Sunday, July 29, 2012

TAO Dance Theater: The Canvas Comes to Life

Tao Ye and Duan Ni in 2. Photo by Matthew G. Johnson.

Tao Ye, artistic director of the TAO Dance Theater, doesn't need you to get it. In fact, there is nothing to get: no concealed meanings, no abstruse meditations, no heavy emotions embed themselves in his dances. Form is content. The function, well, that’s up to you. Tao embraces a crisp, concrete minimalism in which he constructs an engrossing study of what happens when an abstract, art canvas animates.

It could be boring, but Tao has some good ideas. In the first piece 4, he arranges a quartet of women in a tight, diamond-shaped cluster. Resembling fashion-conscious warriors, the dancers sport baggy plus fours topped with asymmetrical tunics in dusty gray devised by fashion designer Li Min. Faces hide behind black masks.

Tao forges a compelling thesis of movement in 4. The dancers maintain a wide-legged stance, feet never collecting under their bodies into a neutral, stabilizing position. Steps lope and lurch while feet flex, arms punch, and rotary joints circle in large, breezy ellipses. Actions pour liquid-like through their bodies; the dancers, alert and energized, have a laid-back mien that makes them seem like hip-hopping cats. While they maintain unison, they are never in-sync. Each dancer injects a personal signature into the scripted movements.

In the second piece, 2, Tao and Duan Ni, a lissome female and his co-choreographer, begin belly-flopped on the floor as static fills the auditorium. Once the noise subsides, the two dancers fling assorted body parts into unusual shapes; each position lingers for a moment before abruptly shifting into a new pose. Spines scrunch, snake-like, as hips swivel and arms slap, smack, and stab.  Tao and Duan sometimes come to a complete stop for endless minutes, every nerve of their body focused as composer Xiao He’s score—a pastiche of noises—clamors and whirs around them. 

2 easily could have called 3 with the floor acting as the tertiary entity. Gravity exerts an insistent pull on Tao and Duan, forcing every upward-straining pose downwards, grounding and grinding them into the floor.  It’s riveting, like watching the sculptural possibilities of a fish that has just discovered some newly grown extremities.

TAO Dance Theater gives a mostly good, sometimes excellent, and nearly brilliant performance. Tao, at the dawn of what looks to be a stirring choreographic journey, is an artist possessing a strong, intuitive perspective. He just hasn’t learned to gauge audiences yet. He eschews macro, global evolutions of his pieces in favor of micro changes that unfold like visual spark lines.

2, in particular, is an excellent premise, but at close to forty minutes long, it taxes the audience’s attention without any memorable payoff until its last moments, when the lights go off and the music continues to play. Most of the audience applauds halfheartedly and beats a hasty exit, weary of watching the same stuff transpire. They miss the actual ending when Tao and Duan return, standing, to the stage, and remain motionless until the music ends.

Next time stay in your seat. TAO Dance Theater, founded in 2008, may be a neophyte enterprise, but Tao and Duan are just going to get better. 

This review refers to the performance seen on Wednesday, July 25th at Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theatre.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Paris Opera Ballet’s Orpheus and Eurydice: Too Good to Enjoy

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice, a sublime dance opera, brims with beauty and pathos. What a shame it’s so wearying to watch.

The show, created by the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, employs Gluck’s opera to retell the eponymous Greek myth of Orpheus, a mortal whose musical power rivals those of the gods, and his young bride Eurydice, whom he loses to death twice. The myth wrestles with artistic hubris and the insatiable curiosity of humans.

Bausch skips a linear recounting; instead, she focuses her piece into four themed sections: Mourning, Violence, Peace, and Death.  Each of the three lead characters – Orpheus, Eurydice, and Love – possesses corresponding, on-stage, female vocalists named Love, Death, and Youth. The singers, using Gluck’s German text, intone the tragedy while the dancers contend with the psychological fallout from the action.

It’s oblique, but more distracting issues are at play. The components, magnificently imagined, compete for your notice.

Vocals - the solos performed by Maria Riccarda Wesseling, Yun Jung Choi, and Zoe Nicolaidou with backup by the Balthaser-Neumann Ensemble und Choir - rapturously assault the ear with plenty of Germanic sturm und drang.  

The florid vocalists often detract from Bausch’s choreographic aesthetic, replete with her trademark repetitive and motif-heavy movements. Her emblematic deep knee bends, feet spread in a horizontally wide stance, lack gravitas when performed by weightless ballet dancers. Bausch’s upper body choreography suits better. The exquisite, gesturing arms - in one arresting motif, a hand gripping the upper arm - resonate most fully in the sections danced by the crackerjack corps de ballet.

You may find yourself ignoring the action in favor of contemplating the elegiac lighting, sets, and costumes by Rolf Borzik. The sets—large-scale art installations too poignant to be just props—run the gamut from walls constructed of large, grammar school chairs to a room full of relics consisting of a felled tree, a live effigy, and a glass box housing a stone.  

Orpheus and Eurydice is visually and aurally overwrought with the emotion tuned to a continuous, keening wail. Eventually, the ceaseless lamentations become too heightened and overpowering for response. Instead of ripping out your heart, they numb it into an icy stone unable to feel for anything or anybody.  

This review refers to the performance seen on Friday, July 20th at Lincoln Center.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle: Magnifique!


Dorothée Gilbert as Giselle.
The Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle is, in a word, magnificent. It’s been sixteen long years since the company has graced our New York stage. While their absence has surely made our hearts grow fonder, it also reveals how sorely the American ballet scene lacks an alternative viewpoint.

The Paris Opera Ballet boasts a legendary background. With its roots in the court of Louis XIV, the company continues to thrive, drawing on its rich traditions while embracing the future. Giselle (this show is the 770th performance in the company’s history) harmonizes the important elements of Romanticism—exoticism, supernaturalism, and emotionalism—into a gratifying experience in which, the story unfolds exclusively through movement.

Giselle, our artless heroine, embodies an expressive freedom that Albrecht, the prince of Silesia disguised as a peasant, covets. Smitten, he pursues Giselle although he is betrothed to another. Hilarion, a gamekeeper rivaling for her affections, discovers the duplicity and unmasks Albrecht precipitating a shattered Giselle to go mad and die. When the curtain opens on Act II, she has been reborn as a Wili. Wilis, the ghosts of spurned girls, prowl in the darkest hours of night, coercing any man they meet into a deadly dance. Hilarion is their first casualty and Albrecht nearly their second until Giselle saves him with her love.

Giselle is a prized role for many ballerinas; the performer must literally dance her heart out. Sometimes dancers jettison a shaded interpretation in favor of bodily wizardry. The French school of dance—which prizes sophistication, cleanliness, and elegance—can flummox an American audience accustomed to physical pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, the French presentation soon exerts a hypnotic charm. You feel the emotion driving the dancing; your hairs stand on end when Giselle crumbles to the ground in her fatal throes and a wave of relief will crash over you when Albrecht is still standing at daybreak.

It requires two accomplished dancers to take, what are probable technical errors, and refashion them into character-enhancing traits. Dorothée Gilbert, in the role of Giselle, has low arches and weak feet. Instead of rolling through her foot, easing from tiptoe to flat, she kerplunks. This imbues her Giselle with a dotty charm; she’s a girl who stumbles between her dreamy inner-life and the reality swirling around her. Josua Hoffalt as Albrecht tends towards musical sharpness,  noticeably when he and Gilbert dance side-by-side.  Instead of looking imprecise, it establishes their ultimate incompatibility; he’s a noble, punctilious to the point of error, and she is a free-spirited peasant girl prone to fits of fancy.

It’s almost perfect save for a flawed performance by conductor Koen Kessels. Kessels, an experienced ballet maestro, seems thrown by the French style. Perhaps expecting more virtuosity, he sounds the resolution chords long after the dancers have alighted from their jumps and turns. Other times, he races through the score forcing the performers to abandon exquisitely delineated arabesques in favor of staying in time. While his uneven conducting occasionally jars you out of the reverie, it’s a minor scratch in an otherwise matchless performance. 

This review refers to the performance on Wednesday, July 18th at the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Breaking Pointe: Breaking New Ground?

A day in the life of Ballet West on the CW's Breaking Pointe. Photo by Eric Ostling.

Breaking Pointe, which recently ended its six-week run on the CW, is one of the first ballet reality television shows.  It catalogs the daily life of seven dancers with Ballet West, a good but not great company, in Salt Lake City, Utah. The usual dramatic fodder that flavors such fare unfolds: hearts break, jealousy erupts, and dreams are crushed with a particular, nonchalant cruelty that only those who have attempted to torture their bodies into the demanding and nearly impossible perfection of ballet can fully appreciate. There’s also a fair amount of fine dancing.

 Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, makes his ambitions plain; he intends to mold his troupe into one of the premiere companies in the United States. You never do find out what he hopes to get from showcasing his dancers on a channel best known for overwrought, soapy teen dramas like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.

Sklute, driven but not ruthless, must fire dancers that are not maturing according to his aspirations. It the first episode, he axes Katie, a serviceable young corps de ballet member. Compared with the luminous Beckanne who, at nineteen, performs principal roles, Katie blunders about, forgetting combinations and falling off her pointe shoes. It’s no surprise to either when Beckanne gets promoted to demi soloist and Katie makes plans to audition.

The show, at its best, paints a multi-dimensional portrait of ballet dancers. Forget that crazy girl from Black Swan. These artists take their dancing seriously. But they also know how to loosen their buns, grab a beer, and hang out in Salt Lake City's depressing-looking clubs. Ronnie, an unrepentant ladies’ man with dreams of becoming a principal dancer, rides a motorcycle and gets his tattoos touched up in between throwing off whip fast turns and humongous leaps.

The darker side of ballet is only hinted at. Where are the vomitous eating disorders; the chronic, crippling injuries; and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies? Only Allison, a Roman-nosed brunette, exhibits the neurotic, self-destructive qualities that manifest when single-minded, perfectionist types measure themselves against ballet’s unearthly ideals. Inevitably, she fails. She bungles a solo in the opening night performance of Paquita, and her turbulent relationship with Rex, a fellow dancer, disintegrates throughout the season. Allison, like so many dancers, moves beautifully, but she can’t vanquish the enemy in her head.

The harshest truth comes to light in the last episode. Ballet careers come with an expiration date. Sometimes a debilitating injury or a desire to escape the relentless, claustrophobic ritual of class, rehearsal, and performance will derail a person. Many times, bodies crumble and technique erodes until choosing to dance is no longer an option. Ballet West’s elegant principal dancer, Christiana, wrestles with the inescapability of her age. In her thirties, she is likely entering her last years of performing. While she concludes that her dancing is better than ever, she wonders how long she can stay relevant with the Beckanne’s of ballet nipping at her heels. Although her husband, an aging principal dancer himself, wipes away her tears, this is no happy ending. Christiana, like the art she practices, is exquisite. But for how much longer?  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Trisha Brown Dance Company: A Cerebral Enigma


Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Mark Hanbauer.

Trisha Brown stands as one on the pillars of the post modern dance movement. At seventy-six years old, she has created over forty works, many which radically altered the face of modern dance.

Her recent show at the Park Avenue Armory, a cavernous space reminiscent of a chicly appointed airplane hangar, restages her 1991 piece, Astral Converted. The list of supporting players reads like a Who's Who of 20th century artists. John Cage provides the score, and Robert Rauschenberg offers a visual presentation consists of eight towers ranging in height from basketball player to toddler sized. They are loosely grouped towards the right and left margins of the dance area. The towers contain artful arrays of car batteries, headlights, and stereo systems. Dancers occasionally create new, indefinite configurations with the towers, drifting them closer to the center.   

A hush descends over the audience as nine dancers, five women and four men, enter. They wear shiny mother-of-pearl unitards; the only condescension to gender being a chiffon triangle stitched onto to the females’ inner legs giving the perception of a skirt. With faces composed into blank masks, the dancers resemble bored aliens.

Brown’s choreography is a thick, complicated stew of quick, jumping peaks; impressive rolls and slides across the floor; clever, sometimes stunning partnering; and seamless pedestrian transitions that belie the physical intensity of the previous actions.  The dancers—universally wonderful, but completely indistinguishable—form ever-shifting amalgamations of one, two, three, four and more members before dissolving into new arrangements. Some hang out on the sidelines, eying their fellow dancers before joining in as others melt into the periphery.

Brown’s organizational motives are obscure. Groups endlessly form, evaporate, and reassemble with no discernible compulsion or loyalty. In one of the few memorable vignettes, two dancers appear with janitorial brooms and sweep obsessively as the action continues to swirl around them. After a slick quartet where the cleaners are literally swept off their feet, the brooms disappear, never to return. There is no build or climax; you know to applaud when the lights abruptly go out. This is not a community of living, feeling humans, these are robots dispassionately performing the movement tasks that Brown, their puppet-master, directs using her own opaque reasoning.

Astral Converted feels like a rather long lecture on a complicated subject like physics or calculus. It’s genius; you intellectually relish in Brown’s dense, complex choreography that refuses to pander to cheap thrills. But your heart does not beat fast and your breath does not catch in your throat. It’s just too cryptic to care about. 

This review refers to the show seen on Friday, July 13th at the Park Avenue Armory. 

Swan Lake: An Angel’s Swan Song


Photo by Rosalie O’Connor. Angel Corella’s last curtain call.

Boy, a prince, meets girl. Girl is a part-time swan thanks to an unlucky encounter with an evil sorcerer, von Rothbart. Undaunted, boy falls in love. Girl hopes boy will swear eternal fidelity to her thus breaking von Rothbart’s spell. Soon after boy—long on looks and short on brains—falls under the sway of von Rothbart's daughter, Odile, disguised as a black swan. Realizing his error, boy pleads girl's forgiveness.  Girl flings herself into a lake rather than spend eternity as a swan. Boy follows. This obliterates the sorcerer's power, and the lovers reunite in life after death.

It's a tale as old as time. It's a tale that's been danced, time and time again. A perennial favorite, Swan Lake displays the best that classical ballet has to offer. Dancers exhibit their physical chops against Tchaikovsky's resplendent score. It takes a heart of stone to resist its appeal.

On this evening, Angel Corella plays the prince. Star of American Ballet Theatre for seventeen years, he bows for the last time, opting to focus his energies on captaining Spain’s first ballet company, Barcelona Ballet.

Corella originally wowed audiences with extraordinary, slashing leaps and hypnotic, multi-rotational turns. His boyish grin and charismatic personality made him a favorite of ballet-goers. As the years progressed, he maintained the charm while developing into a serious, mature artist who brings a rich resonance to his performances.

Thursday’s show confirms how sorely Corella will be missed. The wonderment his Prince Siegfried feels when he first sights Odette raises collective goose bumps. When, in Act IV, he beseeches Odette to forgive him, his anguish rings true. At thirty-six, Corella’s technique remains mostly undiminished; he jumps high and true in accordance with the audience’s expectations.

The cast, deeply respectful of Corella’s contributions to the company, pulls out all the stops.  Paloma Herrera as Odette/Odile seems less studied and more authentic than usual. Perhaps saddened at the loss of one of her longtime partners, Herrera shows legitimate distress as she flings herself into the lake, body arched in a suicidal swan dive. All of the supporting players are in fine form with particular kudos going to the Melanie Hamrick, Hee Seo, and Blaine Hoven for their sprightly interpretation of the Pas de Trois.

When the curtain closes, the deluge of affection is immediate. As flowers rained down, Corella takes bow after bow while the company gathered on stage in a statement of esteem. Corella, clearly touched by the affection, lets loose with a torrent of pirouettes, an exclamation point on his long and storied career.  

New York hasn’t seen the last of Corella. His company, Barcelona Ballet, tours regularly.  Until then, adios to ballet’s angel. 

Review refers to the show on Thursday, July 28th, 7:30PM at the Metroplolitan Opera House. 

The Firebird Fizzles


Natalia Osipova as The Firebird. Photo by Andrea Mohin.

American Ballet Theatre’s new, much-publicized production of Firebird should be a surefire home run. It boasts Stravinsky’s magnificent score rendered in the full, vivid costumes imagined by Galina Solovyeva, and an eerie set of withered tree-like columns capped with glowing embers. Alexei Ratmansky's inventive choreography will interest those who enjoy innovative movement, but still satisfy those that insist a trip to the ballet include an orderly corps de ballet, physical pyrotechnics, and an alluring pas de deux or two.

So why does this feel like a bunt to first base? The main frustrations arise from Ratmansky’s inchoate rendering of the plot. Questions abound. Why, for instance, does Ratmansky diminish the influence of the titular Firebird by making her just one of a flock? Why does Ivan—upon reuniting with his lost love, a jade-tressed minion in the sorcerer Kaschei’s harem—not retreat when the malevolent magician materializes? Even the program notes prove to be unhelpful.  

Exploits occur, one hot on the heels after another. Some are rendered beautifully. A quartet in which the Firebird and Kascehi grapple over the fates of Ivan and the Maiden, exemplifies their somewhat sexy clash of power. Others strike a nonsensical note. A hot-dogging Kaschei transforms Ivan into a leaping frog, bringing guffaws from the twelve-and-under set.

The ending disappoints. Thanks to a tip from the Firebird, the not-very-bright Ivan crushes an opalescent egg housing Kaschei's potency, and the gaggle of green-haired women quickly metamorphose into a bunch of blonde-locked bridal Barbies. Feminists everywhere shudder. The bizarre, tree-like columns unbolt to reveal the harem’s male sweethearts. Lovers, including Ivan and the Maiden, reunite in a group wedding of sorts. Presumably, everyone lives happily ever after.

The Firebird, Natalia Osipova, replacing an injured and much-missed Misty Copeland, pacifies the audience with sky-high leaps and a confident brio. Herman Cornejo, handsome like a Ken doll, seems lost and bumbling as Ivan. His partnering appears uncertain, and his connection with Osipova never surpasses lukewarm. Maria Riccetto, the Maiden, offers an odd and completely charming interpretation. Kaschei, played by Roman Zhurbin, chooses cartoon villainy over highlighting the role’s sinister, Svengali-like implications. The corps, both firebirds and Kaschei’s maidens, demonstrates pristine attention to spacing and synchronicity, generating strong margins around the ballet’s fuzzy moments. 

At its heart, the Firebird is a folk tale. Ratmansky may obfuscate the storyline, but his folksy themes of community, conformity, and marriage remain unmistakable. Instead of creating solo archetypes, the majority of principals act as interchangeable members of their respective societies. The Firebird functions as just one of many indistinguishable firebirds; her singular trait is a lack of mate. You wonder if Ratmansky is suggesting that even powerful, intrepid firebirds require males to protect them from unwanted advances. Ivan, our ostensible protagonist, crosses the finish line as just one of many hunks in a sparkly tunic. Individuality, manifested in the form of Kashei, is portrayed as pernicious and dangerous. Ultimately, it is vanquished in favor of a happy ending exemplified by a community of duplicate couples performing matched steps.  To Ratmansky, happiness and harmony can only be found through embracing conformity, community, and wedded bliss.  

Seen on Saturday, June 23rd at 2PM at the Metropolitan Opera House. 

Jose Limon: Sometimes Sweet, Somewhat Sour

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor featuring Daniel Fetuca Soto as the Emperor and Durell Comedy as the Trader in The Limon Company's The Emperor Jones.
Modern companies often face an identity crisis in the wake of the death or defection of their choreographer whose persuasive vision frequently acts as their raison d’etre. Some close their doors forever. Upon Merce Cunningham’s death in 2009, his company, after a two-year farewell tour, dissolved. Cunningham preferred leaving fans brokenhearted rather than entrust his legacy to a fate he could not command.  Some, like the Limon Dance Company, forge a new path by honoring the contributions of their founder while commissioning pieces from contemporary choreographers. The Limon Company’s June residency at The Joyce proves the difficulties of this tricky balancing act, dwelling in both the past and present

The program opens with The Emperor Jones, a signature piece based loosely on Eugene O’Neill’s play about a paranoid tyrant. Fifty-six years have passed since the original premiere and its age shows. The florid narrative, hammy acting, and two-dimensional choreography have long since fallen out of fashion. Even with a facelift in the form of Sheryl Liu’s competition-winning set and costumes, the dance reads as a relic disinterred to pay reflexive homage to Limon.

The second Limon piece, Chaconne, featuring lovely music by violist Kinga Augustyn, fares better. Roxane D’Orleans Juste, the company’s current Associate Artistic Director, performed the work, a solo created in 1942 to “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita #2. D’Orleans Juste abstains from over-emoting; instead, she offers a delicate, nuanced interpretation, underscoring the detailed pen-and-ink drawing qualities intrinsic in Chaconne.

The final two works are devoted to current dance-makers. 

Jiri Kylian’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, is a contemplative exploration of reality and potentiality. Music by Claude Debussy played by pianist Anna Shelest alternates to the taped sound of waves. La Cathédrale Engloutie casts a dreamy mood as the quartet of dancers, well trained in Limon’s exacting technique, perform with expansive lyricism, their physical and artistic skills a complement to Kylian’s premise.  

Come With Me, Brazilian Rodrigo Pederneiras’ newly commissioned piece with music by Cuban composer Paquito D’Rivera, is an ebullient bore. For endless minutes, the dancers hop, dart, and caper their way through elaborate footwork sequences. Occasionally, a dancer will wave an arm or cock their head, but it never adds up to anything more than an endless blur of Latin-infused Irish step dancing.

An uneven show, it’s memorable for the moments in which the Limon Dance Company draws on its rich technique. Yet, it proves to be unsatisfying overall due to their commitment to honor a tradition that seems better suited for the dance history books.

This review refers to the show seen on Friday, June 22nd at The Joyce.