Kidd Pivot’s “The Tempest Replica”

The dancers of Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite's "The Tempest Replica." Photo Credit: Jorg Baumann

The dancers of Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite’s “The Tempest Replica.”
Photo Credit: Jorg Baumann

Taking on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as Crystal Pite did with her production of The Tempest Replica, would be a challenging task for any choreographer. Centering around Prospero, the overthrown Duke of Milan, stranded on an island with his daughter Miranda, the play explores themes including magic, justice, and performance through its multiple plots. In the past half-century, The Tempest has also been looked at as a commentary on colonialism, the “discovery” of new lands, and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Created on her company, Kidd Pivot, Pite’s The Tempest Replica had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre last week.

Sitting in my seat before the performance, I tried to make my way through the program’s summary of the play’s plot, by way of refresher. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “before” the performance, because, as is common in contemporary dance these days, one of the dancers, Eric Beauchesne, was already seated onstage, folding paper into origami. While Beauchesne’s all-black outfit originally made me think of a stagehand finishing up before the show started, it became clear once the curtain rose that he was both Prospero and the production’s director, organizing and commanding the action onstage. The other dancers, the “replicas” of the title, were dressed entirely in white, their heads entirely covered by alien-like wrappings. The homogenizing anonymity of these masks, along with the dancers’ robotic movements, positioned them as the pawns, manipulated and positioned by Prospero. While visually striking, this costuming choice, in addition to the limited movement vocabulary of these dancers, seemed terribly reductive, particularly with regard to the complexities and nuances of Shakespeare’s play.

The plot of The Tempest was explained through a variety of special effects, which were theatrically impressive, but didn’t seem to serve any further purpose. While the projection of the word “ISLAND” in large capitals on the neutral backdrop seemed an interestingly minimalist way of announcing the setting, it soon became clear that this was simply a lazy method of filling in the many gaps in the story. At one point, the word “daughter” was projected in light onto Miranda’s dress (While the various characters in Shakespeare’s play were given in the program, the dancers were not listed as portraying specific roles). Brief films of shadows, explanatory phrases, act and scene numbers, and lines from the text further filled in the complex narrative of the play. However, the production never took up any of the complexities of Shakespeare’s play, choosing rather to deal only with its surface elements. Despite the numerous devices used to convey the plot to us, all but the barest skeleton of the plot remained obscure. Why use Shakespeare’s play as a framework when so little of it was conveyed by the dancing?

Dancers in Crystal Pite's "The Tempest Replica"Photo Credit: Jorg Baumann

Dancers in Crystal Pite’s “The Tempest Replica”
Photo Credit: Jorg Baumann

I thought that perhaps this question would be answered by the second half of the performance, in which the “replicas” and persistent explanation disappeared, replaced by more impressionistic vignettes in which dancers represented distillations of the play’s themes in contemporary dress. This change in mode resulted in a dramatically expanded range of movements, as the dancers emerged as individuals, executing virtuosic displays of slicing leg extensions and rapid turns. However, despite the elaborate set-up of the piece’s first half, these dances seemed to be little more than a disconnected set of solos and duets, showing off the prowess of Pite’s talented dancers. While the emotions or relationships at the heart of these dances was clear, they never deepened or complicated our impressions of the scenes from the first half.

In the epilogue, the dancers returned in the costumes of the first half, but the roles were now switched. The white-clothed men were the actors, manipulating the now mannequin-like Prospero. After lowering him to the ground, the men began to clap, slowly and silently, celebrating what seemed like his death. In the play, the final applause plays a very different role, as Prospero, in his final lines after releasing his slaves, asks the audience to pardon and release him with their applause. With her revision, Pite seemed to be saying something about the death of the creator, or the assumption of power by the performers, but within the performance’s structure, it fell flat.

Dance is not incompatible with Shakespeare’s themes, as choreographers from Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to José Limon (The Moor’s Pavane, loosely based on Othello) have shown. Rather than simply transposing these narratives from one art form to another, these works succeeded through nuanced translation. However, if a dance requires its audience to understand literally the complexities of a written text, it is doomed to failure. Literal interpretations, by definition, rely on the surface value of the words in a text, while dance is a form that finds its value in moving beyond the literal, and in showing and expressing what words cannot. In expending so much effort to ensure that our literal understanding was complete, The Tempest Replica never succeeded in attaining this level of transcendence.


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.

The Choreographer as Sisyphus: Gallim Dance, “Sit, Kneel, Stand”

The program notes for Gallim Dance’s premiere “Sit, Kneel, Stand,” referenced a quote from Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Andrea Miller, Gallim’s founder and choreographer, took on Camus’s challenge by imagining the interminable Sisyphean task as that of the choreographer, to hilarious effect.

As the audience filtered in on Friday night, dancer Troy Ogilvie writhed, blank-faced, through a series of disjointed movements along the front of the stage. When the house lights came down, she hopped up onto the stage and rolled into the plane of other dancers as the curtain rose. The six dancers she joined were dressed in shorts or skirts and boxy, cropped tops, which encased, without touching, their bodies. In the upper left corner of the stage was a sculpture-like pile of white folding chairs.

The piece quite literally announced its comic intention, as Francesa Romo strode onto the stage making exaggerated presentation-like movements and yelled, in a high-pitched voice: “This is how we gonna start!” After her exit, a section of straightforward dancing to the sounds of birds tweeting provided a stark contrast to the overblown physical comedy, a pattern that would recur throughout the piece.

That pile of chairs started to take on life as Jonathan Royse Windham began to fret, in sometimes-audible mumblings, about Arika Yamada and the chairs upon which she was dancing. His body seemed hardly under his control, as he found himself in extreme positions after trying to execute simple movements or struggling to control his own leg after it flew up to an extreme angle. When he managed, after much struggle and muttering, to shift a chair, allowing Yamada to continue her dance uninterrupted, he broke into ecstatic celebration: think gymnast sticking-the-landing.

After Yamada is carried off by Ogilvie, much to his relief, Windham joined the other two male dancers (Mario Bermudez Gil & Dan Walczak), and attempted to keep up with the complex choreography they performed unselfconsciously. His exaggerated awkwardness mocks the contemporary dance clichés they engage in, such as staring out at the audience. Windham’s performance foregrounded the way in which the movement in the piece often seemed to originate externally: as if the dancers were removed from their bodies, exploring, observing, and occasionally attempting to control what happens there. He made visible this disconnect and the attempt to bridge it.

Romo returned to her high-voiced persona again in a later section, assuming the role of choreographer, as she attempted to make her dancer, Gil, achieve the shapes and effects she desired. Her frustration only increased as they continued, and his large body became the Sisyphean boulder in relation to her tiny frame. Like Windham, Romo possesses an incredible comedic instinct, with zany facial expressions to match. The counterpoint to her increasingly hysterical frustration was once again Yamada, who danced with an unflappable, oblivious fluidity, while Romo lamented her inability to control or even touch her: “Lady! Stop lady!…Wrong way lady!” Yamada cannot be controlled, yet her movements are the most controlled and contained in the whole piece.

photo credit: Christopher Duggan

At times, Romo herself was the one dancing, using her dancer, or his limbs, only as a prop. The adjustments she made to Gil echoed the way that the dancers adjusted or manipulated each other throughout the piece: sometimes mechanically, sometimes tenderly. What is the choreographer’s role in relation to the movement that continues outside of, and impervious to, her efforts?

Romo finally conceded her inability to affect Yamada and the futility of manipulating Gil, and the piece segued into a poignant duet. The duet is at its most basic, a simple contact improvisation exercise, but was the transfer of movement between the dancers, now struggle, now support, was mesmerizing. Eventually, the rest of the dancers returned to the stage and began to echo these slow, careful movements. Even as Caroline Fermin took on the role of frantic Sisyphus, attempting and failing to satisfactorily rearrange those still-present chairs, this dancing continued, just as Yamada’s had earlier.

photo credit: Christopher Duggan

How does one end a piece about interminability? Miller answered this conundrum with a playful, shrieking game of tag for her cast. Tag of course, has no definite end—it always begins again when a new player is deemed “it”—and yet this detracts not at all from the pleasure involved. The dancers’ game of tag also returned to the idea of the transfer of movement from one body to another, which had been so central to the piece. Here, perhaps, is a suggestion of how Sisyphus might be happy.

Glorious Angst: Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce

Despite taking Graham technique five days a week while I was studying at Ailey, I had never seen the Martha Graham Dance Company perform. My opportunity finally came with the company’s season at the Joyce this week, and let’s just say it had me wishing I had stuck it out through those 8:30 am contractions…

On Thursday night, the first live piece on the program (which opened with a video montage by Peter Sparling), was “Allegro Misterioso” by Anna Sokolow. Performed by Mariya Dashina Maddux, in a long light blue dress, hair down long, the solo began with her bent over at the waist, facing away from the audience in the upstage right corner. Her first movement, a fluttering of the fingers, signaled the frenzy that would characterize the piece. In the final moments, she slowed down in defiance of the music’s pace, and contracted as she descended to the floor, clearly highlighting for us Sokolow’s connection with Graham.

“Deaths and Entrances” purports to be loosely about the Brontë sisters: a set-up that makes this literature PhD student nervous to say the least. With no books or pens in sight and sisterly tension the dominant mode, imagining the Brontës dancing was only one of the piece’s absurdities, others including the puzzling presence of the “three remembered children” and the potential suitors who flit in and out. Yet, the contractions, the sharp angles, and the sustained mood of high drama were all so earnest and un-ironic that I must to admit to having found the excess rather delicious.

I get the impression that “Lamentation Variations”—in which contemporary choreographers are invited to create a short piece drawing on inspiration from Graham’s iconic solo “Lamentation” —has received a divided response. My fellow usher Thursday evening, for example, saw it as nothing less than sacrilege and was convinced it was making people leave the theatre. I, on the other hand, thought it achieved fairly well what it set out to do—pay homage while bringing the work into conversation with contemporary contexts. We first saw video of Graham performing the original work, its power somewhat diminished by jumpy cuts and the absence of the score. In the first variation, by Bulareyaung Pargarlava, three men and one woman, in nude shorts and a leotard respectively, used each other to evoke the tense points of contact and resistance that Graham’s fabric tube created.

The second was a premiere by Yvonne Rainer, who, as one might expect, took things in a distinctly postmodern direction. Director Eilber appeared in nondescript gray clothing, looking bored in a corner of the stage. Dancer Katherine Crockett entered in tights and a long white t-shirt, out of which trailed a long strand of purple tulle. She took her place, squatting in a wide second position, atop a plywood box and proceeded to take poses reminiscent of the iconic work. Eilber would periodically interrupt her mood of modern dance seriousness, now by shining a stage light on her face, now by shredding paper in a paper shredder—mixing veneration with irreverence.

In the final variation, choreographed by Larry Keigwin, we saw the entire company onstage, dressed in evening wear. They began by slowly and subtly feeling their faces and then their bodies, transposing the feel of Graham’s piece onto a multitude of bodies through small movements.

The highlight of the evening was easily the final piece, “Chronicle,” which aims, the program tells us, to depict the prelude, aftermath, and call to action evoked by war. I was struck by how radical it must have been in 1936 to create a dance on the theme of war using only women. The curtain rose on Blakeley White-McGuire, seated on uneven stools, with a long black skirt spread out like a tent over the uneven surfaces. She began with isolated movements of her arms, progressing to stand upon the pedestals, and finally descending to the stage floor, where she propelled herself and the dramatic lengths of her skirt with ferocious intensity.

The phrase “strong women” has become a cliché, but the dancers in the second and third sections of “Chronicle” embodied such a description in its purest form. The incredible force of their collective movement alternately conveyed pathos, anger, and devastation. In one memorable scene, the women alternately raised one fist and then the other, both arms “making a muscle” in front of their faces, a motion mimicked by their powerful, weighted legs as they traveled in a circle of resolute strength.

White-McGuire returned in the third section, now clad in a white dress edged with black, signally a shift from the menacing red of her first costume. Alternating between her pedestal and the space with the other dancers, she was at once a triumphant leader summoning the group and an active part of a larger movement. The performance of this piece was, for me, a strong argument for the continued power and relevance both of the company and of Graham’s work.

Bonus: Check out this great video of Denise Vale rehearsing the Graham company.