Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Bang Group's Nut/Cracked: Have a Slice of Fruitcake

The Bang Group performs Nut/Cracked. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

David Parker and the Bang Group’s Nut/Cracked acts as a bulging stocking bursting with an array of holiday novelties. Some are zany gag gifts, which elicit a chuckle, while others briefly amuse before being set aside and forgotten. All are chock-full of heart, designed to make you smile and ignore about your holiday to-do list.

Forget the traditional Nutcracker. There’s no Clara, no narrative featuring a malevolent Rat King whose demise is caused by a tossed slipper, and no Grand Pas de Deux featuring virtuosic lifts, multiple pirouettes, and ceiling brushing jumps. There are, however, kids and Tchaikovsky's magnificent composition. Rendered here in jazz and classical iterations, Tchaikovsky’s score proves to be marvelously flexible, accommodating tap routines, hand jiving, swing dancing, and a whole host of noisy stomps, slaps, and shuffles.

Rhythm is of particular interest to Parker. Opening the show clad in black track pants, a white t-shirt, Santa hat, and shaving cream beard, Parker—who resembles a supersized baby with his large head, twinkling eyes, and round stomach—sings a festive drinking song while performing jazzy tap dancing. Joined by Jeff Kazin, the two embark on a convivial tap-off with Parker prevailing.

The program, which unfolds like a sweets sampler, contains almost two-dozen vignettes. Many take their inspiration from a prop like bubble wrap, sunglasses, or a long stemmed red rose; each possesses a comic slant. There's no methodology to their order beyond Parker's whimsy, save for a general halving of the music; the first ten or so pieces groove to big band and jazz versions of The Nutcracker while the last portion is performed to Tchaikovsky's standard score.

Flashlight delightfully pokes fun at ambitious ballerinas. To the crystalline tones of the Westminster Handbell Choir’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, a pair of feet belonging to Dylan Baker, outfitted in pointe shoes, clumsily bourrées (a rapid drilling of feet into the floor) scrambling to catch up to his projected spotlight.

Tree—a wickedly brilliant take on the Nutcracker scene in which Herr Drosselmeyer conjures a Christmas tree to grow to impressive heights—begins with Aaron Mattocks laying prone, curled in the fetal position. As the music swells, a tiny Christmas tree appears by his side. Mattocks slowly erects the tree until it is atop his pelvis, then rises to a standing position on the tips of his toes, the tree held triumphantly aloft.

About halfway through the concert you realize why most of the audience is present. It’s not to see Parker suck down a solo noodle in a hilariously nifty interpretation of “Chinese Tea.” It’s to watch their adorable kids from Brooklyn Arts Exchange perform two numbers.  In their best interpretation of John Travolta, the grinning youngsters swivel their hips and jab the air with their finger to “Dance of the Reed Flutes” and “Russian Trepak” as their families fervently applaud.

After a while, certain jests go stale. In Snow, eleven cast members simulate dancing on an ice rink. They merrily whiz around, trace snow angels onto the stage, and perform small jump combinations straight from an academic ballet class in between plopping, falling, and sliding to the floor. The first time someone plunges, you laugh.  As it goes on (and on), the gimmick becomes distracting, and then incredibly annoying.

The Grand Pas de Deux, usually the pinnacle of the second act, reduces two men to continually sucking their own and each other’s thumbs, which obscures clever partnering and lifts.

While not every scenario goes down with the ease of perfectly spiked eggnog, The Bang Group's Nut/Cracked is a hunk of fruitcake you can look forward to once a year. Laden with nuttiness, its all-around sweetness makes up for the unappetizing bits. 

This review refers to the show seen on Friday, December 21st at New York Live Arts.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Recap of NYC10's on November 28th at Dixon Place

Please follow the link below to see my recap for NYC10's encore performance. They were kind enough to invite me back for a second time.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Fleeting Warmth

Alvin Ailey performs Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 during their residency at City Center. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

There's a reason why the lauded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the principal company of New York's City Center. It's because they make people smile. The company's greatest strength—winsome, athletic dancers—pleases audiences; these entertainers easily charm with larger-than-life performances.

Striving to showcase his dancers' colossal energy and versatility, recently appointed artistic director Robert Battle selects multifaceted pieces, but encourages safe, easily digestible performances that lack shading and subtlety. 

Opening with Paul Taylor's minor masterpiece Arden Court, the company demonstrates their fine physicality, making short work of Taylor's demanding academic choreography. Replete with modern dance staples like loping runs, stag leaps, and sustained leg extensions that hover, unmoving, for long seconds, Arden Court—belied by its flower dappled costumes and background ornamented by a rose-colored bloom—requires technical feats of mastery. Each movement must be perfectly calibrated, lest a rogue wiggle disturb the overall picture. The dancers—particularly the leggy, poised female corps composed of Linda Celeste Sims, Rachael McLaren, and Alicia Graf Mack—demonstrate rock solid technique. However, unlike a rose, which offers a multitude of fragrant, intricate layers with the occasional thorn to remind you of its dangerous beauty, these dancers forgo artful restraint for a broad, over-sized performances that obscures the nuances in William Boyce's refined Baroque score. You marvel at the dancers' technical feats, but this interpretation is a rendition that can only be taken at face value.

The starting montage of Rennie Harris’ Home, the second piece on this three bill program, features a gaggle of dancers clumped together, clad in pedestrian attire complete with groovy sneakers, raggedly swaying to and fro. One male dancer breaks away from the horde, walking, breaking, and jigging. Galvanized by his decampment, the group begins to disperse: sliding and scooting, isolating hips and ribs, fading on and off stage. Just as you begin to get sucked into their beguiling world, the ambient soundscape changes to a clamorous beat, and a white light shines hazily down on the stage. Home is a club, and the answer to life’s woes is to dance it out. Performers—a blur of color, motion, and grins, their individuality swapped for the guise of a stock party person—streak on and around the cluttered stage in a frenzied trance before ending the way it started; the dancers bunched together with one lone male straggler joining at the last second as the group jointly exhales. It’s fun in the beginning, but it goes on and on without any change in tenor. Only Guillermo Asca, sleek like a cat, stands out for his sinuous, rippling interpretation of Harris' choreography.

The show closes with Ohad Naharin's Minus 16, which features a pastiche of selections from his prior works; assembled together, these loosely related episodes suggest  dance as an expressive social ritual. The piece commences before intermission ends. A man, dressed in the Hassid fashion of a black suit and white dress shirt, materializes in front of the audience. Staring insistently, he begins to indulge in small motions, which ultimately transition into a full-fledged dance of quirks as the curtain rises. Other dancers, males and females clad in the same black suit and white dress shirt combination, accumulate on stage. With arms held tightly to their body, the performers execute small, jerking gestures, quivering and quaking. The curtain descends for a brief moment, and then rises to show a semicircle of chairs. This section, the best of Minus 16, highlights the dancers performing a short movement sequence in and around their respective chairs, before standing up in a beautifully executed canon. The last performer, instead of rising to his feet, flings himself to the floor as the chanting—performed by the dancers to "Echad Mi Yode"—strums and drones. Minus 16 ends with the dancers breaking the fourth wall. Strolling into the audience, they choose unsuspecting individuals and bring them onstage for a melee of social dancing. These good-humored amateurs awkwardly skip, sexily dip, and methodically shimmy in their best imitation of a Dancing With the Stars contestant as the audience howls raucously. Sweetly comical, Naharin challenges many of the closely held notions about concert dance, but this isn't anything you can't see at a local bar mitzvah.

When the piece finishes, the audience applauds enthusiastically, energized by the evening's diverting antics. You feel wrapped up in a warm and cozy hug. Excellent technique and show-stopping performances should be enough to make you remember this night long after it’s over. But so much steamy warmth bubbling over in the moment burns away by the next morning; the excitement of the evening has fled, and you have the gnawing sensation you succumbed to superficial charms. Little of the show lingers in your head. There is nothing to savor, no moments that demand repeated examination or personal resolution. It gets you smiling, but only for a moment. 

This review refers to the performance seen on Thursday, November 29th at 8PM.