’s both complicit and profoundly innocent. After a failed seduction, she returns home to her husband, bruised by life, chastened. It’s a profoundly male vision of experience; the husband represents a kind of disappointed wisdom, an understanding of life’s important issues. Masha, who is kept from useful work, has only two options to choose from: motherhood and wifely devotion on the one hand, dissolution on the other. (The nanny, Katya, is more a collection of sound-effects than a human being. Galina Tunina plays her with a vast repertory of nods and tsks and sighs. Her performance is small masterpiece of mime.)

In this early novella, Tolstoy had not yet achieved the deeper understanding of human nature that would come later, in works like Anna Karenina. This one-sidedness weakens the play; in the end, one can’t help but think that it is just the story of a silly woman. Nevertheless, Kutepova’s performance is extraordinarily graceful, and touching.

Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music plays a more salutary role in Thema’s The Suit. For Tilly, music is the key to opening a secret passageway to freedom and happiness. Through it, Tilly transcends her own humiliation. As Kheswa sings a song by Miriam Makeba, the play’s three men (Jared McNeill, William Nadylam, and Rikki Henry, all excellent), begin to dance behind her. All worries melt away, at least temporarily. Tilly has found her passion. Her husband Philomen (William Nadylam) momentarily forgets his anger and humiliation. Time stops. Peter Brook holds out this pleasure to the audience like a gift. He even allows the audience to taste it from up close; during a party scene, the actors invite people to join them onstage. It is the first successful example of audience participation I have witnessed. The outsiders are welcomed, made to feel completely at home, part of the family.

The sense of community is a canny distraction from the darker themes of the play. Jared McNeill, in the role of neighborhood storyteller, fills in some of the sinister details, without piling on the pathos. One of the show’s most appealing aspects is its light touch. But the facts are not so light: we learn that Sophiatown, this peaceful oasis of multi-racial neighborliness, will soon be emptied of its black and “colored” inhabitants. We are given a foretaste of the violence to come as he tells the story of a local musician who is arrested, mutilated, killed, and left in the streets like a piece of trash. Does the joy of the onstage music-making soften the blow?  A little. One can sense Peter Brook’s enchantment with his cast, with the charm of their singing and dancing, with the beauty of Miriam Makeba’s songs: “There is something deep and special that comes form this vast unknown which is called Africa,” Brook told Pia Catton in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a very European point of view, a slightly uncomfortable one if one thinks about it too much. But it’s hard not to give in to the pleasure of such good acting, and of people making music together.

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.

Trey McIntyre Collaborates with Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, at BAM (DanceTabs)

As part of a cultural exchange program funded by government (DanceMotion USA), the Trey McIntyre Project joined up with the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company for a joint program at BAM. One of the works, The Unkindness of Ravens, involved dancers from both companies. Then each company performed work from its own repertoire. You can read my review here.

And here is a short excerpt:

“A choreographer’s voice is like a key – it’s not a guarantee of sublimity, of course, but it opens the door to his inner world. Trey McIntyre is a man who follows his own compass; how else can one explain his decision to base his fledgling company, Trey McIntyre Project, in Boise (Idaho), back in 2008? Boise was no hub of contemporary dance, but he found a receptive community there, and the space to think, far from the crowd, and to make the kind of work he wanted to make, rather than jump from project to project as many young choreographers do.”