Heart of Darkness

Mark Dendy as Princess Pawny Ariadne in Labyrinth. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper
Mark Dendy as Princess Pawny Ariadne in Labyrinth. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper

Mark Dendy has a lot to get off his chest; his semi-autobiographical play Labyrinth, which just ended its run at the Abrons Arts Center, is by turns exorcism, confession, and cathartic rite. He’s not happy with the way things are: the consumerism, the waste, the shallowness. The Bloombergification of New York is a particular sore point. (He’s not alone in feeling this.) But the problem runs deeper. Dendy has been forced to wrestle with the basic value of his art; even his sanity has suffered.

Dendy has been bringing his theatrical experiments to the stage since the eighties, using drag, made-up characters, dance, and twisted narratives to tweak people’s perceptions of reality and the everyday. More recently, he went “mainstream”. (An artist has to live, after all.) He made the wonderfully loopy dances for the goons in Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. He choreographed Gotham Chamber Opera’s staging of Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Daniel Catán. He made dances for that most wholesome of American sex symbols, the Rockettes. All perfectly legitimate projects, but not, it seems, ones he is comfortable with. In Labyrinth, the Rockettes, in particular, become the paradigm for everything that is fucked up about his life. It’s enough to drive a downtown artist to the brink.

What is Labyrinth, exactly? Not a conventional play, but a series of monologues and set-pieces for Dendy and three other performers. A chronicle of a nervous breakdown. The British actor Stephen Donovan, haggard-eyed, stoop-shouldered, plays the part of “the shadow,” a stand-in for the main character’s Id. He snarls and spits, and never fails to remind him that everything is shit. Matthew Hardy is the fantasy, the escape, the incarnation of Dendy’s earthly desires. Hardy speaks little and dances in lovely, writhing phrases; he offers solace, serves drinks. Most impressive is Heather Christian, a multi-faceted and multi-talented musician, singer and actress in the cabaret mold. She provides the musical accompaniment, the witty lyrics, the piquant repartee. (She’s capable of a wide range of vocal effects; I only wish she used her natural voice more often. She’s too good to always be putting on other people’s voices.)

Stephen Donovan and Mark Dendy. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper
Stephen Donovan and Mark Dendy. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper

All play a part in Dendy’s tale of mental collapse set in 2012, the year of Hurricane Sandy. The biblical flood, come to wash away our sins. Labyrinth is heavy with symbolism, both religious and mythological. As in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze, the Minotaur’s lair—represented by a winding rope on the floor—becomes a metaphor for the darkness inside.

Things get off to a weak start. The bleak, cinder-block surroundings of Abrons’ underground theatre don’t help. Dendy fills it with junk-store bric-a-brac: a toy piano, a rickety bar, a plastic bird-cage. Rather meekly, he begins by explaining the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, translating the action to Athens, Georgia. (At this point, I think to myself: “oh no.”) But things pick up as soon as he returns in the guise of Princess Pawnie Ariadne, the first of several impersonations. Pawnie, a foul-mouthed, cross-dressing, cocaine-sniffing East Village sylph, brims with twisted wisdom and raucous vitality. She is the embodiment of the raunchy New York Dendy pines for. We’ve all met her at one time or another. Doomed but irresistible.

Other impersonations follow: Dendy’s sweet but tough southern grandmother, born Jewish but married to an anti-Semitic Christian preacher. His father, a mean, racist drunk. (The work implies that the characters are based on real people, but who knows how faithful they are.) It turns out the problem isn’t New York or the Rockettes, but the buried past, full of self-loathing and concealment.

Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy, and Heather Christian in Labyrinth. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper
Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy, and Heather Christian in Labyrinth. Photo by Marisa @RockPaper

Dendy’s remarkable ability to channel these archetypes makes up for the work’s occasional emotional and structural messiness. Labyrinth is a bit all-over-the-place. But then, the home-made feel of the project is also part of the point. Fuck professionalism and the Great White Way! One wonders how a show like this would translate to a different, less subterranean kind of setting. But in a world where Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a hit, why not?

For another take on Labyrinth, see this piece by Andrew Boynton.

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.)