At the Delacorte, Dancing in the Mist

Ron Prime Tyme Myles in Bend in the Road, by Tammy Shell
Ron Prime Tyme Myles in Bend in the Road, by Tammy Shell

 

The fall season begins. As a preview to its October run, Fall for Dance held two performances at the Delacorte this weekend. Saturday’s show had to be postponed for a day because of rain—a hazard—but the weather on the rain date, Sunday, was glorious: crisp, crystalline. Planes flew overhead, blinking their lights in salute. The program, consisting of Hubbard Street, two dancers from City Ballet, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company, and a group gathered by Damian Woetzel, had its highs and lows. Here’s my review of the evening, for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt:

“The most heart-felt, and probably the finest, piece of the evening was Bill T. Jones’s D-Man in the Waters (Part I), danced by his marvelously eclectic company. These dancers look like a cross-section of humanity, and they move that way as well. The piece, set to Mendelssohn’s propulsive Octet – played by the Orion String Quartet plus four – is an anthem, a cry of defiance against death; it was made in 1989, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, as a member of Jones’s company was dying of the disease. ”

A moment from D-Man in the Waters, by Bill T. Jones. Photo by Tammy Shell.
A moment from D-Man in the Waters, by Bill T. Jones. Photo by Tammy Shell.

 

NYCB dancers Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski in Forsythe's Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux. By Tammy Shell. NYCB, FFD2014, by Tammy Shell
NYCB dancers Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski in Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux. By Tammy Shell.

 

 

Memorable Performances of 2013

It’s that time of year. Looking back, here are fifteen particularly memorable performances from the last twelve months, in no particular order.What were the most memorable performances in your year? I’d love to hear about them.

Dmitry Krymov’s play Opus No. 7, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a highly choreographed, very physical exploration of history and memory. The second half of the program, Shostakovich, was especially powerful. In it, Krymov (who wrote, designed, and directed) explored the historical role of the great Russian composer, depicting him as a kind of tragic clown, a whimpering, simpering tool of the Soviet state. A devastating portrait of the grotesque compromises history forces upon us. It was all I could do to drag myself out of the theatre at the end.

A link to my review.

Akasha, Shantala Shivalingappa’s latest solo kuchipudi evening, which I caught at the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven over the summer. Shivalingappa is one of the foremost interpreters of the Southern Indian classical form kuchipudi, a light, fluid dance that brings together storytelling, rhythmic footwork, silvery jumps, and refined, stylized gestures. Throughout the evening Shivalingappa took on different identities: Krishna as a naughty but irresistible child; a young shepherdess, playing her flute; a betrayed lover. But most impressive was her transformation into Bhairava, god of destruction, at the end. This slight, crystalline dancer became a human tornado, with flashing eyes and slicing limbs vibrating in space.

A link to my recent interview with Shivalingappa.

Shivalingappa as Bhairava. Photo by Elian Bachini.
Shivalingappa as Bhairava. Photo by Elian Bachini.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, for American Ballet Theatre: A project Ratmansky has been mulling for years, ever since composing his first ballet to Shostakovich as a ballet student. The pieces – the Ninth Symphony and the Chamber Symphony in C minor, plus the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet – span Shostakovich’s career and represent a cross-section of his musical and temperamental styles. What is most remarkable about the triptych is its range, and the interweaving of ideas from one ballet to the next. Here is a world, Shostakovich’s world as seen by Ratmansky.

Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

And here is a link to a longer piece about the making of the trilogy, and about Ratmansky’s affinity with Shostakovich’s music, for The Nation.

American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9. © Gene Schiavon
American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9, the first section of the Shostakovich Trilogy. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

–The return of Ratmansky’s Namouna: A Grand Divertissement, to New York City Ballet. A kind of deconstructed nineteenth-century adventure-story, Namouna is pure, goofy, effervescent pleasure. And the company looks splendid in it.

You can read more about it here.

Tyler Angle, Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, and Sara Mearns in "Namouna." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Tyler Angle, Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, and Sara Mearns in “Namouna.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Petrushka, performed at the New York Philharmonic as part of A Dancer’s Dream. The full evening, a collaboration with the Giants Are Small production company, didn’t work (Baiser de la Fée was a mess), but Petrushka was a blast. There were puppets, projections, dancing onion domes, and even a dancing bear on a ball (thank you, Amar Ramasar). The musicians got up and danced as well, made musical jokes, and played Stravinsky’s score with real folk flair. Sara Mearns played the Ballerina Doll, but Ramasar stole the show.

Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

A Bend in the River, by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, performed by the Khmer Arts Ensemble as part of Season of Cambodia. Shapiro’s reinterpretation of classical Cambodian dance brought this ancient, but somewhat remote, art form crashing into the present. The musical score, by Him Sophy, is the first modern composition for traditional pin peat ensemble, a radical extension of its range of colors, dynamics, and rhythmic contrasts. The plot, drawn from folklore, functions both as pure storytelling, as a skeleton for elegant and lively dance sequences, and as an allegory of national reconciliation. A very moving piece of theatre.

Read more here.

Carla Körbes in George Balanchine’s Apollo, performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet at City Center. A luminous, quietly profound performance that made the ballet glow from within. Körbes was the best Terpsichore—the most natural and lyrical—I have seen in person.

Here is a review of that performance. And you’ll find an interview with Körbes here.

Seth Orza and Carla Körbes in Apollo. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.
Seth Orza and Carla Körbes in Apollo. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s En Atendant and Cesena, performed by her company Rosas at BAM. These pieces took me completely by surprise. De Keersmaeker is one of those artists whose work I respect but don’t always enjoy. Her tendency toward repetition and asceticism can be arduous. But in these two pieces, set to polyphonic fourteenth-century music performed by singers who walked onstage among the dancers, the asceticism had a higher, spiritual purpose. The works were like monastic exercises. But singers, and the shifting patterns of their voices, made the experience far from arid.

Here’s a review of the two pieces.

The singers and dancers in Cesena. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The singers and dancers in Cesena. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, with Julie Kent and Guillaume Côté, at American Ballet Theatre. Based on Turgenev’s play, Ashton’s ballet is about love on a Russian country estate. Masterfully constructed, there is not a wasted moment or gesture. Its heroine, Natalya Petrovna, is a silly, shallow woman, but her suffering is all the more touching because it is so inevitable and trite. Côté, débuting in the role, perfectly embodies the young tutor Petrovna falls for: innocent, handsome, and mindlessly sensual. Kent shows remarkable intelligence and sensitivity—she understands Petrovna inside and out.

Read more here.

Julie Kent in A Month in the Country. Photo by Marty Sohl.
Julie Kent in A Month in the Country. Photo by Marty Sohl.

Sous leurs pieds, le paradis, by the Tunisian dancer/choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb: one of the most oddest, most compelling solo performances I’ve seen. It is set to a recording of an extremely long song, Al-Atlatl, perfumed on a recording by the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. El Meddeb interprets Kulthum’s variations in a his own secret language of the body, gliding around the darkened stage with tiny steps, flickering his hand like a hummingbird, ornamenting his path with mysterious gestures. His body exudes a kind of painful vulnerability.

You can watch a video of the piece here.

Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, for NYCB. The promising young choreographer (who also dances with NYCB) had a break-through with this ballet, set to Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla. I was most struck by the underwater ballet he created in the second movement, a completely unexpected feat of fantasy and craft. Peck has learned a lot from watching and dancing in Ratmansky’s ballets. But he also has a strong, athletic, fresh voice. And he’s not afraid to exploit pointe-work, or partnering, without looking the least bit old- fashioned. In the spring, he’s making a new work to a commissioned score by the indie songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Here’s a review of Paz de la Jolla.

The finale of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The finale of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the White Light Festival. Endless words have been written about this piece, so I won’t add more here. Along with his recent Socrates, it is Morris’s most profound, profoundly human work. The music is sublime. What else is there to say.

Well, I did try to say more here, in this review. And here is my recent profile of Mark Morris for The Nation.

A moment from "L'Allegro." Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Lauren Grant in the background, Maile Okamura in the foreground.
A moment from “L’Allegro.” Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Lauren Grant in the background, Maile Okamura in the foreground.

Lil Buck’s evening at the Le Poisson Rouge was one of the most rollicking evenings of the year. This Memphis Jooker, who became famous via a viral video in which he half-improvised to Saint Saëns’ “dying swan,” danced his heart out to jazz, Stravinsky, Galician bagpipe music, Philip Glass (played by Yo Yo Ma), and Klezmer, along with his cousin Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles. He’s deeply musical and totally willing–even hungry–to try anything. He has said that he considers Yo Yo Ma to be a kindred spirit, and he may be right.

Here’s a review of the evening, and a profile in Dance Magazine.

Lil Buck and Yo Yo Ma. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Lil Buck and Yo Yo Ma. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Paco Peña and Ángel Muñoz, performing with the Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company in Flamenco Vivo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Peña’s guitar-playing is simultaneously epic and intimate; with each solo, he embarks on a voyage of the imagination. Muñoz is a force of nature, and a master of suspense. He looks like he’s improvising, picking up the trail of the music and molding it to his mood, taking the musicians and the audience along for the ride. The combination of these two makes for a great evening of music and dance.

More here.

Shostakovich‘s opera The Nose, at the Metropolitan Opera. Composed when Shostakovich was only twenty-five, this opera is dynamic, wildly original, funny, surreal, full of folk elements and surprises. (I especially loved the folk aria set to balalaika.) It has all the energy and sense of discovery that, for me, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys lacked. A real doozie to sing–my greatest admiration goes to the cast. And the William Kentridge production is pure constructivist eye-candy. The best production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, Khovanshchina.

Tiler Peck’s Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. One of the most exciting performances of the year, and reason enough to revisit this ballet. In fact, this is true of everything Peck dances. With her phenomenal musicality, she makes ballet look like the easiest, most natural thing in the world.

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.)

The Inevitable Best-Of List for 2013

It’s that time of year. Looking back, here are fifteen particularly memorable performances from the last twelve months, in no particular order.What were the most memorable performances in your year? I’d love to hear about them.

Dmitry Krymov’s play Opus No. 7, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a highly choreographed, very physical exploration of history and memory. The second half of the program, Shostakovich, was especially powerful. In it, Krymov (who wrote, designed, and directed) explored the historical role of the great Russian composer, depicting him as a kind of tragic clown, a whimpering, simpering tool of the Soviet state. A devastating portrait of the grotesque compromises history forces upon us. It was all I could do to drag myself out of the theatre at the end.

A link to my review.

Akasha, Shantala Shivalingappa’s latest solo kuchipudi evening, which I caught at the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven over the summer. Shivalingappa is one of the foremost interpreters of the Southern Indian classical form kuchipudi, a light, fluid dance that brings together storytelling, rhythmic footwork, silvery jumps, and refined, stylized gestures. Throughout the evening Shivalingappa took on different identities: Krishna as a naughty but irresistible child; a young shepherdess, playing her flute; a betrayed lover. But most impressive was her transformation into Bhairava, god of destruction, at the end. This slight, crystalline dancer became a human tornado, with flashing eyes and slicing limbs vibrating in space.

A link to my recent interview with Shivalingappa.

Shivalingappa as Bhairava. Photo by Elian Bachini.
Shivalingappa as Bhairava. Photo by Elian Bachini.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, for American Ballet Theatre: A project Ratmansky has been mulling for years, ever since composing his first ballet to Shostakovich as a ballet student. The pieces – the Ninth Symphony and the Chamber Symphony in C minor, plus the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet – span Shostakovich’s career and represent a cross-section of his musical and temperamental styles. What is most remarkable about the triptych is its range, and the interweaving of ideas from one ballet to the next. Here is a world, Shostakovich’s world as seen by Ratmansky.

Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

And here is a link to a longer piece about the making of the trilogy, and about Ratmansky’s affinity with Shostakovich’s music, for The Nation.

American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9. © Gene Schiavon
American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9, the first section of the Shostakovich Trilogy. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

–The return of Ratmansky’s Namouna: A Grand Divertissement, to New York City Ballet. A kind of deconstructed nineteenth-century adventure-story, Namouna is pure, goofy, effervescent pleasure. And the company looks splendid in it.

You can read more about it here.

Tyler Angle, Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, and Sara Mearns in "Namouna." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Tyler Angle, Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, and Sara Mearns in “Namouna.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Petrushka, performed at the New York Philharmonic as part of A Dancer’s Dream. The full evening, a collaboration with the Giants Are Small production company, didn’t work (Baiser de la Fée was a mess), but Petrushka was a blast. There were puppets, projections, dancing onion domes, and even a dancing bear on a ball (thank you, Amar Ramasar). The musicians got up and danced as well, made musical jokes, and played Stravinsky’s score with real folk flair. Sara Mearns played the Ballerina Doll, but Ramasar stole the show.

Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

A Bend in the River, by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, performed by the Khmer Arts Ensemble as part of Season of Cambodia. Shapiro’s reinterpretation of classical Cambodian dance brought this ancient, but somewhat remote, art form crashing into the present. The musical score, by Him Sophy, is the first modern composition for traditional pin peat ensemble, a radical extension of its range of colors, dynamics, and rhythmic contrasts. The plot, drawn from folklore, functions both as pure storytelling, as a skeleton for elegant and lively dance sequences, and as an allegory of national reconciliation. A very moving piece of theatre.

Read more here.

Carla Körbes in George Balanchine’s Apollo, performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet at City Center. A luminous, quietly profound performance that made the ballet glow from within. Körbes was the best Terpsichore—the most natural and lyrical—I have seen in person.

Here is a review of that performance. And you’ll find an interview with Körbes here.

Seth Orza and Carla Körbes in Apollo. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.
Seth Orza and Carla Körbes in Apollo. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s En Atendant and Cesena, performed by her company Rosas at BAM. These pieces took me completely by surprise. De Keersmaeker is one of those artists whose work I respect but don’t always enjoy. Her tendency toward repetition and asceticism can be arduous. But in these two pieces, set to polyphonic fourteenth-century music performed by singers who walked onstage among the dancers, the asceticism had a higher, spiritual purpose. The works were like monastic exercises. But singers, and the shifting patterns of their voices, made the experience far from arid.

Here’s a review of the two pieces.

The singers and dancers in Cesena. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The singers and dancers in Cesena. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, with Julie Kent and Guillaume Côté, at American Ballet Theatre. Based on Turgenev’s play, Ashton’s ballet is about love on a Russian country estate. Masterfully constructed, there is not a wasted moment or gesture. Its heroine, Natalya Petrovna, is a silly, shallow woman, but her suffering is all the more touching because it is so inevitable and trite. Côté, débuting in the role, perfectly embodies the young tutor Petrovna falls for: innocent, handsome, and mindlessly sensual. Kent shows remarkable intelligence and sensitivity—she understands Petrovna inside and out.

Read more here.

Julie Kent in A Month in the Country. Photo by Marty Sohl.
Julie Kent in A Month in the Country. Photo by Marty Sohl.

Sous leurs pieds, le paradis, by the Tunisian dancer/choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb: one of the most oddest, most compelling solo performances I’ve seen. It is set to a recording of an extremely long song, Al-Atlatl, perfumed on a recording by the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. El Meddeb interprets Kulthum’s variations in a his own secret language of the body, gliding around the darkened stage with tiny steps, flickering his hand like a hummingbird, ornamenting his path with mysterious gestures. His body exudes a kind of painful vulnerability.

You can watch a video of the piece here.

Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, for NYCB. The promising young choreographer (who also dances with NYCB) had a break-through with this ballet, set to Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla. I was most struck by the underwater ballet he created in the second movement, a completely unexpected feat of fantasy and craft. Peck has learned a lot from watching and dancing in Ratmansky’s ballets. But he also has a strong, athletic, fresh voice. And he’s not afraid to exploit pointe-work, or partnering, without looking the least bit old- fashioned. In the spring, he’s making a new work to a commissioned score by the indie songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Here’s a review of Paz de la Jolla.

The finale of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The finale of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the White Light Festival. Endless words have been written about this piece, so I won’t add more here. Along with his recent Socrates, it is Morris’s most profound, profoundly human work. The music is sublime. What else is there to say.

Well, I did try to say more here, in this review. And here is my recent profile of Mark Morris for The Nation.

A moment from "L'Allegro." Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Lauren Grant in the background, Maile Okamura in the foreground.
A moment from “L’Allegro.” Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Lauren Grant in the background, Maile Okamura in the foreground.

Lil Buck’s evening at the Le Poisson Rouge was one of the most rollicking evenings of the year. This Memphis Jooker, who became famous via a viral video in which he half-improvised to Saint Saëns’ “dying swan,” danced his heart out to jazz, Stravinsky, Galician bagpipe music, Philip Glass (played by Yo Yo Ma), and Klezmer, along with his cousin Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles. He’s deeply musical and totally willing–even hungry–to try anything. He has said that he considers Yo Yo Ma to be a kindred spirit, and he may be right.

Here’s a review of the evening, and a profile in Dance Magazine.

Lil Buck and Yo Yo Ma. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Lil Buck and Yo Yo Ma. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Paco Peña and Ángel Muñoz, performing with the Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company in Flamenco Vivo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Peña’s guitar-playing is simultaneously epic and intimate; with each solo, he embarks on a voyage of the imagination. Muñoz is a force of nature, and a master of suspense. He looks like he’s improvising, picking up the trail of the music and molding it to his mood, taking the musicians and the audience along for the ride. The combination of these two makes for a great evening of music and dance.

More here.

Shostakovich‘s opera The Nose, at the Metropolitan Opera. Composed when Shostakovich was only twenty-five, this opera is dynamic, wildly original, funny, surreal, full of folk elements and surprises. (I especially loved the folk aria set to balalaika.) It has all the energy and sense of discovery that, for me, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys lacked. A real doozie to sing–my greatest admiration goes to the cast. And the William Kentridge production is pure constructivist eye-candy. The best production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, Khovanshchina.

 

Tiler Peck’s Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. One of the most exciting performances of the year, and reason enough to revisit this ballet. In fact, this is true of everything Peck dances. With her phenomenal musicality, she makes ballet look like the easiest, most natural thing in the world.

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.)

Just Jookin’

Smiling at a café in Midtown. Photo by yours truly.
Smiling at a café in Midtown. Photo by yours truly.

The young dancer Lil Buck, from Memphis, has become a bit of a sensation, ever since a video of his moves emerged on YouTube. There was something strangely fascinating about the dancer in the video, a kind of intensity and focus surprising in such a young performer, engaged in what looked essentially like an improvisation. And then, there was the oddness of the video itself: a mashup of Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne and a type of hip hop dance known as jookin’. The two actually worked quite well together, in part because jookin’—which was developed in Memphis in the eighties, in response to a very specific local strain dance music—is characterized by glides and legato phrases that mesh quite well with the longer periods of classical music. With its waves and twists, it’s certainly eye-catching, but it’s also expressive. Or at least it can be. (Of course, it helped that Buck’s accompanist that day was none other than Yo Yo Ma.)

Buck’s musical courage did not end with The Swan (which, it turns out, whas developed in conjunction with a ballet teacher in Memphis). Through his association with the former New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel (now head of the Vail International Dance Festival and a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities) he has begun to explore jazz, Basque bagpipe music, klezmer, Stravinsky. This summer, at Vail, he’ll take part in a duet with another paragon of musicality, the City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck.

A couple of months ago I sat down with Buck, who is also a singularly sweet guy, at a café in midtown, near his hotel. The result is this profile in Dance Magazine.

It’s Out!

The August issue of Dance Magazine contains my profile of the jookin’ sensation Lil Buck. He’s an extraordinary dancer, sure, but it turns out he’s a lovely, and rather profound human being as well. Here’s the cover. I’ll link to the piece as soon as it’s online.

Lil Buck cover

Dance Impressions: Youth America Grand Prix gala, Ballet Next, Kafka’s Monkey, Degas Dances, American Bolero Dance Company

Nina Ananiashvili's "Dying Swan." Picture taken from her website.
Nina Ananiashvili’s “Dying Swan.” Picture taken from her website.

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?

The Grand Défilé. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
The Grand Défilé. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

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?

Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

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.

Dorothée Gilbert and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
Dorothée Gilbert and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

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:

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Georgina Pazcoguin and Charles Askegard in "Stravinsky Divertimento." Photo by Paul B Goode.
Georgina Pazcoguin and Charles Askegard in “Stravinsky Divertimento.” Photo by Paul B Goode.

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:

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Kathryn Hunter in "Kafka's Monkey," at BAC.
Kathryn Hunter in “Kafka’s Monkey,” at BAC.

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.)

Kathryn Hunter.
Kathryn Hunter.

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.

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Mia Potter in "Degas Dances" at the Frick. Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
Mia Potter in “Degas Dances” at the Frick. Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.

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.

Mary (Olivia Powell) and Lydia Cassatt (Katie Steiner). Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
Mary (Olivia Powell) and Lydia Cassatt (Katie Steiner). Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.

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Gabriela Granados (in green), Juan Siddi and Aurora Reyes of American Bolero Dance Company.
Gabriela Granados (in green), Juan Siddi and Aurora Reyes of American Bolero Dance Company.

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.

A Good Week: Lil Buck, Mark Morris, Juilliard Dance, Gabriel Misse, and Nrityagram

Lil Buck and the members of Brooklyn Rider and Yo Yo Ma at Le Poisson Rouge. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Lil Buck and the members of Brooklyn Rider and Yo Yo Ma at Le Poisson Rouge. Photo by Erin Baiano.

It was a rather good week for dance in New York. For me, it began with Lil Buck’s lively evening of Jookin’ among friends, organized by the enterprising Damian Woetzel. Jookin is a kind of hip hop dance developed in Memphis, a descendent of the Gangsta Walk. It’s a surprising playful, fine-grained genre, full of slow turns, gliding walks, and, strangest of all, buoyant balances on point. Woetzel, who directs the Vail International Dance Festival and hosts a series of dance conversations at New York’s City Center (Studio 5), has become an energetic, and imaginative, advocate for dance in all its forms. The Lil Buck evening was held at Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub-like space in the Village; the setting gave the proceedings a kind of edgy, fashionable feel. Owing in part to Lil Buck’s pop credentials—he has toured with Madonna—there was a celebrity contingent present. At a table next to the stage, Anna Wintour watched the proceedings impassively while a gleeful Alan Alda clapped effusively. There were a lot of young people present , many of whom recorded the proceedings on their cell phones. You could order a cocktail.

None of this would have mattered if the dancing and music-making hadn’t been as rousing as it was. Buck is both an exceptional dancer—his hovering balances and sinuous glides are exhilarating in their strangeness—and an affecting performer, responsive to his fellow artists and to the audience. In reaction to acclaim his eyes widen, a smile appears on his lips: “you like that?” At the same time, he’s deeply focussed. He listens intently to the music and shows it with his body. The music seems to set his molecules racing; his eyes gleam, his body practically vibrates with emotion. He is as responsive to Saint-Saëns or Bach as he is to jazz or Klezmer music. At Le Poisson Rouge, Woetzel described him as a “musical medium,” an odd phrase that felt strangely objectifying, but at the same time quite apt.

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The Mark Morris Dance Group in "A Wooden Tree." Photo by Tim Summers.
The Mark Morris Dance Group in “A Wooden Tree.” Photo by Tim Summers.

The Mark Morris Dance Group is currently in residence at its headquarters in Brooklyn, through April 14. They’re performing three new works and one from 1994, accompanied, as always, by the excellent Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble. The first two pieces, The Office (1994) and A Wooden Tree (2012), have a lot in common. Both include a harmonium, both are filled with chairs and feel like heartfelt, slightly earnest explorations of alienation and awkwardness. The Office is set to bagatelles by Dvorak and has a strong folk feel. The music for A Wooden Tree is a cluster of melancholy nonsense songs by the Scottish eccentric Ivor Cutler. (In addition to writing songs and publishing children’s books, Cutler is mainly famous for taking part in the Beatle’s “Magical Mystery Tour.”) Both pieces showcase Morris’s knack for creating percussive footwork that accentuates the music’s rhythms. Here, the stomping and tapping stood out even more because the dancers were wearing street shoes. The music accompanied the dancers, and they accompanied the music. This interest in footwork reflects Morris’s early training in Slavic folk dance and flamenco as well as his more recent fascination with Indian classical dance. (He is a champion of the Odissi ensemble Nrityagram—see below— and a frequent visitor to India, as evidenced by his love of pashmina shawls and beads.)

In The Office, a group of seven (four women, three men) sit in a waiting room, awaiting their fate. Periodically, a stern woman in a boxy suit enters, clipboard in hand, and one of the dancers follows her into the wings. Their destination, whatever it is, is clearly not a welcome one. The characters’ reaction to the woman with the clipboard is one of anxiety, fatalism, stiff-lipped despair. Meanwhile, between one exit and the next, they dance together in their frumpy clothes and clunky shoes: line dances and circle dances filled with jagged rhythms, stomping feet and clicking heels. At one point, two groups stamp out superimposed rhythmic lines.  The dances have an almost Shaker-like simplicity. There are moments of joy: in one of the pieces, the dancers spin with arms outstretched, a movement that made me think of Fred Astaire. In another, they leap into a flying squat, then rise and kick their heels, as in a mazurka. The harmonium lends an eerie quality to the proceedings. By the end, only one dancer is left.

Both The Office and the piece that follows, A Wooden Tree, are characterized by a striking simplicity. Morris’s movements seem obvious, but of course they’re not. Just try making a dance to this music and see how clever it looks. It’s precisely this simplicity, and Morris’s fidelity to the letter of the music (and even the lyrics, when there are lyrics), that drives many people crazy. How literal, how dumb. To the contrary, it is this utter spareness, this essential, utterly literal but profoundly personal response to the music that is Morris’s most unique, and compelling quality. Take it or leave it.

Mikhail Baryshnikov—a friend of Morris’s—danced in A Wooden Tree as one of eight, all clad in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s dowdy Scottish getup. He has Morris’s quirky prosaic quality down completely. He doesn’t embellish or beautify the steps. In fact, he manages to look quite tired and defeated, not a bit like the soaring, boyish dancer we cannot help but remember whenever he enters a room. Morris is ruthless in this sense. All the characters in his Wooden Tree are lonely, awkward sad sacks, “sticking out their chests” (in Ivor Cutler’s words) and grasping at each other, rubbing up against their partners (of either gender) in a sad approximation of sexual coupling, or counting out 1-2-3 on their fingers like simpletons. In one song, Cutler recounts a car accident in clipped prose, as if in the voice of a child. The scene is depicted by Morris in straightforward, unsparing mime, repeated several times until Cutler’s voice hiccups emotionlessly, “Bill is dead.” One dancer’s body flops to the ground. Michelle Yard, who sits alone on a chair, buries her face in her hands. In “Little Black Buzzer,” Baryshnikov rests his head on a chair and taps out a message in Morse code, despondently. He might as well be tapping out a suicide note. Three (or is it four?) girls circle him, twitching awkwardly as Cutler spells out: “dit dit dat dat dat, dit dit, dat dat.” It’s funny and sad at the same time.

Jenn and Spencer is an oddity for Morris, a dramatic pas de deux about a man and a woman, without jokes or ironizing or distancing of any kind. Its two elegantly-dressed lovers, danced by Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez (whose names inspired the title) are locked in a kind of death struggle. The piece ends with a violent slap. Crosswalk, set to Carl Maria von Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant for Clarinet and Piano lies in more familiar Morris territory; it’s a large ensemble work displaying layers of dynamic, semi-balletic movement. One of its motifs is an eye-catching thumping pattern, executed on the heels with the dancers’ knees rocking in and out, arms dangling, head rolling. Another is an odd trio in which two women torment a man, tugging and pushing him to the ground; then the tables are turned, and it is the man who pulls the two women while they paw at their own thighs with claw-like hands. The gesture is ugly, animal-like and lends the piece a disquieting undertone.

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Juilliard Dance in William Forsythe's "One Flat Thing, Reproduced." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Juilliard Dance in William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, Reproduced.” Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

One of the most compelling performances of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring I’ve seen took place a few years back at the yearly showcase by the students of the Juilliard Dance program. No mannerisms, no stiff reverence, just a pure sense of discovery of Graham’s style and her great American themes of self-realization, possibility, hope. I make it a point to go back every year to see these soon-to-be professionals tackle new repertory. Of course, the results vary. This week, they performed Murray Louis’s Four Brubeck Pieces, Paul Taylor’s Sunset, and William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced. An ambitious program. The first two were accompanied by the Juilliard Jazz ensemble and the Juilliard Orchestra, respectively (the last has a recorded score by Thom Willens). The live music turned out to be one of the highlights of the evening, especially in Brubeck Pieces. The jazz players really sizzled, and it was marvelous to see how riveted the pianist, Mathis Picard, was by the dancers. He never took his eyes off of them, even as his hands skimmed the keyboard, head bobbing to the rhythms. Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s music is totally infectious. The dancing is athletic and bubbly and fun, and not terribly profound.  It struck me how much more adult, and sophisticated, the music seemed in comparison. Even so, the dancers were totally in their element, and gave a full-bodied, joyful performance.

Paul Taylor’s Sunset was more of a stretch. This strange, elegiac piece, set to Elgar’s  Elegy for Strings, depicts a group of soldiers flirting with a flock of innocent, flirtatious young women in a park at day’s end. There is a heaviness in the air; the men are about to be shipped off to God-knows-where. The women may never see them again. Already, the men’s minds are elsewhere. They seem closer to each other than they will ever be to these clingy damsels in their white summer dresses. Midway, the music pauses and we hear, instead, the call of loons; the dancers move with almost ritualistic slowness, falling, rolling, resting their heads on each other. It’s a tender image but quite dark, because we realize, of course, that it is a foreshadowing of death. Some of these men will not return. When the soldiers depart, one of them drops his red beret. It’s a very beautiful work which requires an honest, unforced delivery, but also a vivid imagination. The Juilliard dancers seemed too fresh, as yet too carefree to really carry the weight of Taylor’s hidden message.

Forsythe’s One Flat Thing would have also benefitted from a more knowing, less fresh-faced execution. The feel is jagged, loud, abrasive. To be effective, it has to be performed with a sharp-edged nervous energy. Twenty dancers drag an equal number of metal tables onto the stage, then push and fling their limbs and swing at each other, slapping legs, arms, and buttocks onto the tabletops, folding, falling, slicing the the air. It’s a complex work, with cues flying from one dancer to another, and echoes of shapes ricocheting around the space, groups forming and dissolving. It’s exciting, like watching an anthill on fire, at least, that is, until, bludgeoned by Thom Willens’ clanging score and the continuous frenzy of activity, the eyes start to glaze over.

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Analía Centurión and Gabriel Misse. Uncredited photo courtesy of Audrey Ross.
Analía Centurión and Gabriel Misse. Uncredited photo courtesy of Audrey Ross.

Eleven stories above West Forty-Sixth Street, just beyond the glare of Times Square, lies the Dardo Galletto tango studio. Most weekends you can take a class there and then hone your skills at a milonga, a social-dance evening where people switch partners as easily as you can say adiós muchachos. Guest performers, doubling as teachers, come and go from week to week. This week, the Argentine dancers Gabriel Misse and Analía Centurión were in residence. After an hour of watching couples of all sizes and ages grapple with the complexities of tango footwork and partnering, it was Misse and Centurión’s turn. They danced three numbers: a tango (slow, serious), a milonga (fast, lively), and, of all things, an Elvis Presley medley. Misse has attracted quite a bit of attention in recent years; videos of him are all over YouTube, and Alastair Macaulay of the Times is a great fan, but there’s nothing like seeing him in his element. Centurión, attractive, deliciously plump, is a lovely, natural dancer who doesn’t make dramatic tango faces or sex things up unnecessarily. But really, she’s just a foil for Misse, whose dancing is not only elegant and fluid but fanciful and full of witty flights of bravado. He rises onto his toes, he does elegant corkscrew turns, he glides across the floor in tiny steps like millipede. His feet are light and agile, his movements crisp and utterly clear; he caresses the floor or taps it with the very tip of his glossy shoe, interweaving slow, gliding movements with fast, staccato ones. His compact body communicates his intentions with great precision, so that he does not have to call attention to his dominant role as male tango dancers often do. He relays his next move with a light touch, giving Centurión the space and freedom to articulate her own graceful figures. In Misse’s hands, tango becomes less a dance of sex or seduction than a conversation full of charm and joyful interplay, one-sided though it may be. The tango aficionados at the milonga whooped and applauded with pleasure, though I would imagine it must be dispiriting to return to the dance floor after such a display. (I hear they’ll be back in August.)

 

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Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen of Nrityagram. Photo by Uma Dhanwatey.
Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen of Nrityagram. Photo by Uma Dhanwatey.

And then, as if all this weren’t enough, Nrityagram was in town. This Indian classical dance ensemble, specializing in Odissi (from Eastern India), is a regular visitor to our theatres, for which we can be thankful. Every performance reveals new aspects of the dancers’ artistry. This particular program, presented under the auspices of the World Music Institute, was especially intriguing because it featured the dancing of just two performers: Surupa Sen (choreographer and artistic director) and her senior dancer Bijayini Satpathy. They were accompanied by an extraordinary quartet of musicians: flute, percussion, violin, and harmonium. The harmonium-player also sang in a sweet, melodious voice that reminded me of Caetano Veloso. The program’s title, Samyoga, means “union” or “synthesis’ in Sanskrit, and in a way the evening was a tribute to a great artistic partnership. Sen and Satpathy have danced, taught, and lived together for twenty years at the Nrityagram dance village and school, created in 1990 by the late Odissi dancer Protima Gauri. Most of the program consisted of duets in which the two women moved together, almost like two halves of the same being. Introduced by a bewitching flute melody, the two entered with a lilting walk, one behind the other, ankle bells trembling. They were like two bodies moving with one breath. Their physical resemblance is striking: compact, round-shouldered, slender-waisted. But as the evening developed, differences were revealed: Sen has a larger jump, and is more forceful. Satpathy is slightly more limber, with long arms and an ability to change qualities with startling speed. She also has one of the most vivid, mobile faces I’ve ever seen, with eyes that could read across miles on a foggy day.

Sameness and difference, oneness and separation. These were the themes of the evening. The sophistication of Sen’s choreography lies in its clarity and abstraction. The two dancers trace elegant patterns in space, moving toward and away from each other in a way that feels both organic and universal. At the same time Sen manages to reveal what is most beautiful in each dancer, and then to contrast these qualities with passages of unison and counterpoint. Developing the theme of unity, she has created a series of combined poses for the two women, perfectly balanced compositions one might see rendered on a temple wall or in a Mughal miniature. In one, Satpathy embraces Sen from behind, their arms intertwining, the tips of their fingers barely touching—a position strikingly similar to the final image Balanchine’s pas de deux from Symphony in Three Movements. The range of emotions they depict is also remarkable: friendship, romantic love, eroticism, anger, displeasure, surrender. Carried along by the mellifluous sounds of the flute and the sharp, chirping  rhythms of the mardala drum, Sen and Satpathy created a universe.