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

On Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration, and Attribution (Or Lack Thereof): Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence)”

Thoughts on what happens when dance is framed as, or used in service, of art (in the “art world”/visual art sense of the term)…

The description for Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence),” an exhibition of photographs, a film, and a dance performance presented at The Kitchen, was quite vague. According to the press release, his work to this point has been concerned with “the question of when the photographic image obtains presence,” an inquiry that, with this performance, would be extended into “real space.”

The exhibition upstairs featured a number of portraits, some of which featured the dancers who would perform later. The dancers in the portraits looked directly ahead, with the same impassive gazes they would later wear in the performance. Their portraits were interspersed with a number of black and white screenprints of Hollywood types, generally looking away from the camera, as well as two of artfully arranged dishes. All of these subjects were titled generically: “Man 065,” “Women (055, 065),” or “Dishes (Strawberry).”

Heading downstairs, I was surprised, upon walking into the  theatre, to receive no program. There had been no mention of dancer or choreographer names in the press release, and apparently, no further materials were forthcoming.

We were facing a stage set with large, colored-saturated pieces, like over-sized blocks, which formed a series of frames. A mint colored block at the front of the stage would soon obstruct our view of the dancers’ bottom halves; there were two more walls behind that, with various apertures. These pieces would be moved around throughout the performance, creating different frames through which we saw the dancers.

The performance consisted of a number of sequences in which the lights came up, and different groupings of dancers either stared out at the audience, performed a repetitive sequence of simple steps or gestures, or some combination thereof. There were five men and five women, all dressed in button down shirts and high-waisted trousers, yellow for the men and blue for the women (pointe shoes included). A series of blackouts, which seemingly signaled the end of a particular scene or image, were cut short as the lights came back on while dancers were still walking off.

The choreography frequently referenced Balanchine, with jazzy inflections and mannered port de bras. However, it was never more than that: a Balanchine reference here, a classroom exercise-like series of steps there, all performed in a repetitious manner with an impassive stare. The gender divisions so endemic to classical ballet remained, unquestioned: men and women were dressed in different colors, and all of the heavy lifting (of the various set pieces) was done by the men, in the manner of glorified stage hands. There were no bows by the performers.

Perhaps the generic labeling by numbers of the dancers in the portraits upstairs was a clue here (we were supposed to see them as generic men or women?), yet, why use dancers from such elite companies–ABT & NYCB–and highlight this affiliation multiple times in promotional material, if they were to remain unidentified and to perform unremarkable choreography? If they were meant to suggest some generic image of ballet, why use potentially recognizable dancers from well-known companies?

I must admit to feeling generally annoyed by the way that dance, dancers, and choreographers are expected to become transparent—to signify nothing (other than perhaps, presence) in and of themselves—when in the service of art. While the choreography was far from inventive, it was clear that the movements in the piece were conceived of and put together by people with ballet training and knowledge and yet, no choreographer is given.

The press release suggests that the repetition of these “limited movements” suggests “a kind of historical compression.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this, but I don’t think it worked. Taking these movements out of their context and distilling them to this limited expression isolates them, but performs no sort of compression, historical or otherwise. These are still classical ballet steps and positions, performed by highly skilled dancers.

I’m sure some of this has to do with my lack of familiarity with art world conventions, but in dance and performance works, there is typically much more acknowledgement of collaboration, and of the other artists involved. Did Lassry design the costumes as well? The lighting design? No mention.

When one art form is juxtaposed with or framed through the conventions of another, it doesn’t necessarily lose its formal and aesthetic qualities, or become emptied it of its original significance. Rather, this juxtaposition or framing should complicate the way we view both forms, and perhaps adds unexpected dimensions as we make new connections. (This of course ignores the very desirable possibility that lines between art forms are often not so clear to begin with and become even more blurred in interdisciplinary works.)

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you can’t just put watered-down choreography within an art piece as some sort of interesting statement on presence, because it is still watered-down choreography. Not acknowledging this, and expecting dance and dancers to signify only a generic concept of presence, inevitably undermines the project’s potential.

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.