ABT Mixed Bill: Morris, Ashton, Balanchine

There’s something about walking into the Metropolitan Opera House for American Ballet Theatre’s spring season that always reminds me why it is I live in New York. While I sometimes find their counterpart across the plaza, New York City Ballet, more exciting for the chance to see dancers rising through the ranks and a wide array of ballets new and old, ABT offers a certain grandeur that never fails to draw me back. While the spring season primarily consists of evening-length classics (think Swan Lake, Don Quioxte), Thursday night’s program offered three disparate ballets, ranging from Mark Morris’s breezy modernity to Balanchine’s ode to classicism.

First up was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, originally made for the company by Mark Morris in 1988. The ballet is set to a number of piano etudes by Virgil Thomson (an important modernist composer, who also composed Gertrude Stein’s opera Three Saints in Four Acts, which Morris later choreographed) played by Barbara Bilach on a piano at the back of the stage. The ballet’s easy classicism is intermixed with a sense of grounded-ness that belies its creator’s modern dance background. The loose white costumes echo this sense of ease, as the dancers come and go, creating intricate patterns and surprising images.

 

Melanie Hamrick, Yuriko Kajiya and Marian Butler in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Melanie Hamrick, Yuriko Kajiya and Marian Butler in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.
Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Although this work is largely non-hierarchical, with no clear principals, there were a few dancers in particular who caught my attention. Joseph Gorak, still in the corps de ballet, was a standout in the central role. With feet and extensions that would make many a ballerina jealous, he breezed through a series of pirouettes which ended in controlled extensions with grace. Kristi Boone’s clarity and daring was stunning, yet assured.

A Month in the Country, by British choreographer Frederick Ashton, is “freely adapted” from the play by Ivan Turgenev. The set for this ballet is absolutely stunning—richly detailed layers frame a central living space, a smaller piano room, and the garden beyond. The ballet tells the story of Natalia Petrovna (Hee Seo), the bored wife of an older man, whose life at her country house is interrupted by the arrival of a tutor (David Hallberg) who becomes entangled with both Natalia and her young ward (Sara Lane).

Hee Seo in A Month in the Country Photo: Marty Sohl

Hee Seo in A Month in the Country
Photo: Marty Sohl

I had never seen Seo dance a principal role before this performance, and was quickly converted. She exuded elegance in her pristine lines and silky movements and was convincing in her portrayal of Natalia’s jealously and later heartbreak. Hallberg was wonderful as always, even out of his usual princely element.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about ABT doing Balanchine—whether they should, if they’re doing it right, which company members are cut out for it—so anticipation was high for their performances of Symphony in C. The ballet is a study in structure and style, and Balanchine’s particular brand of classicism. Each of the four movements features a principal couple, two secondary couples, and a corps de ballet of women in white tutus and tiaras like the principals (the men are in black).

Stella Abrera was regal and refined in the 1st movement, ably partnered by Eric Tamm. In the grand and lyrical 2nd movement, Marcelo Gomes’s gaze and attentive partnering immediately focused our attention on Polina Semionova (although sadly, we don’t get to see much of his own dancing in this role).

Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Symphony in C Photo: Marty Sohl

Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Symphony in C
Photo: Marty Sohl

Natalia Osipova and her partner Ivan Vasiliev soared with the incredible buoyancy we have come to expect from these Russian superstars in the 3rd movement (she even more so than he), but I found myself wishing they would turn down the Bolshoi showiness a notch (an open-mouthed ah-ha! smile seemed to punctuate each movement). Simone Messmer, along with partner Jared Matthews, was a breath of fresh air in the spirited 4th movement, executing the difficult choreography with élan and airy confidence.

While the corps de ballet looked a bit uneven at times, the dancers pulled together for the always-thrilling finale, in which the entire cast returns to the stage, dancing in unison at high speed. Purists may argue that ABT doesn’t have the appropriate style or speed for Balanchine, but it is always a delight to see this ballet, and was a fine opportunity to see some of their soloists in particular shine.

Dance in America: Paul Taylor & Marjani Forte Reviewed

My April review of Paul Taylor and Marjani Forte is now up at the CUNY Advocate.

Taylor_Esplanade

“Paul Taylor’s works, which range from playful to darkly tragic, are, at their core, distinctly American. He has made scenes from American life—from the congregational dynamics of a Southern Pentecostal church to life on the home front during World War II—suitable subjects for dance in a way that few others have managed, avoiding both bland universality and hokey literalness.”

Read the full review here.

Dancers in rehearsal for Marjani Forte's being Here... Photo: Wah Ming Cha

Dancers in rehearsal for Marjani Forte’s being Here…
Photo: Wah Ming Cha

“This dance is not about making oneself intelligible to others, but about the ways that we view and respond to what we consider unintelligible.”

Designed to Fail: Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy)

I saw and reviewed Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy) back in October of last year, but the review never ended up being published. Lucky for you, Turbulence is coming back to New York as part of the American Realness festival this Friday through Sunday, so I thought I’d share my reflections on it from the first time around. I’m sure your experience of Turbulence will be entirely different from the one I had in October, and that’s exactly why you should go.

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

How can a dance be about the economy? Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy), presented in October at New York Live Arts, was described as “a bodily response to the economic crisis…engaging questions of debt, value, and exchange.” Embodiment is a dimension that often gets lost among numbers and policy in discussions of the economy, but how exactly does one embody complex financial issues? Hennessy, a San Francisco-based choreographer and performance artist, envisioned the piece as a “collaborative failure,” taking inspiration from Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, which suggests that we find alternatives to conventional understandings of success. Among the performance’s other noted references were: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, “academic texts on neoliberal financialization,” and “activist tracts from Occupy blogs.” While this collection of sources (some of which were scattered onstage) may sound like a grad school syllabus, Turbulence was far from academic.

Entering the theatre on Thursday night felt like walking into a rehearsal that was on the verge of turning into a party. The stage area was expansive, with a large white marley floor laid askew and no curtains or backdrops obscuring the theatre’s brick walls and production equipment. Music was being played loudly by a man sitting onstage amidst a tangle of wires, and performers wandered throughout the seating area, offering whiskey in plastic cups and inviting audience members to come onstage for “fake healings.”

Already in progress when we entered, the performance had no clear beginning, but at various points featured (among other things) performers swinging from and falling down a triangle-shaped trapeze, a pregnant woman sauntering around with a cigarette in her mouth, and two men frantically gnawing, slapping, and kissing each other in the aisle. At any given moment, at least three or four such disparate scenes were taking place on the stage and in the aisles. Every now and then you would look over to notice that someone had climbed a pipe almost to the ceiling. The distinction between performers and audience members was so blurred that I was frequently unable to distinguish who was “actually” in the piece. This chaotic collage was intermittently interrupted by performers who would just stop and watch or begin chatting with the audience, prompting Empress Jupiter, our roving emcee in drag, to yell “Action! I want to see action!” Turbulence however, was indifferent to demands that a coherent artistic product (action!) be presented.

Largely improvisational, the performance’s only structure was a number of set elements devised by the cast, but even these could occur in any order. One of these elements was the creation of a human pyramid, composed of performers and audience members, their faces covered with gold-sequined hoods. The image was immediately evocative of the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib, the sequined hoods adding an ironic element of glamour as the participants visibly struggled to hold the position. Later, a naked Ishmael Houston-Jones was carried out of the theatre, as if in a funeral procession, to the sounds of a looped commercial voice-over: “the markets, the technology, the borderless economy, the world…” Images like these offered clear critiques of unstable structures and the human casualties of the globalized economy, and yet happened amidst sloppy, irreverent chaos.

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Ironically, Hennessy received more funding for this performance than for any other piece he has created. He used the majority of that funding to hire a huge cast (fourteen performers in its New York incarnation). One of them informed us that they were each receiving $700 a week: “The most I’ve ever been paid.” Later, Hennessy gave us a breakdown of the piece’s expenses and fees. Questions of value and exchange were made literal as the economic forces behind these performing bodies were revealed. Yet as I frantically scribbled down these details, his words became indiscernible, as his mic cut out: concrete economic connections and critiques were repeatedly undermined just as they began to crystallize.

So was this really “a dance about the economy”? By the time Hennessy stepped out of the fray to announce that “now we should go to debt and financialization,” (a remark met with a chorus of laughs), it was clear that attempts to see the performance as an uncomplicated metaphor for the economy were doomed to fail. An unstable structure itself, Turbulence repeatedly pointed out to us how verbal explanations of bodily responses were insufficient, cutting them off just as they began to make sense. Continually falling apart, changing direction, and critiquing itself, Turbulence invited its audience to witness and partake in a radical re-thinking of value on a number of levels.

“And lose the name of action”: Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People

BAM Fisher
December 5, 2012

Miguel Guttierez writes on his website, “I make performances that are about things and are things themselves. The things they are about are big…” His latest work, And lose the name of action, lives up to this pronouncement, taking on the relationships between perception and reality, mind and body. The performance’s title is heady in its inspiration as well, drawn from the final lines of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. In an eloquent program note, Guttierez explained the performance’s genesis—his father’s neurological problems—and his subsequent research into neurological and philosophical perspectives on the relationship of the body and its interactions to perception. He was surprised however, that dance and somatic practices were not generally part of these inquiries, and sought to address this gap in the creation of this piece.

Hilary Clark and Luke George in "And lose the name of action"

Hilary Clark and Luke George in “And lose the name of action”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

However, And lose the name of action was not nearly as cerebral or theory-heavy as its premise made it sound. The performance was an ever-shifting mélange of dance, song, speech, improvisation, and recorded sound and images, which took place on a white floor, surrounded by white curtains, projection screens, and a glowing white parachute hanging from the ceiling. Having previously voiced his frustration at the way that thin, young, pretty, female, and white seemed to have become the default attributes for those considered dancers, Guttierez assembled an experienced cast of six performers (Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, K.J. Holmes, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and himself) of varying ethnicities, sizes, and ages. What’s more, these performers were never used in ways that reduced them to these characteristics.

The pure-dance sections of the piece were often initiated or advanced by commands from Guttierez: “stop,” “pause,” “shift,” “and,” “and,” “and.” On one level, this is the language of dance class or of rehearsal, coming from a director or choreographer, but within the context of this performance it also highlighted the relationship between movement and language. “And” as an utterance can connect the words of a sentence, but it can also connect and initiate movements.

The performance frequently investigated the slipperiness of language, or suspicion regarding its meaning. An actor, Paul Duncan, at times appeared projected on the white screens, waxing philosophical in a suit and a British accent. What a contrast between his crisp, buttoned-up presentation and that of the dancers: messy, and unstructured, appearing in revolving a mix of crowns, winter coats, gowns, t-shirts, underwear, or nothing at all. His words were at times taken up by the performers, as if in conversation; at other times, they were severed from his image through a disorienting delay between the sound and the two screens.

Performer K.J. Holmes and Actor Paul Duncan (on screen) in "And lose the name of action"

Performer K.J. Holmes and Actor Paul Duncan (on screen) in “And lose the name of action”

Early on, in a parody of 1960’s or 70’s era audience participation performance techniques, Houston-Jones, holding court in a robe and crown in the center of the space, asked us, in an exaggeratedly instructional tone, to place our feet firmly on the ground and join hands with the people next to us. The invitation was met with laughter and good-natured participation (we even connected across the aisles!). The other performers, seated among us in designated white chairs in the front rows, joined in, and were drawn into ecstatic thrall as the lights dimmed, the volume increased, and Houston-Jones summoned some sort of deity from the billowing parachute above.

While the tongue-in-cheek quality of this section was played up, it was nonetheless one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening. This was one of the few times we as audience members were able to directly partake in the experiential nature of Guttierez’s choreography, which is at the heart of his research interests. In the program notes, he writes about “a choreographic mode of perception where meaning is not an analytical proposition but an experiential one.” What deserves further exploration in this work is the differences in perception between audience members and performers: while both might be engaging with meaning on an experiential level, that experience differs depending on whether one is watching or performing.

Toward the end of the piece, Guttierez and Houston-Jones (later joined by the other performers) enacted a philosophical debate on the nature of perception. As if actors rehearsing a play, they held binders and read their dialogue in a stagey manner. Their faux-seriousness was intermittently pierced by synchronized bursts of laughter, at increasingly unlikely points. How seriously were we to follow their interchange? Were we watching (or listening) for the content of their banter or for the performance of the debate? The back-and-forth eventually devolved into a loud cacophony of “fuck you”s and “you believe your senses. Don’t be such an idiot!” as the performers chased each other around the room in anger.

Miguel Guttierez and Ishmael Houston-Jones in "And lose the name of action" Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Miguel Guttierez and Ishmael Houston-Jones in “And lose the name of action”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The final sections began to drag a bit, as we grew accustomed to these juxtapositions of language and physicality, theory and presence. This type of sensory and intellectual overload seems more effective in (slightly) smaller doses. As we sat listening to the man on the screen repeat “You’re blank,” the stage manager poked in to say “thank you,” notifying us of the show’s conclusion (there were no curtain calls).

Probing complex theoretical issues without allowing them to overtake or overshadow the bodily presence of performers, Gutierrez and his cast shifted ambiguously between the ironic and the earnest. While his lofty inquiries about the relationship between perception and reality, body and mind, and movement and language were only intermittently evident to the audience, there was still much to admire and enjoy in this unpredictable work, brimming over with ideas and images.

Imaginary Encounters: Trajal Harrell at Danspace

Over at Warscapes, I reviewed the latest installment in Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church series. The series, which comes in various “sizes,” this one being M2M (made-to-measure), asks the question “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”

(l to r) Ondrej Vilar, Trajal Harrell, and Thibault Lac in Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M)
Photo Credit: Miana Jun

“By evoking and re-contextualizing the historically-laden traditions of voguing and postmodern dance, and blurring the lines of traditions often thought of as racially-specific, Harrell imagines new possibilities in which these lineages intertwine.” Read the full review.

ABT at City Center

See my review in the GC Advocate of ABT’s the City Center Season, including Alexei Ratmansky’s intriguing new work Symphony #9, Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, and that eternal favorite, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.

ABT in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9
photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Bokaer and Chipaumire at BAM Fisher

I recently reviewed two performances at the new BAM Fisher–Jonah Bokaer and Anthony McCall’s ECLIPSE and Nora Chipaumire’s Miriam–for the GC Advocate. You can read the full reviews here.

On ECLIPSE: “The Fishman Space actually smelled new for the first public performance on September 6. The most striking feature of the space however, was McCall’s light installation: thirty-six light bulbs hung from the ceiling at increasing heights, creating a slanted slope of light.” Read the full review here.

Jonah Bokaer in ECLIPSE
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

On Miriam: “In an interview, Chipaumire described the set as ‘sort of a crime scene and sort of a sacred site.’ In her performance, one gets the sense that Chipaumire finds this description to be apt for the black female body as well, as she explores the ways that such bodies have been subject to both violence and veneration.” Read the full review here.

Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire in Miriam
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

From The Shins to Ancient Greece: Smuin Ballet at the Joyce Theatre

The choice to set a ballet to contemporary music can be a dangerous one: Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Rise, for example, recently performed at Prospect Park to a live U2 recording, made the company seem like backup dancers for the (absent) band. On Wednesday afternoon at the Joyce however, Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World,” danced to songs by The Shins, skillfully avoided such pitfalls. The piece, which the San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet premiered in 2010, began with the eight dancers crossing the stage in a pack, backs slightly hunched, hands on others’ shoulders, to familiar opening strains of “New Slang.”

Smuin Ballet in “Oh, Inverted World”
Benjamin Behrends, Jane Rehm, and company
Photo Credit: David Allen

The dancers were dressed in hipster-inflected casual clothing—striped athletic socks and short gym shorts for the men and a colorful assortment of similar attire for the women, with some skirts and bra tops thrown into the mix. The movement style was loose: undeniably balletic, but tempered by flattened arms and hands.

McIntyre’s response to the songs was continually inventive: quick movement of a head, arm, or leg drew out the music’s punctuations without being overly literal. He also drew our attention to the different songs’ different layers, with, for example, two dancers responding to the melody line, while a group behind them highlighted the underlying beat with a simple walking pattern.

As the mood shifted from song to song, now playful, now pensive, so did the groupings of dancers and their relationships. One section began with Christian Squires dancing alone, striking a balance between earnestness and casualness before he was joined by three other men. The four danced in shifting groups, often partnering each other, their various groupings and interactions complicating the imposition of any one narrative on the ballet. A later grouping of three dancers, who finished heads on the floor, backs to the audience, and limbs askew, injected an element of pure fun. In the final section, John Speed Orr danced an affecting solo, often casually pausing near the front of the stage while the other dancers continue behind him.

On the whole, the choreography for the men was stronger and more interesting. I find myself making this observation often in contemporary ballet choreography, and can’t help but think that it is linked to the dearth of women ballet choreographers. This is not to say, by any means, that women choreograph better for women and men for men (there are countless examples to the contrary, not to mention the fact that gender binaries are notoriously unhelpful). However, in an art form in which men and women are trained differently, it seems only natural that this different training would result in a different body (literally) of knowledge and experience upon which to draw. The contemporary ballet choreographers who get the majority of opportunities and attention are a pretty homogeneous group, and ballet could only benefit from an increased diversity of perspectives.

It was hard to give company founding Michael Smuin’s Medea an unbiased viewing, having recently been immersed in feminist-inflected dance history and criticism. Unlike Martha Graham’s pioneering re-visionings of Greek mythology, Smuin’s version did not give us any glimpse into Medea’s side of the story—we rarely get any real sense of her motivation. Danced by Robin Semmelhack, Medea is the evil villain from the moment the curtain rises: glaring out at the audience from within her imposing robe. This woman, in her tellingly red unitard, clearly has only one emotional setting: icy, calculating anger. Cresusa (Janica Smith), for whom Jason (Joshua Reynolds) leaves Medea, is presented as her rival, in the worst tradition of comparing women: Cresusa is light where Medea is dark (she wears a strange pale blue and nude unitard), and all smiles to Medea’s glares. Both of the women danced with strength and authority, but the scope of this production seemed too small to encompass their complex drama.

Robin Cornwell as Medea
Photo Credit: Marty Sohl

Orr and Squires, as Medea’s sons, were appealingly boyish, horsing around and partnering each other in a sprightly manner. They were clearly in thrall to their mother, their disturbing devotion presaging their unfortunate end.

It was strange that murder of Cresusa was much more central and affecting than the murder of Medea’s sons, which ought to be the horrific climax of the story. (Instead, the revelation of their death in the final scene comes off almost as an afterthought.) There seems to me something off in the fact that the strangling of this woman, with the help of Medea’s sons and a long rope, is danceable, while the murder of her sons must happen offstage.

The final ballet, choreographer-in-residence Amy Siewert’s “Soon These Two Worlds” was set to a lively score of selections from the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa. I was nervous that the piece was going to be an appropriative attempt to graft “African” themes onto ballet, but the sculptural arm and hand motifs and wide, bent-kneed second positions came across as natural permutations of ballet vocabulary. The piece was least successful in responding to the percussive, weighted elements of the score: the dancers did not convey a sense of weight or grounded-ness, and were more comfortable in the more buoyant passages. Susan Roemer in particular stood out for the clarity and openness of her movement.

Members of the Smuin Ballet in “Soon These Two Worlds”
Photo Credit: Scot Goodman

The lovely costumes by Sandra Woodall—strapless, flowing dresses for the women and tights for the men—were covered in wide vertical stripes of yellow, green, magenta, and turquoise, echoing the cheerful good-nature of the piece (hugging was a recurrent motif). It was a joyous ending, and one that allowed us to revel in the dancing of this engaging company.

Haunting Parisians: Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle”

As if I needed another reason to daydream about moving to Paris, the Paris Opera Ballet recently performed as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, their first New York appearance in sixteen years. I saw “Giselle” on Wednesday night, with a cast led by étoiles Dorothée Gilbert and Josua Hoffalt, and was enchanted by the entire company.

Dorothee Gilbert as Giselle
Photo credit: M. Lidvac

The scenery for the first act (designed by Alexandre Benois of the Ballets Russes) looked like cut-outs from a richly-illustrated storybook. The action begins with the entrance of the grape-pickers, and later Giselle’s friends, clad in yellow, pink and tan peasant costumes. The strength of the corps de ballet was immediately evident, as they danced the quick “peasant” choreography with ease and grace. Across the ranks of the company, I was enthralled by the women’s feet: beautiful arches and remarkable articulation in each step and jump.

In some productions, Hilarion is played as the meek boy-next-door passed over for Albrecht, but Yann Saiz was quite the opposite: brash, passionate, and indignant that Giselle was not interested in him. The peasant pas de deux was danced nobly by Héloïse Bourdon and Axel Ibot—both young and very full of promise.

Gilbert was technically stunning without being overtly showy. Her exquisite dancing added to, rather than distracted from, her portrayal of Giselle as a radiant, fun-loving young woman. Albrecht, danced by Hoffalt, does not have much dancing in the first act, but what we did see—long, elegant lines and jumps in which his legs beat with exquisite clarity—left me eager for his second act solos.

As Giselle begins to realize that her supposed lover is in fact, nobility, and engaged to one of his own class, there are two instances which might be called “freeze frames.” As everyone on the stage remains frozen in their place, Giselle breaks off, conveying to us the progression of her “madness.” These scenes make it clear that her consciousness is no longer operating on the same level as those around her. Time is slowing down for her, and she is having difficulty perceiving herself as part of world as others see it.

After Giselle collapses into Albrecht’s arms at the close of the mad scene, he attempts to blame her death on Hilarion and his insistence on revealing his identity. Hilarion and Giselle’s mother however, intimate that he is clearly the one responsible, a realization he contemplates for the first time as he looks around at a sea of unsympathetic faces.

The second act opens with a group of gamblers in the forest trying to tempt the mourning Hilarion, soon scared away by the entrance of a few threatening wilis. No mere white wisps bouréeing across the stage, these wilis were actually frightening, and you could believe these men would actually have felt impelled to run away. As they forcefully announce their presence, furiously echoing the pantomimed motion for dancing from the first act (in which hands held above the head circle each other), it is clear that these are spirits to contend with.

Every review I’ve read of the production has gushed about the corps de ballet of wilis in the second act, and with good reason. Their shared training at the Paris Opera Ballet School shines through in their perfect synchronicity and symmetry—each arabesque is the same height and shape as the one behind it. In this ballet, where the corps de ballet is at once ethereal and terrifying, their uniformity has a particularly strong effect—as when they reject Hilarion’s plea for his life with 24 outstretched palms and turned heads.

All of the women, from Gilbert through the corps, evoked the image of the Romantic ballerina to perfection: the slope of the shoulders, the forward lilt of the torso, and the demure position of the head.

Laura Hecquet as Myrtha was appropriately severe, although her large jumping passages were not as intimidating as they might have been. When I teach bourées to my young dancers, I say that if someone was looking only at your upper body, you should look like you are floating across the floor: Hecquet pulled this effect off enchantingly.

The “Two Wilis,” Ammandine Albisson and Sarah Kora Dayanova, were excellent, and the dancer in the second variation (the program did not identify Moyna and Zulma specifically) made a particularly strong impression, with haunting balances and authoritative renversés.

Gilbert had a number of breathtaking moments in this act, from the way she carried her arms into the crossed position of her sister wilis, to more virtuoso effects like lightning fast bourées and seemingly weightless jumps. Hoffalt was an impeccable partner, invisibly assisting Gilbert as she floated in and out of his arms. He was stoic during an impressive series of entrechat sixes (jumps in which the legs beat three times) and truly looked as if he were dancing for his life against exhaustion. In their variations and pas de deux, Gilbert and Hoffalt were so thrilling that the frequent applause was almost distracting, but the two never strayed from their intimate mood: she, resigned and yet determined to save him, he, desperate in his inability to hold on to the love he acknowledged too late.

This was a Giselle I won’t soon forget.

Mirroring on the Water: Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife” at the River to River Festival

While the first performance I saw at the River to River FestivalMaria Hassabi’s “SHOW”—was very much of the streets, Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife” took place on the very edge of Manhattan. Pier 15, jutting out into the Hudson River from the South Street Seaport, provides an incredible setting for a performance, with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Heights skyline as the backdrop. While this venue drew a more intentional audience than “SHOW”—a large crowd gathered before the performance—it also had its incidental observers: I heard a child playing on the level above ask “What is that?” and a Circle Line tour operator point out the “modern dance” to his passengers.

Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Marilyn Maywald, Nicole Mannarino, Anna Carapetyan , Rebecca Warner in Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The six dancers (Anna Carapetyan, Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Nicole Mannarino, Marilyn Maywald, and Rebecca Warner), all women, entered in pairs, three from each side of the stage, dressed in solid-colored layered pants and tops and white sneakers. Upon arrival, each pair assumed a different pose, forming a tableau. The only sound was the water all around us. Eventually, two of the dancers turned to each other and lifted their arms in unison, as if holding opposite ends of the same string. This initiated the symmetrical movement that would characterize the entire piece, the dancers mirroring their partners on the opposite side of the stage.

Dancers mirroring one another is one of the most basic components of classical corps de ballet choreography, and yet what a different valence it took on in this context! The neat grid the performers danced upon accentuated the geometric qualities of the structure. The dancers retained impassive expressions throughout the piece, at times facing their partners, but often maintaining their synchronicity without seeing one another. While often fascinating, particularly against the contrasting geometry of the Brooklyn skyline, the performance’s formality often came off as detached.

Dancers in Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The dancers’ initial movements were slow and easy, but focused, with Cunningham-like arm positions. I’m not sure at what point I became aware of the score (by Jon Moniaci), but, just as I had with Hassabi’s piece, I suddenly realized that the low-frequency sounds were not the rumbling of airplanes overhead, but were coming from the speakers. In outdoor settings like this one, the score both competes and interacts with the sounds of the city. As the score eventually intensified, so did the dancing, becoming quicker, bigger, taking up more space, and advancing all the way to the front of the “stage” for the first time. Swinging—of limbs and bodies in all directions—became the dominant motif.

After a long freeze, in another tableau, the dancers began to move off the grid that formed their stage. This was not the end of the piece as I first had thought, but the beginning of a final section in which the score became more melodious and the choreography involved more contact between the dancers: a hand resting on a shoulder, a head leaning on a standing leg. Two of the dancers periodically ran to the side, leaning out over the water as they hit the pier’s railing—literally testing the boundaries of the performance space—and then calmly walked back to the center. With this expansion beyond the grid, there was also less focus on the creation lines and angles, as movements became more fluid.

Finally, as dusk approached, the dancers left the stage, two-by-two as they had entered. They descended the steps toward the water and disappeared to a level below, leaving us looking at the bright moon over the Brooklyn horizon.