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First up was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, originally made for the company by Mark Morris in 1988.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.


“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