Dance Reviews

Boston Ballet

June 25, 2014

mordance David H. Koch Theatre
All photos are courtesy of Boston Ballet

The ballet fan living in New York City is a privileged person. We have two of the world's finest companies presenting works on an ongoing basis each autumn, winter and spring. Many of the elite international companies have seasons here too, and the smaller theatres are full of young artists trying out new works. So it's easy for New York City fans to become jaded, assuming that we've seen it all.

It's been more than thirty years since Boston Ballet performed in New York City. In recent years, I've read about their dancers here and there, but I knew very little about the company. So I came to the theatre on opening night of their New York City season without much in the way of expectations.

But from the opening moments of William Forsythe's Second Detail, I was presented with a company of artists who were as strong in their technique and as full of personality and swagger as any that I've ever seen. They are confident and in command of their instruments, dancing with the type of authority and precision that seemed nearly magical. To say that it was breathtaking would be an understatement.

Second Detail is a stunning piece with great musicality and intricacies. The stage is brightly lit, the dancers are dressed in light colored cool gray leotards and the Thom Willems music can be rhythmic and noisy. The movement is fast paced and pulsing with high energy. Though the piece received its world premiere in 1991 and has become a staple in the repertory of National Ballet of Canada, it is new to New York City and it remains fresh and exciting. It represents an ideal of what ballet can look like in the 21st Century without severing its connection to its origins. Pace and directions change rapidly -- quick footwork is followed by slow sensual melting movement. Classical port des bras transform into swooning or playful movement of the arms. Funky swivels of the hips, flirty jazz embellishments and everyday body language fuse seamlessly with the excitement of the ballet movement. Forsythe highlights the grace notes and small details of the music with original movement that just made me sigh at its beauty. There are brilliant accents and sharp poses emphasizing the long notes of the music as well as the rests.

mordance As for the dancers, I did not want to take my eyes off of them for a split second, especially given that the counterpoint to this piece is nothing short of dazzling. I found myself wanting to watch each section individually and then to see how it came together as a whole.

In contrast, Jose Martinez's Resonance is a somber romantic piece full of yearning. Lia Cirio backs out on to the darkened stage as if she's hiding in a dark alley. She is wearing a navy blue dress and as she lifts her arms, she seems to be haunted. She is joined by six women who are wearing only navy blue camisole leotards, their movement expansive and searching, capped with achingly slow single pirouettes. A narrative seems to emerge -- are the women facets of Ms. Cirio's character or do they represent echoes of her past or her most raw emotions?

The panels along the back of the stage move and keep transforming the space, sometimes revealing pianist Freda Locker who is playing the Liszt accompaniment live. (Alex Foaksman, stationed to the left of the stage, also provides live accompaniment on piano.) Lasha Khozashvili appears, performing slow high leaps that seem to hang in the air, and a complex series of turns which keep changing direction. He too is joined by six men whose leotards echo the gray in his costume, which might have been a uniform of some sort. As the dance unfolds, the ensemble takes on the costumes while Ms. Cirio and Mr. Khozashvili dance in leotards. At one point we are even shown the backs of the moving panels that make up the set, stripping away the artifice of the stagecraft involved, similar to the way in which the main characters shed their costumes. Dusty Buttons and Alejandro Virelles perform a more light hearted pas de deux marked by beautiful swooping lifts. Throughout the dance, it is in the soulful adagio movement that the dancers demonstrate beautiful artistry, almost as if they are slowing down time to show you every detail of the motion and emotion.

It seems kind of ironic to be writing a review of Alexander Ekman's Cacti, the first dance that I've ever seen which is about art criticism. It's a theatrical piece in which the dancers cast off their pointe shoes and are joined by a live orchestra, including an onstage string quartet playing selections by Haydn, Beethove, Schubert and Mahler. The voice of a disembodied narrator sounds from the dark stage as the dancers, crouched on their knees, accompany the musicians with loud rhythmic breathing, slaps to the body, clapping, or pounding on the white square platforms beneath each one of them. Heads are covered with caps that resemble do rags and bodies are covered in nude colored leotards and baggy black capris. The dancers pose briefly to ham it up by flashing a smile at the audience. The fiddle playing becomes wild and passionate and the dancers whoop and chant while pounding the accompanying rhythm.

The dance is pure entertainment and fun to watch. The boxes tilt on angles or stand up like walls as the dancing revolves around them. The unpredictable movement is athletic, exploding with energy. A series of quick duets are featured under spotlights while the rest of the stage remains dark. The dancers move with wild abandon, jumping, falling, torsos undulating, arms swinging.

Halfway through the piece, the narrator recites a review of all we've seen up until that moment. It is pure parody, overwrought with adjectives, symbolism and intellectualism, which had me laughing nearly to the point of tears.

I left the theatre feeling as if I'd just seen remarkable dancing performed by a world class company whose technique, energy, artistry and versatility did what Diaghilev is reputed to have once demanded of Cocteau: It astounded me.

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MorDance - Our Second Season

May 17, 2014

mordance The Sheen Center
All photos by Kelsey H Campbell

MorDance is a young company of accomplished ballet dancers in the process of developing their unique voice. Their contemporary dances stay close to classical ballet roots. At Sheen Center, they presented their second season with a program of three pieces, each choreographed by Artistic Director Morgan C. McEwen.

mordance In the opening moments of Ingress, three women press their outstretched hands against their partners' chests as they enter the stage. Traces of that forceful image and the angles it creates are echoed throughout the dance, reaching a lovely resolution when the men fall back against the same outstretched hands, only this time, it's as if for support. The dance is abstract without much communication between partners -- they rarely meet each other's gaze, at times moving as one larger entity rather than a set of partners. Motifs appear that remind me of floor combinations from the classical ballet class, before they veer off into compelling phrases of original movement. The women move in releve on straight legs, their focus on their feet, their straight arms circling in an exaggerated fashion as if keeping their balance, and it seems to echo the tentative steps that a young ballet student might take in her first pointe classes. At times the dancers are rooted to the floor in first position, their upper bodies briefly bobbing left and right, almost like a doll's. mordanceIn another phrase, the woman stand still while presenting classical port des bras, or a series of jetes from a petite allegro. Each phrase contains its own unique contemporary twist. At times, the dance looked a little crowded, which had more to do with the size of the stage of the Sheen Center than the choreography itself. I'd love to see these dances open up on a larger stage.

Static Space is an athletic duet danced by Ms. McEwen and Jace Coronado. Both dancers are compelling -- Coronado for his earthiness and McEwen for the apparent ease with which she combines robust power with ballerina grace and unpredictable patterns.

mordance For me, Jeu de Temps was the highlight of the evening. As the title suggests, McEwen plays with rhythmic phrases throughout. Shifts in weight and unexpected footwork patterns create hip accents of movement against the percussive accompaniment. The women dance in floor length skirts, and in one passage the dance takes on a MOMIX kind of turn as the skirts are lifted high over the women's heads, allowing us to see them move only from the waist down as the skirt billows above, almost like the petals of a flower. I really enjoyed the way that Ms. McEwen showcased the individuality of each dancer. Their personalities emerge through the movement and this made the dance so engaging. We could feel a palpable reaction in the audience. Also especially lovely were the women's sections, during which they moved together at close quarters in a sisterly fashion.

The beautiful circle skirts were stye 502 from Body Wrappers/Angelo Luzio.


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Dance Theatre of Harlem - Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater

April 23, 2014

Dance Theatre of Harlem Program A

Dance Theatre of Harlem made its comeback in 2013, ending a nine year hiatus brought on by financial difficulties. Since then, they have toured twenty-six cities at home and abroad. Their 2014 season at the Rose Theatre showcased a company of diverse dancers and demonstrated "how ballet can express the human spirit."

Dance Theatre of HarlemThe Pas de Dix from Raymonda, choreographed by Marius Petipa and staged by Frederic Franklin was, as Artistic Director Virginia Johnson said, "a celebration of pure classicism." On the bare stage, stripped of elaborate sets, the dance maintains its courtliness. The dancers are such a pleasure to watch. Each soloist brings such a beautiful quality of movement and unique personality to her variation. They carry off the petite allegro passages with precision and their limbs unfurl so beautifully in the slower phrases. Each dancer really stood out as an individual with his or her own endearing qualities, even in the sections which employed larger groups. I especially liked the part in which the women line up on stage with their partners in a row behind them. Arm in arm, they developpe forward, then the working leg passes back into penche. The unison movement is so lovely, and they perform it without that sameness that can sometimes make ballet seem a little too sterile. Chyrstyn Fentroy is especially breathtaking in the Seventh Variation. Her bourees seem to float above the floor and the liquid movement of her arms is mesmerizing, especially in one sequence in which she moves backward on the diagonal. Francis Lawrence's bravura turn sequence drew huge applause.

past-carry-forward is an original piece choreographed by Tanya Widerman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis. It tells the story of early 20th century African American migration from the agrarian south to the cities of the north. It opens with the sounds of birds chirping as a couple enters carrying suitcases, dressed in clothing worn in rural towns. They're waiting for the train that's going to take them on their journey. Their hesitation and trepidation is expressed sweetly in their movement. In the last moments before their journey begins, they both sink into splits and stay there, as if to symbolize the roots that they've put down on this land that they're about to leave. We hear the sound of an arriving train, a motif that's used throughout the dance.

As the story of their city lives unfold, the piece moves through a series of exciting styles of dance to the accompaniment of jazz and swing. At first, there seems to be a jubilant tone -- the women laugh together and four couples seem to have great fun letting loose, as if in a dance hall. The migrants take to the excitement of city life. But the celebration quiets in a heartbreaking manner when the suitcases are open and the men exchange their city attire for the uniforms of the segregated armed forces. Men and women part company. I especially loved the passage in which the men dance together. It's got a muscular and athletic energy, alternately aggressive and compassionate. They march in formation, salute, and dramatize the movement of combat.

Dance Theatre of Harlem A Pullman porter emerges, wearing a suit with white gloves, carrying another suitcase. As he works in a slow and methodical fashion, two show girls perform, waving batons, high stepping, flirting, upstaging each other and encouraging applause. There is a crackling sound to the accompaniment -- kind of like the hiss on an old vinyl LP. At one point, the sound and the crackling stop completely and we hold our breath because the sudden silence is so dramatic. The narrative threads fall away and the piece continues as an abstract imagining of the ancestral imprints of all peoples, and what a world without racism would have been like, or would even be like today. I was deeply moved by the beauty of this piece.

Gloria was created specifically for the dancers of this new incarnation of DTH. Choreographed by Robert Garland, the piece includes young students of DTH School, and celebrates the spiritual legacy of Harlem. The dancers are clad in costumes in gorgeous shades of turquoise, teal and aqua green. The movement captures the big spirit of the music -- formidable, awe inspiring and exciting. The choreography entwines ballet with phrases of swing and popular dance. Bourees are used to great effect, and the women sometimes seem to be ethereal spirits of another world. The dance employs beautiful classical formations. Da'von Doane and Ashley Murphy are extraordinary in Domine Deus, Rex Caelestis especially in the lifts and the final exit of this section. It was impossible to remain unmoved when, in the closing moments, the children line up downstage as the lights fade. The company faces the back and the children move upstage, arriving at the front of the lines, taking their place as the new generation of Harlem.

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Morales Dance Presents - For You

April 18, 2014

Quiet City An Evening of Traditional Modern Dance
The Ailey Citigroup Theater

Morales - Pleased 2 Meet UThough they've been working together since 1997, Morales Dance is new to me. Yet from the opening moments of their concert, they had me captivated. They presented classic works and premieres, danced in a unique artistic voice, which took me through a gamut of emotions. There were several dances that, once ended, I found myself wishing that they could start from the beginning and be performed all over again.

Quiet City, originally choreographed by Leni Wylliams, was danced by three couples to the Copeland piece of the same name. The movement is elegant, complementing the music so beautifully. Throughout the dance, there are passages in which the men strike poses that are sometimes static and unyielding, almost like trees, or like someone who has driven his lance to make a statement. The women, dressed in long floaty skirts, swirl around them. I loved the original movement, especially in the partnering, and I was so impressed by the Morales dancers, who move with an understated authority.

Tony Morales' duet Pleased 2 Meet U showcased the talents and charms of dancers Jessica Black and Karina Lesko. I especially liked the call and response motifs, and the interaction between the two women. The dance could be light hearted and kind of balletic at times before it transitioned seamlessly into a more forceful modern style.

Ablution is danced before projections of an image combining symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to a solemn and sometimes mournful accompaniment of JC Bach. Jerome Stigler performs this solo in ritualistic fashion. He is shirtless in a floor length robe, flexing and contracting, traveling and changing direction as if seeking communication (or communion?) with something ancient and sacred and elusive, or maybe even raising questions around faith. The closing moments of this dance are especially powerful.

Morales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales - For youMorales' Transitions, danced by Karina Lesko and Christopher Rudd, touched me deeply. With her hair long and loose, Lesko seems like a spirit who hovers around Rudd as he stands still, his back to the audience. She seems weightless and ethereal, like a being from an unseen world, and there is a stunning mystical quality to her movement. Rudd pays little attention to her, and only seems to do so out of curiosity. She lays on her back and her feet move up his spine. She seems to beckon to him, not as a lover but as something that has gotten under his skin, like a muse, or like an idea that he needs to come to terms with. The Ravel music and the movement of the dance are both so lush. There is something incredibly beautiful and magical to this dance.

Another emotion packed dance was Morales' Amor Brutal dedicated to the memory of his father, whose music inspired the piece. It tells the story of a couple who are swept apart by destiny. The stage is dark, with mother and father (danced by Karina Lesko and Antonio Fini) sitting on stools under spotlights at opposite ends, their three children (danced by Jessica Black, Elaine Gutierrez and Cassandra Lewis) in the shadows in the center. Everyone is dressed in dark colors, except for the mother, who stands out in red. She does not look at her partner as she dances with him, until the moment when their dance is about to end. When she does finally look at him, he walks away. Passions flare to the sound of pounding piano chords, violence ensues and the couple go their separate ways. The break up throws each member of the family off balance and Morales creates beautiful still images of the mother and her daughters as she rallies their support. The girls lift her high, as if they see her in an exalted position, like an angel or even like Mary. There is a happy passage in which father charms his daughters into a dance, and predictably the children try to bring him back to their mother. The closing moments of this dance are heartbreaking, no matter how familiar they might be in so many families.

Antonio Douthit-Boyd's solo performance of Morales' For You nearly drove me to tears. Set to Elton John's classic Your Song, Douthit-Boyd expresses his love in gorgeous understated gestures. He could stand still, extend his arm and make a modest gesture with his hand, yet it is packed with meaning and affection. I am old enough to remember when this song was in the charts and I must have heard it over a thousand times. But Douthit-Boyd's performance and Tony Morales' choreography allowed me to experience it as if with new ears, and to enjoy it on a deeper emotional level.

The evening closed with Scenes, inspired by Jose Limon dancer Ruth Currier. In Ms. Currier's obituary, Jennifer Dunning, writing for The New York Times, quoted Dance Magazine's Doris Hering as saying that Ms. Currier possessed "angelic grace" and "a sound sense of phrasing". This came through as Morales Dance, along with members of Ballet Forte, performed this breezy, lighthearted, joyful dance full of prances and jumps which to me seemed evocative of spring or rebirth. Though it sometimes used formal formations, the dance struck me as being earthy and plainspoken. I loved the sighing movement and the communal feeling in the opening section, which was also recalled in the last moments of the dance.

All Photos by Rachel Neville

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Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company - Open Rehearsal at Red Bean Studio

Friday, March 21, 2014

periapsis Red Bean Studio

On April 26 and 27, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will be presenting A Celebration of Live Music & Dance at the Salvatore Capezio Theatre at Peridance Center to mark their 25th Anniversary New York Season. This week Ms. Chen hosted an informal open rehearsal at Red Bean Studio, where she talked about her work and took questions from her guests. I love events like these because they go such a long way toward helping me, as an audience member, have a deeper appreciation of the work being presented. Based upon this small sampling of dance, I can tell you in all confidence that this looks like it will be a fantastic concert. Each dance will be performed to live musical accompaniment.

The company presented an excerpt from Ms. Chen’s Concrete Stream, to music by Kenji Bunch which will be performed live by The Ahn Trio. Part of this work involves Ms. Chen taking on the challenge of creating a “true physical integration”, not only between the dance and the music, but also between the dancers and the musicians. She made the deliberate decision to showcase the way that a cellist or violinist might move to bring expression to their music. She imagined the musicians seated in different corners of the stage while a vessel of water sits at the center. The dancers will flow like a stream around the musicians and the vessel. This dance contains such a beautiful vocabulary of movement, describing all the sensations one would feel while watching water, or being immersed in it, or maybe even being water. We see how a rush of water might affect a person’s balance, or how it might bring us back to our primitive origins, or how it might inspire us to prayer. There are gorgeous trills on the piano which sound like lovely little droplets of water. In one especially beautiful passage, the dancers roll softly over one another and across the floor on the diagonal, creating moving images of the stream itself. Ms. Chen also dramatizes the more aggressive aspects of water in strong athletic passages. There is wonderful chemistry among the dancers, beautiful counterpoint and partnering.

Whirlwind depicts the effects of an unseen outside force on a group or a landscape. The energy moves the dancers, not only through the physical world, but also from one dimension or passage through to another. As the dance opens, six dancers stand apart from one another on the diagonal, each facing the same direction. There is a distant drone in the music that conjures the feeling of a faraway energy drawing nearer. The dancers don’t leave their spots, yet they are drawn toward this energy or blown back by it. They remind me of a country field of tall grass rippling on the wind and the dance seems to breathe on its own. At times the movement is very slow and hypnotic, rising and falling and never stopping. I saw this piece performed at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts last winter and its spirit has stayed with me all this time. It was such a treat to see it again.

For their New York Season, the company will present the World Premiere of Not Alone, a work that Ms. Chen is still in the process of creating. Improvisation from the dancers figured heavily into this piece. They spoke with enthusiasm about their processes, including an exercise of improvisation in an art gallery, working out how to express through the body just how one approaches a wall and studies a painting. Maybe it’s a function of my having spent a lot of time in the subway, watching how others behave when they’re in their own secret worlds, or how they treat those around them -- but some of the groupings that I saw in this dance reminded me of formations of people that I’ve seen in the subway. I found the staging and the movement of this dance to be really original, very compelling and full of surprises. Each dancer seemed like a soloist with his or her own story to tell, even within the ensemble passages. I’m looking forward to seeing this dance when it’s set and performed in concert.

Ms. Chen was so down to earth and forthcoming as she talked about her work. I especially admired the ease with which she spoke about embracing the unpredictability that will come in the final days of rehearsal, especially concerning her decision to separate the players of the Ahn Trio on stage, and how this will work in terms of the musicians being able to hear one another.

Having seen this rehearsal, I’m reminded of how fond I am of this company. Ms. Chen’s work so beautifully incorporates elements of the unseen world and the natural world in movement that is so imaginative. Her dancers are like a dream -- each one is a strong and intensely focused versatile individual in his or her own right, yet the chemistry among them is really something to see.

Tickets are on sale now for Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s 25th Anniversary New York Season
Saturday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 3:00 p.m.
at the Salvatore Capezio Theater - 126 East 13th Street - New York, New York

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Periapsis Music & Dance - Collaborations

February 14, 2014

periapsis Kumble Theatre

Periapsis Music & Dance bridges the gap between living composers and choreographers. Artistic Director, composer and musician Jonathan Howard Katz collaborates with Artistic Director, choreographer and dancer Leigh Schanfein in creating original works. Their second season demonstrated their unique mission by having music played live on the stage as part of the dance performances. For this season, they also invited guest choreographers and composers.

periapsisThe program opened with a Periapsis piece titled Marionettefadendurcheinanderwalzer set to original music by Jonathan Howard Katz. The dancers move like marionettes, rising up on pointe and performing lovely phrases before turning limp and robotic, sinking on knocked knees, or collapsing to the floor. The gorgeous music veers back and forth from dreamy abstract atmospheres to pretty lyrical melodies. From this very first piece, all I could think about was how wonderful and special it was to have original music played live on stage and how well it worked with the contemporary ballet performance.

periapsisUrsula Verduzco presented the Benjamin Briones Ballet in the world premiere of Pushing Mud. For this piece, the piano is stationed at the back of the stage in one corner, while a cellist and violinist play in the opposite corner. This makes the diagonal across the stage a strong element in the composition of the dance -- all exits and entrances and much of the traveling seemed to move along that route. Ms. Verduzco dances the role of an outsider, one excluded from the group, either by her choice or theirs. She falls into place when the company fills the stage, but the dance describes her character as never quite managing to coalesce with the others. Her movement is sultry and dramatic with flamenco elements in the rolling gestures of her hands and wrists and the regal carriage of her chest and head. Her port de bras are luxurious and beautifully expressive. A strong actress, she can also conjure expressions of grief and frustration, both on her face and through her movement. The group travels together, sometimes at very close quarters, while she observes from the sidelines. There is a moody and somber feel to the music, perfectly complemented by the drama of the dance. I especially loved the sweep of the closing phrases of this piece.

periapsisunguarded also received its world premiere. The dance is choreographed by Tucker Davis, and performed by him and Denise Miller to live percussion played on stage by Sarah Mullins. The flirtation between the dancers is quirky, cute and very artistically done. I appreciated the cleverness with which the dance tied in to the music; a cymbal crash sounds to punctuate a humorous phrase of choreography or the movement explodes as the drums rumble. Ms. Miller and Mr Davis are full of personality. They don’t shy away when it comes to taking risks, and they make wonderful partners. The dance never seems to be taking itself seriously and yet it’s performed in such a strong and distinctive artistic voice.

The Unfinished Pattern is choreographed by Leigh Schanfein and performed by Periapsis. In the opening sequence, one dancer stands in a spotlight while another stands in shadows. The two perform their movement in unison, but the lighting creates two distinctly different atmospheres. Schanfein’s choreography is gorgeous and lush -- a ronde de jamb on the floor suddenly turns inward with a bent knee, and it feels as if the story being told has just taken an abrupt turn. The dance has a lovely rolling feeling against the percussive phrases in the music. There is lovely detail in unexpected places, using the shoulders, the wrists and the hands. The larger company is exciting to watch too. I was impressed by their technique, their artistry, and the heart with which they dance.

periapsisDance Theatre of Harlem’s Da’ Von Doane was named as one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch. His contemporary ballet Behind the Veil received its world premiere. The dance weaves through classical and contemporary movement, flowing with earthiness and elegance. A trio of bare chested men are muscular and sometimes aggressive, moving seamlessly through powerful explosive movement into slow controlled adagio phrases. They accompany Raven Barkley, who dances with great strength and power.

periapsisLut Ave Dontralus comes out of The Julliard School. Three vocalists take up different stations around the stage as they sing. Joseph Davis and Cleo Person, both dressed in white, perform a high energy modern duet which weaves around the vocalists. The dance is edgy, full of quick and sometimes aggressive movement, which changes direction rapidly. Ruth Howard’s choreography beautifully complements the details of the original composition created by Zachary Green.

periapsisThe program closed with Laid Upon the Children, based on Romeo and Juliet, specifically the party scene and the crypt scene. This piece is another collaboration between the artistic directors of Periapsis. Mr. Katz talked about Ms. Schanfein’s wanting to present swing dance in the party scene, and his taking on the challenge to compose a swing section, even though he wasn’t used to composing jazz.

The first section, Too Like the Lightning includes staccato movement with flexed feet and hands. Couples travel the floor in unaccustomed ways. They weave through well recognized ballet phrases then move in new directions, sometimes in parody of the stiff court dances that we sometimes see in classical ballet. The swing section is great fun, and the dancers seemed to enjoy performing it as much as the audience enjoyed watching it. It is in this scene where Romeo and Juliet first see each other across the crowded room.

The crypt scene, Grace for grace, is heartbreaking and beautifully performed by Tucker Davis. A strong actor, Mr. Davis lets us feel his grief without any great displays of histrionics. He dances with the lifeless body of his Juliet (Hannah Weber), dragging her, crawling under her, trying to get her to embrace him, doing everything he can think of in futile hope of animating her. A very emotional and sad piece, well acted and danced, especially at the very end.

I love the mission that Periapsis Music & Dance has undertaken, to bring living composers together with choreographers and dancers. It is carried out beautifully by the company’s very capable ADs. Though they are a young company, they appear to have assembled a good sized repertoire in the two years that they’ve been working together. I found the choreography and dancing to be very compelling and the music to be magnificent. I look forward to seeing where they take things from here.

All photos by Rachel Neville

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Dzul Dance - Mexico Maya

Friday, January 24, 2014

dzul Baruch Performing Arts Center

Mexico Maya is a gorgeous atmospheric evening length concert performed in a unique artistic voice by Dzul Dance. Choreographed by Artistic Director Javier Dzul, the evening begins with an ancient Maya story and moves through works focused on contemporary Mexico, Cuba and America.

Memories of Maya tells a Maya creation story. Bird songs and drums play as dancer and aerialist Robin Taylor Dzul spins on silks high above the floor, her posture regal, like a creature of the jungle. Light filters in as if from beneath a thick canopy of trees. Dancers cross the floor, their movement low to the ground, their focus sharp with the awareness of what’s around them. Noriko Naraoka bourees on pointe and carries her arms with the grace of a wild bird. The women lay on their stomachs, arching their backs, raising their heads, their arms and legs swaying like branches on a tree responding to a gust of wind, their bodies moving like those of animals alert to the sounds of the forest. When the men lift the women, they seem less like partners and more like another exotic being with two torsos and multiple limbs.

In the closing section, Dzul appears dressed only in bike shorts, hanging upside down on silks, personifying the forbidden fruit hanging on a tree. Contortionist Anna Venizelos works on the floor, the princess who will give in to the temptation of the fruit. As Dzul descends to earth, she wraps herself around him, his spirit entering her body which, according to legend, gives birth to the first human. In the hands of this company, the aerial tricks and the contortion is executed with such artistry and such heart that they seem intrinsic to the dance, helping it to move in unaccustomed dimensions.

Memories of Mexico is danced in festive costumes to a Cumbia beat. The faces of the dancers are intense with focus as they strike sharp poses. Then hips undulate and isolations complement the music. Again, we see the company performing lifts that are far from the beaten path, each one beautiful in motion and composition. The dance closes as the dancers all come together as if to create one wild entity. The familiar driving carnival drumbeat of Sergio Mendes’ Magalenha fills the theatre for P’a chi. Javier Dzul dances this piece alone. He is bare chested and he hardly travels, but his muscles dance, rippling in isolations along his back, curving in his shoulder blades, rippling in his torso and his arms.

dzulMemories of Life & Love describes Dzul’s own personal journey out of the jungle and into Mexico. With Anne O’Donnell, he performs It Is Hard For Me To Forget You. Ms. O’Donnell is lovely as she stands on a chair behind the seated Dzul, unfurling arms and legs to the accompaniment of piano music and words spoken about absence and longing. So much emotion is expressed through her body every time that she arches her back. A second woman joins them for The Air and The Wind. The three work together as if they are one body whose breath rises and falls. With So Young An, Dzul dances Little Thorn, an unusual and beautiful pas de deux in which An melts across his back and shoulders, her face pained with longing, her arms sometimes fluttering. Dzul leaves, and Ms. An performs Letting Go alone on pointe, I am so moved by the emotion expressed through her body in big expansive movements and in smaller things, like a glance over her shoulder.

Tension builds in Revolution. The company is fierce and they dance with palpable intensity, which seemed to suggest the energy of the EZLN and the uprising in Mexico led by Indigenous peoples twenty years ago. The tension resolves into Mambo, a sensual ballroom piece danced by Robin Taylor Dzul, Stephany Dzul and Nelly Patron with Javier Dzul. The women are sexy and flirtatious. Mr. Dzul starts out as a spectator, but is drawn into the dance. This piece is great fun and it shows a humorous light hearted side to the company.

The music and spoken word narration for Thinking of You is full of longing and heartache. Dressed in magenta, Robin Taylor Dzul steps on to a wood frame suspended on chains and she ascends. There is a floating celestial feel to her movement and the vocalist is nearly crying in sorrow. On the floor, Mr. Dzul dances with Ms. Naraoka. They perform this moody pas de deux separately, finally touching at the end of the song.

The evening ends with Freedom, which includes a breathtaking aerial performance by Mr. Dzul complete with falls from the ceiling which stop only inches above the floor. His sudden sharp flips backward, his drops, and the artistry of his choreography had the audience gasping.

This evening affected me deeply. The dances transition seamlessly from tribal movement to modern to contemporary ballet on pointe before leaving the ground in breath taking aerial movement. Javier Dzul’s choreography and his company work with an uncommon honesty and kinship with the natural world. Dzul has lived an uncommon life, having been born and raised in the ancestral Maya lands of Campeche. In a recent interview he spoke of coming from a family of priests who preserve Maya culture. He grew up naked, among animals, as part of the earth, with the jungle as his house. When, as a young man, he moved into the formal dance world, he felt that the energy of his tribal dances didn’t connect with the audience. He went on to study ballet and modern dance, and to pursue a career performing the works of other choreographers. It was in the founding of his own company that he was able to bring together the sacred energy of indigenous dance and its reverence for earth with the beauty and expression of modern dance and ballet, and have it connect with an audience.

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APAP at Peridance

Sunday, January 12, 2014

APAP at Peridance Program B - 6:30 p.m.

Peridance’s APAP showcase never disappoints. They always put together a diverse program of interesting companies and compelling choreography.

This year’s Program B opened with Mettin Movement’s Aeon, an abstract modern piece filled with original movement, especially in the arms and hands. The dancers are expressive and musical as the choreography weaves soft port des bras set against abrupt contractions. I especially liked the energy of the group in the unison sections.

Heather Cooper and Brian Fisher of San Francisco based Mark Foehringer Dance Project, danced a wistful romantic pas de deux titled Another Time. The dancers remain at close quarters throughout, alternately pulling away from each other while still holding hands, then coming back together with gestures of trust and intimacy. The adagio movement is lovely and liquid with one gesture flowing beautifully into the next.

Nikki Holck and Natalie Deryn Johnson of NatalieInMotion performed an excerpt from KEYp me. Both women wear costumes adorned with keys that chime when they move, in the same way that a Native jingle dress would do. Personal spoken word conversations are voiced over the music and the dancers react to the statements being made. The atmosphere of the piece, the overheard conversations, the tension, and the presence of the keys made me think of all the contrasting interactions that go on at any given moment inside an apartment building in the city. I liked the originality of the piece and the use of the keys.

APAP at PeridanceMystic Ballet presented Imaginary Love. Ting-Yu Tsai personified the euphoria of being in love, her face radiant, her movement swooning. She performed a stylish and romantic pas de deux before a trio of men danced a muscular ensemble piece around her partner, complete with dramatic lifts. This was wonderful theatrical dancing, exciting to watch.

TAKE Dance’s Salaryman was one of my favorite evening length pieces for all of 2012. So I was thrilled to see his company perform the excerpt Breaking News. The dancers, who remind me of rush hour commuters, move swiftly, their focus turned to their newspapers as their sense of alarm builds. Take uses a phrase in which the dancers tap their chests, a shoulder, a hip, and as it’s repeated throughout the dance, its pace getting frantically fast, it seems to be transmitting a message of its own throughout the consciousness of the group. I love the intensity of this piece and the fearlessness of Take’s dancers and his choreography.

Abarukas is new to me. Their Lullaby to Mr. Adam really knocked me out. An abstract piece choreographed by Yoshito Sakuraba, it’s performed on a dark stage with dancers dressed in black, moving to a stark drumbeat as the piece opens. The company’s work is unique and artistically inventive. Wisps of a story seem to emerge. I was especially taken by a passage in which a group manipulates one character, and when she succumbs, a second falls with her, as if to show how every action ripples out into the world and influences others. This short excerpt left me longing to see the entire piece. The dancers and the choreography are strong, soulful and expressive. I’m looking forward to seeing more work from this company.

APAP at PeridanceParsons veteran Patricia Kenny and her company Dance Collection presented Quanta, choreographed by Irada Dejassi and Katherine Hooper. The women make a particularly dramatic entrance in this piece, lifting one dancer who continues to tumble through the air almost like a pinwheel as the group crosses the floor. I especially liked the larger group sections, which were quite powerful. They felt to me as if they had a strong influence from Anna Sokolow. The unison movement and the composition were electrifying.

Portugal’s Vortice Dance Company’s excerpt from Your Majesties really resonated with me. Performed by artistic directors and choreographers Claudia Martins and Rafael Carrico, the piece opens with a recording of Barak Obama’s acceptance speech to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Ms. Martins, dressed in a bright red suit, carries a handgun which remains trained on an imaginary enemy, or on Mr. Carrico’s character. There are moments when she seems poised to point the gun at her own temple. Mr. Carrico’s character, barechested and dressed in jeans, works to disarm her, emotionally and literally, even as she seems to be reflexively hell bent on retrieving the gun. Their adagio pas de deux is moving and heartfelt. I’d love to see the longer piece from which this excerpt comes. It’s especially gratifying when a dance can make a political statement with such beauty.

An excerpt from Emery LeCrone’s Divergence bore the choreographer’s unique contemporary ballet trademark. A lovely pas de deux danced on pointe, the piece is uncluttered, showcasing ballerina Kaitlyn Gilliland’s beautiful lines and swooping penches. Alfredo Solivan provided strong partnering and the two moved together in a fluid and lush fashion with phrasing and poses that are off the beaten path.

Teddy Tedholm presented Hometown Girls, a piece that was wonderfully quirky yet still easily accessible. He danced with an ensemble of girls in white tutus, black bra tops and black socks whose movement was at times robotic, and at times limp like that of a rag doll. The dance was hip, whimsical and endearing, understated without a lot of bravura, but so entertaining. It would have been at home on a competition stage, yet it carried the humor and sophistication that could make it work on a concert stage as well. I especially liked the attention Tedholm gave to the smallest details and transitions. This was great fun to watch.

Peridance Contemporary Dance Company’s Infinity is a beautiful adagio piece set to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. Four couples dance, sometimes in unison, sometimes taking turns in the spotlight. The partnering is so strong -- each couple moves together as if they were one entity. There's a timeless and classical feel behind the contemporary movement. Some of the group formations had the echoes of traditional reels. The soft lighting and the muted colors of the costumes give this piece a lovely dreamy quality.

The program closed with Flight, a series of three solos choreographed by Jae Man Joo, performed by Jourdan Epstein, Samantha Figgins and Terk Waters of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. The first solo, an adagio, stayed low to the floor and seemed to voice frustration at being held down. Even as the light fades to black, the dancer sits up straight, only to melt into a deep contraction, as if being pulled back down by gravity, maybe against her will. In the second section, the dancer is on his feet, moving quickly, almost frantically. His balance is challenged, and I loved the fight in his big grand ronde, which resembled a martial arts wheelhouse kick. The dance closes with a woman running off the stage, her arms rippling as if she has taken off.

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Vicky Simegiatos Dance Company presents The Nutcracker

December 22, 2013 - Matinee

VSDC The Nutcracker The Historic St. George Theatre

The Vicky Simegiatos Dance Company was impressive when I first saw them perform back in 1995. It surprised and delighted me to find that ballet students in a Brooklyn community had come together to form a substantial ballet company. Artistic Director Vicky Simegiatos and Ballet Mistress Matina Simegiatos have assembled a group of eager youngsters and an impressive corps de ballet, who receive their training free of charge in the company's scholarship program.

The VSDC has come a long way since 1995. This year they performed the Nutcracker to capacity crowds at the historic St. George Theatre on Staten Island. Guest artists Rebecca Krohn and Jared Angle, principal dancers of New York City Ballet, joined them in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Vicky and Matina Simegiatos collaborated on choreography for the full length ballet.

VSDC The NutcrackerThe VSDC's Nutcracker has long been one of my favorites because of its intimacy, the likes of which I've never seen rivaled by elite companies. The dancers of the VSDC manage to create this atmosphere without sacrificing professionalism and clean technique. Their disciplined training is evident in their performance.

Their warmth could be felt from the opening moments of the ballet when we meet Clara and Fritz (played by Angelina and Athan Sporek), along with their parents Dr. and Mrs. Silberhaus (played by Voytek Sporek and Matina Simegiatos) as they prepare for the arrival of their party guests. Throughout the evening, even as they executed the steps and the formal staging of the dance, Angelina and Athan never lost that guileless innocence of childhood. It was as if both children had become their characters.

The Party Scene is a display of colorful costuming, gleeful mischievous children, amusing childhood games, and dolls coming to life. Patricia Casola's Herr Drosselmeyer is charming with great comic timing, as he directs the party and engages the children. When Fritz is called to account for breaking Clara's Nutcracker, Athan Sporek stumbles and briefly falls, his gaze cast up the adults around him, his face the very image of childlike trust and penitence.

VSDC The NutcrackerAngelina Sporek's performance was especially moving in the nightmare scene. As she crosses the floor, at first vaguely aware of the presence of the mice, she casts a glance over her shoulder, as if sizing up the situation and trying to figure out her next move. She seemed unlike an actress on stage, and more like a child being made to confront something fearful. She moves forward thoughtfully with an undercurrent of hesitation.

Dance of the Snowflakes is a standout piece, marked by beautiful choreography performed by the corps de ballet at a breakneck tempo. White tulle skirts swirl and paper snowflakes fall. The dancers fly as if blown on a frigid gust of north wind. They gather as if in drifts which break open in kaleidoscopic patterns. It takes a big dose of stamina for these dancers to get through this dance, yet the girls never break character. I can't count the number of times I've seen this dance performed by this company, still it never fails to make me tremble at its beauty.

VSDC The NutcrackerLauren Twomley brought fire and passion to the Spanish dance. She has a poised and powerful stage presence which demands the audience's attention. Alexis Stefanou's supple movement, beautiful extensions, solemn focus and unwavering balance stood out in her performance of the Arabian dance, one of the audience favorites. Kira Farberov and Magdalena Palac were exuberant as soloists in the Russian Dance, rousing the audience to share in their enthusiasm. It was such fun to watch them. Astrid Castillo and Samantha Rivera were adorable in the Chinese dance. Lovely Jessica Mena and Eleni Sarris moved with regal ballerina grace and sweetness in Marzipan. Joseph Beltre executed an exciting series of turns and leaps as the Soldier doll in the Party Scene, his attack as forceful as the music.

VSDC The NutcrackerWaltz of the Flowers has become another signature piece for this company, a celebration of beauty, color and music. Pink tulle skirts sway like petals as the dancers create lovely formations which perfectly complement the familiar score. The dancers' movement is so lyrical that even as one watches from the audience, it's hard to sit still -- we feel the urge to sway along with the dancers and the music. As Dew Drop, Jennifer Pauker is fierce in her strength and technique, moving effortlessly through a never ending series of turns and challenging transitions. She makes it all look easy.

Rebecca Krohn brings a unique innocence to the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She seemed less like a big sister or a prima ballerina, and more like an adult version of Clara, which reminded me of Ratmansky's interpretation of the ballet. Her movement is stripped of pretense, performed with an uncommon honesty that I found to be so endearing. Jared Angle partners her flawlessly, showcasing her presence, before delighting the audience with a brilliant sequence of turns in his solo.

This performance marked a pinnacle in a long series of achievements for the Vicky Simegiatos Dance Company. It will be so exciting to see where they take things from here.

All photos by Kim Max Photo

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Crossroads - Hip Hop and Hoops: An Indigenous Experience

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hip Hop Hoops Frank Waln, Samsoche Sampson, Ike Hopper
Chen Dance Centert

The Chen Dance Center in New York City's Chinatown is one of my favorite dance venues. There is a welcoming atmosphere to the place. While young dance students congregate and laugh together in the main hall, guests receive a warm greeting in a reception area. A spread of soft drinks and Chinese appetizers is offered. Artistic Directors H.T. Chen and Dian Dong mill among the guests, engaging them in conversation. This friendly interaction continues during performances in their theater.

H.T. Chen had been attending a conference when he first saw young Lakota hip hop artist Frank Waln performing his original compositions. Waln's spoken word poems carry the same edge as Eminem's work, drawing upon personal problems within his family, and the struggles and resilience of his people in the face of colonization. Waln doesn't pull any punches. It's a very rare occasion when we in America ever talk about the truth of our history, or about our current relationship with the peoples of the First Nations. But right out of the gate, Waln's music schools us. His earthy plainspoken songs tell the story of witnessing domestic violence, being abandoned by his father at the age of four, and witnessing the hard work his mother was left to do on her own. Waln said that in younger years he felt very introverted and he couldn't talk about these things. But through his music, he was able to tell the story. His mission is to bring happiness, health and respect to Indigenous people.

Chen invited Waln to do a residency at the Dance Center. This set up a cross cultural dialogue between the two unique and marginalized communities -- that of Native peoples with those who live in Chinatown. The goal was to bring solidarity and awareness to both communities. Before receiving a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend Columbia College in Chicago, Waln had never left the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He'd never visited a place like New York City's Chinatown. Many of the young Chinese students at the Chen Center don't often leave their Chinatown neighborhood either, and they'd never before met Native people or heard their music or seen them dance. The residency opened communication between the two groups, and resulted in the performance of Crossroads: Hip Hop & Hoops - An Indigenous Experience.

Hip Hop HoopsThe program opened with an original dance and poem performed by a group of Chen Dance Center students, while Samsoche Sampson played the wood flute. As they moved, the children recited a poem they'd created about the American experience of emigration. They named the countries from which their people had come, the type of work that their ancestors had done, and the things that the children do now that they're here. They mimed to the story and struck poses reminiscent of those seen in Chinese artwork. They ended with the sentiment, "We should all live peacefully."

Throughout the evening, Waln alternately spoke about his experiences of growing up on the Rosebud Lakota reservation, and then the shock of leaving it to attend college in a big city. Though he spoke candidly about his own personal pain and the struggle of his people, it seemed to always be from a position of strength, from a personal responsibility he felt to talk about the portrayal of Natives in colonized society, no matter how strong the resistance to such conversation within American media and formal education. His words were spoken with great use of rhythm and grooves to the accompaniment of the wood flute, and also to pre-recorded tracks mixing samples of traditional Lakota music.

As Waln sang, Sampson danced with a series of eight hoops. The hoops were rolled on the floor, spun on his arms, and ultimately woven together and around his body in a series of amazing formations. When joined together across his back and along the length of his arms, he looked like a magnificent bird. He laced the hoops together to form what looked like a sacred vessel. All the hoop work is done while Sampson performs a series of two steps or turns on one leg.

Hip Hop HoopsOnondaga fancy dancer Ike Hopper joined Sampson, both men dressed in colorful regalia complete with big headpieces, collars and bustles full of ribbons and streamers which flew on the breeze as the men performed turns and Native dances. For the final dance, the Native fancy dancers were joined by a traditional Chinese Lion's Head dancer and a Taiwanese Diety dancer. It all made for a dazzling spectacle of color and movement across cultures.

Waln's work is powerful. It is of the utmost importance that his brand of truth telling be heard and seen by those of us who live in big cities like New York City, where there is little to no awareness of the First Peoples who live on this continent. Not only is it crucial that we listen to stories like Waln's, but it's every bit as crucial that we hear them told in the voices of those who survived extermination, and those who live with and rise above the effects of colonization and forced assimilation. I'm grateful to the Chen Center for presenting this program, as I am to Waln, Sampson and Hopper for their words, music and dance. We need to hear and see more of this type of work.

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Cinderella - Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cinderella San Francisco Ballet

Christopher Wheeldon takes a decidedly different approach to his production of Cinderella. He shows facets of the characters which don't always come up in the traditional telling of the story. And he does not shy away from the darker aspects of the story or the sadness of some passages in the Prokofiev score. Above all, he uses stage craft and special effects to an enormous advantage, making the ballet accessible and attractive to those who might not otherwise choose to attend a ballet.

Based on the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella fairytale, the story tugs at our hearts from the earliest moments, before the scrim is even raised. We meet a happy family -- Cinderella as a young girl, playing with her mother and father. Her mother suddenly takes ill. As she is ailing, her husband holds her and promenades, with little Cinderella holding on behind him. As her mother succumbs and ascends to the heavens, Cinderella is lifted and reaches out to her, but their separation by death has begun. When the girl weeps at her mother's grave, a tree grows, borne of her tears. The tree itself becomes a major character in the story, protecting her and embodying her mother's spirit.

There is no fairy godmother in this telling of the story. Instead, Cinderella is protected by Four Fates, men who swirl around her and come to her aid, carry umbrellas when she visits her mother's grave in the rain, assist her with her chores and lift her when she's grieving. Wheeldon's prince grows from a waggish boy to a rebellious young man uninterested in his royal responsibilities. He is often accompanied by an equally mischievous friend, Benjamin.

Vanessa Zahorian's Cinderella can be girlish or wise beyond her years. She is grounded and she moves with purpose. Though she can appear to be lost in a dream, she's never overtly pouty or swooning. Davit Karapetyan's Prince Guilliame is a bit more understated and sometimes eclipsed by the presence of Hansuke Yamamoto who played Benjamin with great charm.

Shannon Marie Rugani played Cinderella's stepmother with sharp comic timing. For her, and for the step sisters (Sasha DeSola and Clara Blanco), there is always something of a flat note present in their choreography -- it's just slightly off and it always gets a laugh.

While there is no bravura in the choreography, there is plenty of sweetness and loveliness present when Ms. Zahorian and Mr. Karapetyan dance together. When the prince and Cinderella first meet, he is disguised as a beggar and Cinderella does not know his real identity. Still they sway together, barely traveling, and we can feel the attraction that has ignited between the two of them. Their pas de deux passages are most romantic.

Cinderella prepares for the ball in a stunning and atmospheric scene, staged by Basil Twist, which takes place beneath the full grown tree. Small groups representing the seasons dance with the Four Fates. Their costumes are gorgeous and the movement is gentle, very much mimicking the natural world. When the Fates slide on the ground, it's as if sledding on the snow. They jump in a la second, and they look like snowflakes themselves. As the scene builds, the tree truly looks as if its blowing in the breeze and that a storm might be on the way. The leaves come lower to the stage as if they're heavy with rain. The most spectacular effect of the evening happens when Cinderella emerges in her dress for the ball, which has a train that could take up half the stage. In a feat of amazing staging, her train turns into the coach which she rides to the ball.

The ballroom scene is a never ending swirl of dancers and colorful costumes in turquoise, navy and purple. Everything is bold and nothing fades into the background. Even when the soloists are performing, the party guests are usually dancing too. They barely rest throughout the entire scene -- their dances sometimes creating lanes along which the principals travel.

Act Three finds the prince and Benjamin dealing with a never ending line of chairs filled with women (and a man and a puppet and a knight in armor) who want to try on the gold slipper. Moments of this scene reminded me of the bench dance Our Favorite Son from Will Rogers Follies. The line eventually winds its way into Cinderella's kitchen and her stepmother isn't beyond whipping out a hammer and attempting to pound the slipper into place on to her daughter's foot.

Wheeldon's Cinderella is a wonderfully theatrical piece, a delight to the eye, with strong appeal to the ballet fan as well as to a general audience.

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Bala Sole - Visages

October 24, 2013

Bala Sole Ailey Citigroup Theater

Young dancers who set out on the journey toward a performance career learn early on that the dance world can be a cruel place which excludes many whose hearts are full of love for the art and whose commitment to their work is fierce. When a young dancer stands before the gatekeepers of dance companies and conservatories, they soon find out that their heart and commitment will only carry them so far, especially if they’re a very tall girl, or a short man, or flat footed, or curvy, or a person of color, or someone north of age thirty.

When discouraged, overlooked and rejected by the gatekeepers due to his height and his age, BalaSole Artistic Director Roberto Villanueva circumvented the obstacles. Not only did he choose to start his own company, but he decided to focus his company’s mission on providing a stage for those whom the dance world is quick to silence. At the end of the evening, when his company of ten stood shoulder to shoulder to take their bows, it was evident that very few of them resembled one another. Their program, Visages, showcased a variety of solos created by dancers who were celebrating the very traits that might have otherwise marginalized them in another dance company.

The company danced Chapter 10 to open the program. It’s a short piece set to music by Haydn. It opens with the dancers lined up from downstage to upstage. They alternately step out of the line and look back at those standing in the line. To me, this seemed to celebrate their defiance of the exclusionary rules of dance. They seemed to look at one another with delight, to celebrate that they were working in an atmosphere which sanctioned their differences.

Bala SoleDressed in black leotards, they perform phrases with pretty ballet elements, woven together with modern contractions and sharp port des bras which lift and open the chest, as if the individuals are embracing possibilities. It’s in the unison passages that we can see the variety of expressions with which steps can be executed. The dance was created and rehearsed over the course of six days, as a method for the dancers to “get to know one another”.

Falling Together, Falling Apart seemed like a valiant battle against gravity, choreographed by Teal Darkenwald and danced with strong emotion by Christa Hines. She rises gracefully from the floor as if lead by her outstretched hand. She seems stricken as she turns on the floor before sailing with ease into a standing turn. The entire piece seems like an act of determination to triumph above the pull of troubles, setbacks or enemies. We feel her frustration as she pounds on the floor, yet she seems uplifted and especially expressive when executing lush port des bras phrases.

Sining has a lovely Japanese atmosphere. The piece was choreographed and performed by Janina Clark, danced to Sakura performed on koto. Ms. Clark is a beautiful dancer, and her movement is so clean as her arms twist and flutter, and she strikes poses that we may have seen in traditional Japanese artwork.

I especially loved Revealed, danced and choreographed by Steven E. Brown, who (like me) is 56 years old. The movement of his piece reminded me of some of the work that I’ve seen done by Eiko and Koma. Brown works very slowly, mostly above the waist, his focus on the smallest details of the movement rather than on big sweeping gestures and bravura. From beginning to end, the dance travels about five feet, yet it takes us on a journey of controlled strength. It isn’t until the final moments of the dance that Brown shows his face directly to the audience, while rising up on releve. For me, this piece seemed to illustrate the need for companies with a mission like BalaSole’s, and the reasons why a dance career needn’t end while the dancer is still young.

I’ve seen Ursula Verduzco’s Nothing to Hide several times in the past year. The piece is malleable and it seems to tell different aspects of the story with each performance. For me, this performance was the most powerful one yet, packing the deepest emotion. Ms. Verduzco’s movement seemed especially lovely, especially controlled, especially lyrical. Her arms are beautiful and expressive. There are a few moments when she seems to be struggling to take a stand or to find her voice, but she is shut down, usually by her own will. It is only in the last moment of the dance that she finally opens her mouth wide. I was taken by the look on her face -- a combination of strangling fear and defiant determination to move ahead, to move beyond the fear.

Jason Garcia Ignacio choreographed and performed My Brother’s Keeper to music by Couperin. Mr. Ignacio is so exciting to watch. He has fierce strength, great control and a very supple back. The first section of this piece plays with contemporary movement against the steadiness of the baroque accompaniment. The second section seems to take its lead from the music. At moments Ignacio seems to travel with an invisible partner. The dance winds up where it began, only this time Ignacio looks sharply to his right in the moment before the blackout, as if acknowledging another presence in the dance.

Sensational flamenco vocalist Julia Patinella sang a capella for Go To The Limits of Your Longing. Dancer and choreographer Anna Brown Massey is seated opposite her. Compared with the tremendous emotion exuded by Patinella, Ms. Massey’s movement is compact, smaller, and limited. As with some of the other pieces in the evening, she seems to be demonstrating the restraint imposed by society upon the dancer who wants to explode and take off. As Ms. Patinella rises to her feet, belting our her song, Ms. Massey unfurls her arms and legs with caution and self conscious reserve. She never quite completes her extension, as if deliberately withholding her energy, rather than actually taking the same risks as the vocalist.

Distancia opens with dancer/choreographer Katherine Alvarado confronting the audience directly. Deep in a controlled grand plie, she stares straight at us with an intense focus. But as the violin music fills the air, she seems to drift off into a trance, her long hair cascading, her attention wandering, her head bobbing gently to the side. Perhaps she’s falling into a dream. Her outstretched arm initiates a traveling phrase and then a series of chaine turns. At the end of the dance, she looks around, as if having returned to consciousness and regaining her bearings.

Body Rebellion was a favorite piece of mine. The stage lighting becomes bright white as choreographer and dancer Delphina Parentiv turns on her shoulder and initiates a series of interesting and original phrases. She has the stage presence of a rock star. Her hips are loose and she consistently surprised me by taking the movement further than I’d have expected it go. Her musicality is strong and her phrases join together seamlessly. The closing moments of this piece were especially endearing, as Ms. Parentiv covers her mouth, cocks an ear to hear, then turns an imaginary key to her own heart.

The final solo, Seconds Remain The Same, is choreographed and performed by Artistic Director Roberto Villanueva. Though he said he was 43 and felt as if he was 83, none of that was in evidence when he danced. His stage presence is commanding. Though the piece seemed to be abstract, his strength, control and amazing flexibility seemed to tell a compelling story.

The evening closed with a piece called To Be Determined, which showed some further development upon the opening piece. This time the dance unfolded into a series of trios which teamed together various company members with a wide sweep of ages, builds and styles.

It’s always wonderful to see the work of artists who drive their lances and stake their claims, regardless of what the gatekeepers have to say about them, based only on their physical appearance. In every other culture, all members of the community are encouraged to participate in the dance. It’s good to see this spirit whenever it surfaces in the western world.

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Benjamin Briones Ballet - Choreographers Residency and Performance
A Full Night of Repertoire

September 20, 2013

ballet nextSteps on Broadway

I always look forward to seeing new works by Benjamin Briones, Ursula Verduzco, and the choreographers and dancers with whom they work. Their programs always feature a strong ballet and Latin influence. Their work stands out in a world where technique and tricks are often held in highest esteem. Briones and company present works that focus on reaching the viewer’s heart, and they find a surprising variety of styles and pathways with which to do this.

The performance took place in the corner studio on the third floor of Steps. When the room was darkened, the night time city became the backdrop, made mystical by the light of the full Harvest Moon. It seemed an appropriate setting for the opening piece, titled All That Remains, choreographed by Briones. Somber and reflective, the dance addresses feelings of loss and loneliness. Six women dressed in gray wander the floor to a classical guitar accompaniment. No one is smiling. From time to time, they cast questioning or wistful glances at one another, or move in unison for a few phrases. Lucia Campoy’s solo is weighted with an undercurrent of heartache as she reaches out or lays her hand over her chest. But in the final section, when the women dance together, they seem resigned to their fate, and there is now a sense of strength emerging alongside their sorrow. The choreography never becomes contrived -- it remains elegant and straightforward. In the closing moments of the dance, the women line up and move forward, maybe even as a community, then they suddenly look up in unison for a moment before the blackout. Briones is masterful in his use of small gestures like these, which sing the praises of the human spirit. I appreciate the seamless transitions with which Briones’ choreography suggests the strength and wisdom which can emerge from hardship.

ballet next Sarah Rodak danced an excerpt from Vera Huff’s Five Ninas, a suite set to different songs by Nina Simone. For Wild is the Wind, Rodak seems to embody the spirit of love itself blown along on the wind. She is rolled along the floor. She slowly rises, then rides the wind back down to earth. There is a beautiful elemental feel to this piece as the movement swells and subsides. Rodak rises, feet planted on the floor, before being swept up in a gust of chaine turns across the floor, until the dance closes in a dramatic stormy ending. Assistant choreographer Jordan Fife Hunt spoke about stressing the importance of relationship in his work with Huff. As I watched Rodak move, she seemed to personify the elements of a relationship itself, rather than the individuals who were in the relationship.

A Straight Line of Two Circles, choreographed by Felix Aarts, shifts the energy of the program abruptly from the romantic to the abstract. The dancers wear short clear plastic raincoats over their leotards. There is a feeling of unrest as they scurry from side to side or venture upstage with their hands trembling. At times I wondered if they were portraying the frantic and futile “busy-ness” of our society. The movement of the hands are prominently featured. One woman appears to be counting, taking inventory. Another looks as if she’s polishing furniture. Another holds her trembling hand to her forehead, maybe as if to describe a frantic thought process. Aarts said that his intention is to challenge the viewer to come up with their own narrative. I found it surprising that he conceived the dance with the dancers and found the music for it later -- he said that he’d changed the music for this piece four days before the performance. He wanted to find music to illustrate the movement, rather than the other way around.

ballet next Ursula Verduzco performed her dance Nothing to Hide, which I’d seen and reviewed in different incarnations at various festivals. I’d never before seen her perform the solo herself, so it was remarkable to witness the level of emotion she was able to summon, even though this performance seemed scaled down for the smaller floor, in comparison to earlier ones that included a set. Verduzco’s hair is worn long and sometimes acts as a screen to hide behind, or it flows wildly to symbolize her anguish. She slaps the floor in frustration. She deftly dramatizes the struggle to find one’s voice and to make a statement with it.

Briones’ Lights On tells the story of a couple who move from love to hostility to remorse and back to love, as if on an endless loop. The red in their costumes seemed to personify the fire of their passions, both destructive and loving. As the lights come up, we see the couple hand in hand, leaning away from each other, pulling apart, until the woman lets go and the man falls to the floor. An argument ensues. She escalates. He outdoes her. Tension builds until she vents her frustration by slapping his face. She knows that she’s gone too far and her remorse is instantaneous. Contrite, she approaches him. Their truce is demonstrated as they dance an electrifying pas de deux. There is strong chemistry between dancers Kara Walsh and Taylor Kindred. Their partnering appears to be effortless, with beautiful ballet technique. But I was most impressed by the sweep of emotions that they were able to conjure, not only with facial expressions and mime, but with the movement of their bodies, with the unfolding of an extended leg, or with the trust of a lift. Again, the expression of Briones’ work moves deftly and invisibly from one emotion to the next, through love to antagonism to regret to reconciliation.

The program closed with Megan Phillipp’s Divided By Three Verduzco portrayed a woman who seemed to be haunted by two alter egos, danced by Lucia Campoy and Yeong Ju Son. I really liked the compositions that Phillipp created by using formations of three. In a passage where the three women sat in a row of chairs, Verduzco bolts upright in the center, while the dancer to her right sits upside down, head toward the floor and feet reaching up, and the dancer to her left lays her head in Verduzco’s lap, pinning her in place. Or the recurring theme where Verduzco stands at the head of the line and the arms of the other two dancers come out behind her, as if they were her own limbs, holding her back. As tension builds, the accompaniment of a piece by Philip Glass keeps whirling and whirling. I especially loved the purple costumes with tulle skirts which were used for this piece.

The friendliness and hospitality of this company was clear in the way that connected with the audience after the performance. They hosted a Q&A, and seemed genuinely interested in removing the barrier between artist and audience. To elaborate on the words of Jordan Fife Hunt, they acknowledge that the performance doesn't exist within the dancer -- rather it exists in the relationship between the dancers and the audience. As Briones told the audience, any involvement with the production on our part “keeps the art of dance alive”.

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Open Rehearsal with Ballet Next

August 8, 2013

ballet nextBallet Next
Residency at Kingsborough Performing Arts Center
Open Rehearsal
August 8, 2013
Photos and video courtesy of Ballet Next

When Ballet Next’s Artistic Director Michele Wiles launched into her first effort at choreography, she began by working in her socks. After years of performing classical and contemporary ballets en pointe, she wanted to take the pointe shoes off. This approach seems to personify Ballet Next’s mission -- exploring the art of ballet in a new way. Her company is doing a residency at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, and throughout an Open Rehearsal, she provided the audience with a glimpse into her process.

She told us that she’d changed her choice of music three times before finding her groove with Infra 4 and 5 by Max Richter. She placed her palm over her solar plexus as she talked about the search for an energy that felt right. As the music conjured different emotions, those emotions were translated into different forms of movement.

For this new piece, currently untitled, Ms. Wiles worked with soloist Tiffany Mangulabnan. Both dancers are en pointe and they trade off solos, each one dancing in the center while the other walks the length of the stage, sometimes with an eye on the soloist. The movement of the opening solos is lovely and lyrical. Later, the port des bras becomes staccato. There are isolations of the shoulders and ribs. The torso rolls and the dancers undulate, rising out of a deep plie as if riding a wave.

For me, it is the unison movement in this piece that is especially lush and gorgeous. It is in the unison sections that the chemistry between the two women is given its showcase. Though their styles are slightly different, they work so beautifully together, and they seem to bring as much power to the moment as a larger ensemble would have done.

ballet nextMs. Wiles paused to make a change in a section of the dance. She instructed Ms. Mangulabnan to adjust the movement, and then she seemed delighted that Ms. Mangulabnan had inadvertently embellished the phrase. She instructed her to remember the changes so that they could work on them in the next rehearsal. Later on, during the Q&A, Ms. Mangulabnan explained that dancers train the memory in the same way that they train muscles. The training begins as soon as they start taking class. Day after day, students are made to learn new phrases of choreography and perform them right away. Because Ms. Mangulabnan had executed the new movement of Ms. Wiles’ piece, she declared, “It’s in there.” It is easier for her to remember executed movement than it is to remember choreography that she only watched someone else perform.

Ms. Wiles talked about other fortunate accidents that happened in the studio, such as a moment when Ms. Mangulabnan’s bun came undone during the second section of the piece. Those who were watching the rehearsal agreed that the dance looked better when the dancer’s hair was loose, and so that became part of the ballet. They ran the second section, both of the women wearing their hair down, and that little detail did seem to open up the energy of the piece.

ballet nextAfter a lovely vocal performance by singer-songwriter Aurora Barnes, Ballet Next’s cellist and Music Director Elad Kabilio talked about the music for Brian Reeder’s Different Homes. He demonstrated the different voices in Benjamin Britten’s 1964 piece Suite for Cello Solo. They each speak melodically and clearly by themselves, then when played together they either “meet or contradict each other”. With this music, Mr. Reeder set out to explore a different type of intimacy and relationship between dancers.

For this ballet, danced by Ms. Wiles and Jens Weber, Reeder set for himself the challenge of creating a pas de deux in which the hands are never used for contact and support. The dance opens with the dancers standing back to back, their heads resting on the shoulder behind them. The hand becomes a feathery extension of the arm as unusual lifts are achieved by contact on different parts of the arm. At several points, Mr. Weber’s arms are extended forward like parallel bars and Ms. Wiles’ balances against them, or is lifted by them, in a variety of different fashions. Their promenade happens arm in arm, linked at the elbow. When Ms. Wiles strikes an attitude front in releve, she is chest to chest with Mr. Weber. The dance does succeed in opening up an unusual conversation and vocabulary between the partners.

During the Q&A session, Ms. Wiles spoke with fondness about her years with American Ballet Theatre and all of the great artists with whom she worked. After seven years as a principal with the company, she asked herself, “What do I want to do next?” She was ready to take the risk of striking out on her own and exploring the art of ballet in another way.

Though the journey has been artistically rewarding, there have also been challenges which led her to find new solutions. Economic challenges caused her to become much more inventive in creating costumes. Ms. Mangulabnan, who came from Phillipine Ballet Theatre, a larger company with a more regimented routine, also spoke about the adjustments in her process after coming to work with Ballet Next. Rather than taking a daily company class and working with the same artists consistently, she now has to take class on her own. There seems to be nothing routine or predictable about the work that she does with Ballet Next. “Every other month there are new people in the studio to work with and learn from”.

Ballet Next sees itself as a “platform for artists”. Every time that I’ve seen them, there has always been live accompaniment. Mr. Kabilio said that the musicians are part of the collaborative process from the very beginning. “You can’t collaborate with a CD,” which most companies have to use because their budgets can’t cover the costs of live accompanists in the studio. Because of Ballet Next’s close working relationship with their musicians, trust is built between dancers and musicians.

Ballet Next will be appearing at New York Live Arts, January 13 through 18, 2014.

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June 25, 2013

silviaChoreography by Sir Frederick Ashton
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House

From the opening mome perfect balance of courageous huntress and beautiful young woman -- feminine in her courage and power. In Act I, she repeatedly raises her fist in celebration of a successful hunt, and as a display of her strength. At the same time, the sweetness of her face and the girlish grace of her movement remain in evidence.

silviaThere were lovely moments in the Act I ensemble dances. Each man wraps a garland around his partner’s waist. Each man lights on one knee and holds his partner on his back in a boat lift. There is a lovely closing gesture in which the partners fold over on each other. Their powder blue costumes create a lovely haunting atmosphere against the sets of the woodlands.

Roberto Bolle is manly and gallant as Aminta, humble in his expression of love, yet powerful enough to hold his own among the ensemble of women who travel with their bows and arrows. His movement is every bit as lush as the gorgeous Léo Delibes score.

silviaWhen Sylvia’s helmet is removed, her fierceness becomes eclipsed by her softness and femininity. It is in the moments after Eros casts his spell on Sylvia and she falls in love with Aminta that Semionova is at her most moving. With only the smallest, most understated gestures, softly flicking her hands, gently staggering forward, clinging to the arrow that Eros had aimed at her, she displays her grief and her heartache. It is such a stirring passage.

Jared Matthews is cool and self-possessed as the evil Orion. As he attempts to seduce Sylvia in Act II, she’s clearly in control, yet Matthews’ Orion is not acknowledging it, and soldiering on with complete confidence that he will win her as his lover. The bass and the drum take over and Julio Bragado-Young and Kenneth Easter, as Orion’s slaves, perform a rhythmic comic dance. Semionova’s Sylvia remains poised and focused on her goal of tricking Orion and escaping his cave. She portrays Sylvia as being clever and intelligent even in flirtation -- her movement is all ballerina grace, charm and allure, but at the same time, she carries the attitude of the triumphant hunter.

silviaAct III is a display of splendid pageantry at the Temple of Diana. There are processionals with men carrying golden statues of Bacchus. Colorful skirts swirl and the company dances reels and ensemble dances. Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak, as the Goats, clearly an audience favorite, nearly stole the show. Bolle makes a triumphant entrance carrying Semionova in a dramatic and very high lift. Both were brilliant in their solos and pas de deux -- they have wonderful chemistry as partners and their dancing seems effortless. An enormous and prolonged outburst of cheers went up from the very appreciative audience at the end of the pas de deux.

silviaLeann Underwood was captivating in her final scene as Diana. She carries herself with such authority in the closing moments of the story. There is an earthiness and a seriousness to her decision that is just arresting. It created great tension, which is so beautifully resolved at the end of the story. A lovely production.

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New York City Ballet 2013 Spring Season

June 6, 2013

nycb-060613David H. Koch Theater
Concerto DSCH, Sonatas and Interludes, In Creases, Stars and Stripes

The opening section of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH set up a festive atmosphere to start off the evening. Joaquin De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia were jubilant right out of the gate, full of charm, playfulness, quick footwork, high jumps and dazzling turns. The soloists have room to move and I could feel them drawing the audience into the fun. For the Tuesday evening crowd, it was as if the energy in the theatre lifted, rising out of the workaday world and into a celebration. Ashley Bouder was adorable, all dazzling footwork as she executed the lightning fast petit allegro. Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan were the epitome of breezy lovers as he swung her around him until the circle of dancers closed about them. From my seat high up in the Fourth Ring, I admired the fact that the circular formations worked just as well when viewed from overhead as they did from the perspective of those in the orchestra seats. Whelan and Angle were stirring, lovely and lyrical in their pas de deux, especially as she bourees away from him and he keeps reaching for her, a dramatic passage which ends in a majestic high lift. Angle partners her so beautifully. Their timing is perfect and their transitions are seamless. Angle also brings a boyish innocence to the dance, which really enhances its merry energy.

nycb-060613At this performance, I had my first opportunity to see Sonatas and Interludes and it knocked me out. The duet was danced by Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar, while pianist Nancy McDill accompanied them on stage. McGill plays the John Cage score on a prepared piano. The program notes explain that Cage would work to change the piano’s sound “by inserting bits of wood, paper, screws, or other objects between or on the strings at various points to produced a more percussive sound.” While I’d read about this, I’d never before heard this music, nor was I aware that Cage left detailed instructions and diagrams along with his score, explaining exactly how to prepare the piano. The music is exquisite and sounds as if it was being played by a small ensemble with bells and other small percussive instruments. At times the music seemed to have an Asian flavor. It can be stark, full of extended rests, and without the usual classical ornament that we’re used to hearing in ballet music.

The stage is bare, with the exception of the piano at the corner. Ms. Peck and Mr. Ramasar wear white unitards with gold belts. Throughout the first section of the dance, they hold hands and rarely let go. The movement can make a lovely lyrical counterpoint against the percussive voices in the music. There is good chemistry between Peck and Ramasar and I found the dance and the performance to be quite powerful. Each dancer stretches out in their own solo section. Peck enters the stage spinning a long sequence of traveling turns which keep changing direction. Recently I have seen her dance roles reserved for youthful high energy dancers, or roles that are theatrical. I felt that this piece showed a new dimension to her range and I was impressed with the performances delivered by both dancers.

Justin Peck’s In Creases had its first New York City performances this season. The dance showcases the talent and the original movement that has made Mr. Peck’s choreography so celebrated. The dance’s formations on stage delight the eye and Peck also plays very effectively with level changes, such as the one seen in the photo, in which a dancer on her knee will carry her arms in a similar fashion to a dancer in arabesque en pointe. At moments the movement is sharp and staccato against the cascading piano music performed on stage by Elaine Chelton and Alan Moverman. Peck has a real skill for assembling familiar movements in a fashion that’s unusual and exciting, such as in a great sequence in which the dancers line up on their backs on the floor while lead dancer Robert Fairchild hops over them. Every formation seems to open up in an unexpected and kaleidoscopic manner. A wonderful dance!

The evening ended with Stars and Stripes featuring Teresa Reichlen as the Liberty Bell and Chase Finlay as El Capitan. Reichlin had these wonderful flirty moments and Finlay executed great leaps and awesome turns. He winked as he saluted the audience and that gesture alone seemed to sum up the feeling of the evening -- extraordinary dancing delivered with a playful twist.

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Shostakovich Trilogy by the American Ballet Theatre

June 3, 2013

hostakovichMetropolitan Opera House
Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky

American Ballet Theatre's Shostakovich Trilogy reminded me of everything that I find so attractive in Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography. Though it is intricate, complex and demanding in terms of technique and staging, its humanity is always in evidence. There is always a gesture, large or small, which anyone can recognize as an expression of the human experience. Though his formations and phrases are beautiful on the surface, each one also seems to be laden with deeper meaning or context.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed Symphony #9 in 1945 to celebrate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Though Ratmansky’s choreography for this piece is well detailed and full of dazzling counterpoint, he captures a carefree feeling in the opening sections. It is delightful to see the way that the dancing picks up on small details and phrases in the music, amplifying them with movement in the arms or feet. In the larger formations, there is often this stunning tension and release. The dancers crowd close together before the dance opens up and their arms and legs unfurl in kaleidoscopic fashion.

In gentler moments of a pas de deux, the dancers pause, no longer focusing on each other, but looking beyond to measure their surroundings. Throughout the dance, several men gather to lift and travel with one dancer. I felt that this really brought out the masculinity, the power and the fraternity of the men.

The closing moments bring the celebration to a climax with an extraordinary ending, which made the audience gasp at its beauty and the surprise it delivered. Principal roles in this performance were danced exquisitely by Veronika Part, Roberto Bolle, Jared Matthews, Stella Abrera and Sasha Radetsky. Praise has to be given to all the dancers in the ensemble sections as well, for their outstanding work.

hostakovichChamber Symphony is a beautifully haunting dance. When the curtain went up, I felt as if we’d walked in to the middle of a story in process. Dancers are lined up as couples in various stages of pulling apart. A central figure emerges, played with great heart and emotion by James Whiteside. A crowd gathers around him, as if in support or curiosity. When he falls to the ground, they all step back in shock, then withdraw.

Three women, danced superbly by Sarah Lane, Yuriko Kajika and Hee Seo appear to be his muses, somewhat recalling Balanchine's Apollo. There is a dreamlike quality to the piece. Perhaps the story was unfolding before us. Or maybe tragic events were being recalled from a dreamlike state. Whiteside is bare chested, wearing a suit and skin tone ballet slippers, which from a distance make him appear to be barefoot. He often seems lost and longing or stricken. His muses swoon in his arms or drift away from him.

For Piano Concerto #1, communist imagery of red hammers and sickles hang above the stage against a gray background. The dancers’ unitards are gray in front and red on the back, which create striking patterns as they constantly change direction. The staging and the movement are so complex with few unison phrases. This creates great dramatic effect. At times there is so much happening even within the ensemble dances that it’s hard to know where to look. But the drama and the emotion are maintained at times even with simpler forms, as the dancers move in straight lines or perform wisps of Russian folk dance steps.

The leading men, danced by Danil Simkin and Calvin Royal III, are dressed in gray and their partners, Xiomara Reyes and Gillian Murphy wear red leotards. Their pas de deux sections are lyrical and the lighting is softer and atmospheric. At one moment, when the company returns to the stage, the two women stand still, holding on to each other, each protecting the other, as they take in the sight of the dancers who surround them.

One of the most haunting moments of the dance came as the men crossed the stage on the diagonal, each with a woman balanced on his shoulder, her legs in attitude suggesting the shape of the sickle. Throughout the entire evening, I was taken by the workmanlike posture of the men. They move with urgency, with the physicality of laborers. They wear fixed looks with intense focus, and they often travel together at close quarters in small groups, an assembly of them being used to lift one dancer.

This was a program of exceptional dancing, not only from the principals, but from the entire company. Ratmansky’s creative voice is unique and it works so beautifully on American Ballet Theatre.

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Wendy Whelan / Restless Creature: Works & Process at the Guggenheim

April 14, 2013

whelan_restless-creatureNew York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, will be appearing at Jacob’s Pillow this summer to present Restless Creature, an evening of new works created for her by four different choreographers. At a Works & Process event at the Guggenheim, the audience was given the opportunity to hear Ms. Whelan and the four choreographers interviewed about the project. They also presented excerpts of two of the dances. Ella Baff, the Executive Director of Jacob’s Pillow, moderated.

Ms. Whelan sounded exuberant throughout the 90 minute presentation. The works that she’ll be performing at Jacob’s Pillow appear to be off the beaten path of classical and neo-classical ballet. Throughout the interview, Ms. Whelan spoke of the challenges as well as the liberation of moving into unchartered territory with these four artists.

The Works & Process event opened with a beautiful solo danced by Ms. Whelan and choreographed by Shen Wei. After dancing, she talked about seeing a performance of Wei’s work eight years earlier, and then having the opportunity to work with him when Peter Boal brought the two of them together. Ms. Whelan described Wei as being very clear in knowing what he wanted -- she said that she loves to see that in an artist. The challenge of stepping out of the ballet world to work with him was huge, but she couldn’t get enough. Among the instruction that he gave her in performing his piece was the request “not to blink”.

There are long rests in the music accompanying the Wei piece. She described the solo as being a dialogue -- the pianist “conversing” with the dancer. The dance is performed en pointe, something that Wei had to adjust to. This drew both dancer and choreographer out of their comfort zones. Wei kept asking her to do pointe work that couldn’t be done, but Ms. Whelan wished that it could be, so both artists focused on moving away from what was familiar. They worked together toward the end of creating original movement.

In choosing the choreographers for Restless Creature, she looked outside the neo-classical world of New York City Ballet. Kyle Abraham was the first choreographer with whom she chose to work. She met Brian Brooks at the Fire Island Dance Festival. She met Joshua Beamish in a ballet class. She chose Alejandro Cerrudo of Hubbard Street, as she’s a great fan of the company.

whelan_restless-creatureIt was interesting to hear the enthusiasm with which she discussed the dancer-choreographer connection in the studio. She said that there are times when she enjoys this work even more than she enjoys the performance on stage. This is the part of the process that the audience never sees, so Ms. Whelan seemed especially happy that for Restless Creature, this connection that she experiences in the studio will move out on to the stage, as each choreographer will partner her in his piece.

She said that she is very comfortable in her role as dancer and isn’t interested in being the choreographer. She likes to be “the paintbrush” and “mix the paints”, but she doesn’t want to be the one who decides where to put the marks on the canvas.

Ms. Whelan and Joshua Beamish performed an excerpt from his piece. It’s markedly contemporary and very lovely, danced to a dramatic accompaniment which swells and gives way to quieter passages. There is surprising original movement in the upper body and some interesting counterpoint. I especially liked the small gestures of the hands and feet.

Choreographer Brian Brooks worked with Elizabeth Streb and is accustomed to extremes of movement. He said that his choreography embraces physics and momentum rather than fighting against it, as most ballet choreography does. He considers himself to be earthbound, whereas ballet tends to reach for the heavens. He felt that in his collaboration with Mr. Whelan, she begins to bring him skybound, while he draws her back down to earth. Ms. Whelan seemed very enthusiastic about performing his dance without shoes. Later in the program she exclaimed, “I can feel the floor! Taking the shoes off is like taking the bra off!” She seemed to find artistic liberation in bare feet.

whelan_restless-creatureKyle Abraham got his start in rave and hip hop culture. He names Limon, Cunningham and Graham among his influences. He asked Ms. Whelan if his work was challenging for her. She laughed and told him that he could ease up on challenge part. Of all the collaborations, this one seemed the most interesting to me, and I hope that I get the opportunity to see the dance.

Alejandro Cerrudo said that he made a deliberate decision to steer away from specific influences like Ohad Naharin and Jiri Kylian, calling instead upon the accumulation of all of his experience. He admitted that before he met Ms. Whelan, he feared that she might be a diva, but he said that she made it easy for him to relax and focus on the work. Much of his dance is the result of the give and take between dancer and choreographer, unfolding minute by minute in the studio.

Of partnering, Ms. Whelan said that it’s different for each couple. A chemistry arises between the two, as a natural thing. Even in an abstract dance, over the years a story will evolve within it. It grows as a physical conversation.

The program closed with an excerpt from Brian Brooks’ work. Brooks is dressed in black against a black curtain, and at many points he seems to disappear into the darkness of the stage, even though he’s supporting Ms. Whelan’s weight so that she can appear to be defying gravity. The movement of the dance kept rolling and it seemed never to stop. I was taken by the originality and the quirky and clever voice of the work. Much in the way Brooks had described their process, the dance seemed at once to be ethereal and other worldly, yet earthy.

The full world premiere of Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature will take place in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, August 14-18, 2013. Tickets for the Pillow world premiere are on sale online at or at 413.243.0745.

All photos by Nisian Hughes

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Peridance Contemporary Dance Company

Sunday, March 10, 2013 - Program A

Peridance Salvatore Capezio Theater

Peridance Contemporary Dance Company is a wonderful group of strong expressive multi-faceted dancers presenting powerful choreography in a unique voice.

In Igal Perry's Conflicted Terrain, the choreography extends beyond the dancers to the live musicians who performed the stirring String Quartet No. 3 by Górecki. Each player in the quartet is perched on a platform which is moved to different stations throughout the passages of the music and the dance. The piece opens with one of the dancers seated in one of the musician's chairs, before a music stand. To me this seemed like a beautiful metaphor for how deeply and intimately a dancer or a choreographer can become with a piece of music and the performance of it -- as if there's no real demarcation where the music ends and the dance begins.

In the opening moments of the dance, a woman slowly shifts her weight from one foot to the other, releasing the working leg to a high second. As she finally holds the extension, her partner enters and bumps into the extended leg. This motif and a series of other phrases reprise throughout the dance. There are moments of the dance that flow so smoothly, with lovely and complex partnering, and passages in which the couples move in unison. All the while, the undertow of conflict seems to be present as the musicians are rearranged on the stage and distance opens between the couples. At times they are pulling so far from each other that they are only being kept upright by their partner's hold on them. This was a beautiful performance of an imaginative dance.

PeridanceI'd never before seen Ohad Naharin's Mabul, an excerpt of which was performed on this program by Joanne DeFelice and Christopher Bloom. The clever choreography seemed to revolve around issues of trust and even redemption. Bloom is folded in upon himself, his arms outstretched, his hands clasped as if he's pleading. DeFelice backs away from him. When she allows him close to her, he bangs his head against her chest, as if violence is rising from what could have been a tender moment. The tension seems to be resolved when DeFelice is mounted on Bloom's shoulders as if they are one being, their arms moving in unison.

Infinity, also by Igal Perry, received its world premiere. Set to Beethoven's Hammerklavier, it's an atmospheric piece full of expansive movement in which every gesture seemed to contain its own little world -- a story of its own. The women's bodies are unfurled, their chests are open, arms apart and lengthened, legs long and extended in splits or opening up in sweeping grand rondes. The formations travel the expanse of the entire floor. There's a strong timelessly classical feel behind the contemporary movement.

The performance closed with Dwight Rhoden's Evermore, receiving its world premiere. It's a theatrical piece set to songs sung by Nat King Cole which would have been right at home on a Broadway stage. The dancers breezed through the complex athletic movement that is a trademark of many Complexions' pieces and the audience seemed eager to join in the fun. It was great to see the ease with which these contemporary dancers could transition into this Broadway style.

Peridance Contemporary Dance Company will be performing these works again this coming weekend.

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H.T. Chen & Dancers - A Tribute to Remy Charlip

Friday, March 1, 2013

H. T. Chen Chen Dance Center

H.T. Chen & Dancers presented a combined celebration of the life and work of Remy Charlip, along with ceremonies for the Chinese New Year. The Chen Dance Center theater was made to take on the atmosphere of a Chinese Tea House, with servings of tea and cookies provided alongside the seats. Associate Director Dian Dong described the Tea House as a gathering center for the village, where people came to hear news, but also to socialize, drink tea, and enjoy art together. I was grateful for the background and context that Ms. Dong provided for the dances. Some of the stories behind them were every bit as interesting and beautiful as the dances themselves.

H. T. Chen

The evening opened with Lantern Procession based on a traditional procession intended to bring the villagers good luck in the New Year. Each dancer carried her own unique lantern and moved to music played on traditional Chinese instruments. There was a strong feeling of community in the dance, especially so when the dancers were joined by three elementary school children in traditional dress, who carried celestial images created by Remy Charlip.

This was followed by H.T. Chen's 39 Chinese Attitudes, which springs from one of Remy Charlip's "Airmail Dances". Charlip explained, ""I started to do these figures on a page and then give them to dancers, to soloists and groups of dancers, and have them figure out how to get from one position to another so they worked on the transitions and they thereby made the dance it's their dance and it is also my dance."

For 39 Chinese Attitudes, set to music by Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, Chen worked with a combination of Chinese images and images of athletes. The dance focuses on three movements: jumps, falls and attitudes. It opens with a sweet little narrative, in which a dancer delights in the fortune she just received in her oversized cookie. She swoons with happiness and shows it off to the others. Throughout the dance Chen used the falls to show drama and emotion, but he also used them to great comic effect, sometimes as the dancers deliberately struggled with their balances in attitude. Other vignettes include an adorable pas de deux between a moonstruck woman and the man who hopes to win her affections, danced by Eva Chan and Juan Michael Porter II. She swoons from happiness and she gives her partner the classic "come closer" and "leave me alone" gestures. Their endearing struggle is represented in a lift in which the woman deliberately cannot hold herself up or find her balance.

H. T. ChenThe dance has a lovely ending in which the women have a comic one-ups-manship struggle over who has more or bigger fortune cookies, until one woman arrives with a tray overflowing with cookies. This prompts the dancers to serve the cookies and plum wine to the audience. I felt that this also helped maintain the strong sense of community that I felt from Chen's dances. Not only was the company especially hospitable from the beginning to the end of the performance, in doing so they seemed to be acknowledging the importance of the relationship between the dancers and the audience.

David Vaughn delivered a beautiful reading of Charlip's humourous Ten Imaginary Dances, in which scenarios were suggested for different dances in the hands of various companies. This was followed by a wonderful performance by Stephanie Chun and Marlon Feliz who danced Charlip's Twelve Contra Dances. This piece really showcased the charm and elegance of Charlip's work. Stripped of pretense and technical fireworks, the dance uses deceptively simple movement to create lovely formations. As with so much of Charlip's work, it's sweet without ever being cloying, and it's humourous without ever going over the top. I felt that there was beautiful chemistry between the dancers, equal parts from the spirit of the choreography and the spirit of the dancers themselves.

As the evening closed, we were shown a fascinating collection of photos of a Chinese community among the cotton fields of Cleveland, Mississippi, which will be the inspiration for a new piece that H.T. Chen will be creating. The closing dance, Between Heaven and Earth culminated with the dancers performing under a shower of beautiful multi-colored confetti, used to great effect.

I thoroughly enjoyed this program and my visit to the Chen Dance Center in Chinatown. It was wonderful to have this glimpse into the culture and history of the Chinese, as well as to revisit Remy Charlip's wonderful books, artwork and dances.

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Year of the Serpent - Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nai-NiChen Victoria Theater - New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts

I'd been wanting to see the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company for years, but it wasn't until last weekend that I finally made the trek out to Newark to see the company celebrate the Chinese New Year with their production Year of the Serpent. The program was a wonderful mix of traditional Chinese dancing, music and opera combined with a new contemporary piece, Whirlwind, which received its world premiere this year. The dancers moved seamlessly between the different dance styles. It was very generous and helpful of the company to have provided the audience with detailed descriptions of the history and inspiration for each dance, along with narratives about the peoples and customs of the different regions of China from where these dances come.

Nai-NiChenThe performance opened with a piece called Double Lions Welcoming Spring which tells the story of trust built between young children and ferocious lions. The dance is intended as a prayer for peace and harmony in the coming year. Playful and often funny (such as when the lion forgets himself on stage and nibbles on his own foot, or throws in an extra cabriole before exiting the stage) the dance includes dazzling acrobatics and tumbling sequences. Each lion is played by two men who do an amazing job of making the beast's back ripple in feline fashion, or making it rear back on its hind legs. The Chinese folk costumes and the design of the lion are so beautifully done.

In Song of the Water Lily, dancer Ying Shi embodies the beauty and purity of a young girl. She carries a fan ornamented with a lovely billowing scarf which resembles a flower petal. The lighting and music create the atmosphere of a lily pond, down to the sound of water droplets and bird songs spliced in with the traditional folk music. There is a wide sweep of movement, from luscious slow and controlled extensions and port des bras, to a rapid success of turns executed while spotting the floor. The dance is at once ornate and colorful as it is earthy and primal.

Another traditional piece, arranged by Ms. Chen, was the rousing Coin Stick Dance. Bamboo sticks filled with coins create a host of different rattling sounds as they are tapped against shoulders, hips and floor, or twirled like batons. The dance was presented as an ensemble piece, but had lovely partnering sections in which pairs of dancers tapped their sticks together. The piece was marked by pretty formations and nice footwork sequences.

One of the highlights for me was seeing Ms. Chen's earthy modern piece, Whirlwind, inspired by her journey on the Silk Road. It opens with six dancers standing still on stage, very subtly swaying forward and backward on the breeze. In this section, and throughout the piece, Ms. Chen used groups moving in unison, save for one dancer. These formations seemed to embody the phenomenon of the whirlwind, which she described in the program as coming from different directions. In the opening section, the dancers' mostly remain in their spots, but they execute beautiful adagio movement with the upper body and the plie, creating the atmospheres of a coming storm. As the dance builds, influences of various cultures can be appear. The energy of the wind can be felt in contractions and sighing movement. I loved the section danced by the men, locked onto one another's arms in a circle and swaying together in a way that seemed ancient and ritualistic. Great original movement in this dance and beautiful artistic execution by the dancers.

Min Zhou shone in the traditional Peacock Dance from her charming staccato birdlike gestures, shuddering shoulders and expressive movement of the upper body, to her lovely transitions into slow and controlled adagio phrases. She held her arm above her head, her hand shaped like the head of a peacock, her floor length skirt draped to resemble its plumage.

The program closed with Chen's traditional piece, Festival, a spectacle of cartwheels, barrel turns, colorful ribbons, and flags, complete with a dragon dance in which the dragon takes a spin around the audience. The piece was great fun and a fitting close to a beautiful program.

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Azul Dance Theatre / Yuki Hasegawa Presents Elements

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Azul Salvatore Capezio Theater at Peridance Center

Azul Dance Theatre's performance of Elements was marked by original movement in which beauty and artistic expression took priority over flash and tricks. Every detail of the choreography, costumes and staging had been beautifully considered. It's not often that I find myself at the theatre, seeing a new company for the first time, and being so deeply effected by the high quality of their artistry. This company was a wonderful surprise and they surpassed my expectations.

AzulThe performance opened with Mugen, a dreamy atmospheric new piece based on folk and traditional Japanese dance, choreographed by Azul's Artistic Director Yuki Hasegawa, set to music played on traditional Japanese instruments. The dancers wear beautiful kimonos, also created by Hasegawa. The piece is marked with wave-like movement in the arms and torso, often with the feet fixed to the floor in a deep lunge. After the moody and ritualistic first movement, there is inventive and humorous use of parasols in the jazzy second section. The Japanese instruments take on the strains of a 1960s beach tune, then Duke Ellington's Caravan. The dancers hop, push and pull as if against gravity or the wind. They strike a series of wonderful poses, making great use of the props. In the closing section, a man is seated as if in prayer, his sword by his side. But as he is meditating, a pair of arms appear from behind him, and reach into his robe, removing what looks like a scroll or a map. The figure who took the paper, sneaks up behind another who is also in prayer position, and slides the paper into her kimono. I felt as if the figure embodied distraction, interfering with the processes of the two mediators, breaking their concentration, and maybe even appropriating an important or sacred piece of them. She does everything that she can in a struggle to dominate the man, even going so far as pulling his sword and holding it to his neck or his heart.

AzulKanako Yokata choreographed and danced in It's not your fault. Entering the stage on a tether, she struggles to breathe and free herself. Once free, she struggles for balance before opening up into a lyrical adagio. An undertow seems to keep her close to the ground, where she winds up in the center of crocheted blanket. She pulls at the wool and it begins to unravel around her and the blanket tightens around her feet, as if she's traded in one constraint for another.

Non-western motifs appear throughout Hasegawa's Return to the River. The dancers enter the stage as if rolling like waves along the floor. The music is cut with the sounds of water sloshing. As the dance opens up, new influences appear. There is a Carribean feel to the way that the women rock their hips and jump. The dance builds with atmospheric lighting and a series of dramatic leaps as the dancers shriek. Their colorful harem pants and halters make especially beautiful costumes.

One of the stand out pieces of the program for me was Double Helix, choreographed and performed by twin sisters Hsiao-Ting Hsieh and Hsiao-Wei Hsieh, set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. There is an elegance and a clarity to this dance which allowed the expression of the movement to stand out. The sisters perform in a highly synchronized fashion, but this never comes at the expense of the heart and emotion evident in every small gesture. I could have watched this dance all evening long. It was performed with lovely live accompaniment on cello by Serafim Smigelskiy.

The program closed with Hasegawa's Elements, a splendid theatrical piece. Before the dancing even began, I was taken by the beauty of the costumes, some in rusty autumn colors and others in the greens and turquoise of the sea or the woodlands. The first section pays tribute to water. Torsos and arms ripple and the movement resolves in lovely ensemble poses. Even when the dancers are just standing in place, their upper bodies are tremendously expressive. The wind enters the story, first as a lone figure dressed in white, then as a small group weaving in and out of the ensemble, sending the dancers to twirl and spiral and roll away. Soon the entire group is dressed in white and the dance opens up to an especially beautiful ensemble section with great partnering and counterpoint. Really well done. The drama builds with great use of bolts of fabric -- one to symbolize the sun and others to symbolize the ocean. The dance ends in birth so that the entire cycle may begin again. The performance demonstrated a great love, respect and compassion for Mother Earth and her processes. I'm told that Ms. Hasegawa named her company Azul after the blue of ocean water.

Elements lasted an hour and a half without intermission. The time seemed to pass in a heartbeat and Azul Dance Theatre left me wanting even more. If you have the opportunity to see this company, don't miss it.

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Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble Presents Sounds of Sokolow Lyric Suite

December 8, 2012

Sokolow The Theatre at the 14th Street Y

In the opening passage of Lyric Suite, Allegretto Gioviale, dancer Richard Scandola stands alone and shirtless. He looks around, guarding his own back, and he seems careful not to make a sound, as if he is hunting. Slowly and deliberately, he shifts his weight. The passage opens up only slightly as he moves forward in a series of turns until, like several of the passages of Lyric Suite, it closes with the same movement with which it opened. This passage was dedicated by Anna Sokolow to Vaslav Nijinsky, and even though the music and dance are non-narrative, the theatricality is always there. The dance does not respond literally to composer Alban Berg’s atonal music, but rather it works with the music to conjure emotion and atmospheres.

SokolowFrancesca Todesco dances Andante Amoroso. There is interesting movement with the hands, fingers woven together as if to make a basket which she holds close to her heart. They move behind her neck, pulling on her head before she extends her arms overhead, hands turned palms up. It made me feel as if she was searching or beckoning to the heavens while reconciling the pull of earth. In another sequence, she seems to be rocking on the waves of the ocean before her gaze returns upward. There is a long and dramatic series of turns in which her head sometimes drops. In the closing moments, she is reaching skyward as her body sinks and finally falls to the floor.

Allegro Misterioso follows, danced by Samantha Geracht. She enters in a floor length gray skirt. Her hands tremble as she lifts them. She seems even further bound to the earth, sinking, falling, and getting back up. She runs frantically around the stage, at times moving backwards till the end of the passage, where she seems resigned to her fate, stuck on the floor and unable to rise as the stage goes black.

SokolowMelissa Sobel and Gregory Youdan danced Largo Desolato. The partnering is beautiful and the movement in this section is more lyrical and slow, but with intensity. It reminded me of Anna Sokolow’s quote, “True lyricism has to have passion and strength underneath it. For an arm to come up beautifully and with meaning, it has to have great power and energy.” There was a lovely and unusual sequence as the dancers sit on the floor and advance toward each other with a high developpe initiating each movement. They stand and grasp each other by the forearms, backs arched backward and chests lifted as if in euphoria. Simple movements like ronde de jambs and tendus on the floor are used to lovely effect. The gentle beauty of this passage seems to resolve the tension set up in the Allegro Misterioso.

SokolowBut the tension returns, builds and explodes with a bravura performance by Luis Gabriel Zaragoza in Presto Delirando Tenebroso. Zaragoza’s dancing is riveting and dramatic -- I found it impossible to take my eyes off of him even for a moment. His facial expressions are haunting and heart breaking. He dances the role of one who’s been captured and dehumanized, like a soldier or a prisoner, but the humanity within him struggles to be set free. There are dramatic changes in direction that pivot rapidly and unexpectedly. He executes a series of grand jetes but he slowly loses steam, as if the life is being drained from him. He struggles to open up but winds up falling.

Lyric Suite closes with a quartet, Adagio Appassionato. Four women dressed in floor length red skirts travel along the stage mostly at close quarters. The choreography plays with level changes and the rippling swirling of the skirts to great effect. Some of the patterns seem to be more formal -- the women stand in a square at one point, as if for a reel. Toward the end there is another interesting sequence in which the dancers seem to be moving away from one another, yet the group remains at close quarters.

SokolowAnna Sokolow’s work was pivotal in the world of modern dance. It was wonderful to see it performed by Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble and it would be great to see more modern companies tackle her repertoire.

All photos by Meems.

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American Ballet Theatre: Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Guggenheim Works & Process

September 30, 2012

Alexei RatmanskyIn 1986, renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, having never heard the names Rudolf Nureyev or Mikhail Baryshnikov, and having never seen the choreography of George Balanchine. To comply with the policies of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi did not discuss these men and their works. Ratmansky graduated during a tumultuous era, as the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, and the VCR and video tape were coming into personal use, introducing him to a whole new world of choreography and dancing.

While being interviewed by former Artistic Director of the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, John Meehan, at Guggenheim’s Works and Process last weekend, Ratmansky described the era as being very disorienting to students who had come up with only strict classical training. Their understanding of choreography mostly revolved around the works of Marius Petipa and Yury Grigorovich. As the outside world began to filter in to Russia, and as Ratmansky left Russia, he originally found himself resisting the new influence, in his mind and his body. This was typical of most dancers who were his contemporaries, trained in the Soviet Union.

Alexei RatmanskyRatmansky danced for Meehan and the Royal Winnepeg Ballet in the early 1990s. Meehan remembered him as being a romantic dancer noted for his very soft landings. A short film showed Ratmansky in performance during that era, and it illustrated the extraordinary quality of his landings. Ratmansky told the audience that this quality came as a result of being made to do petit allegro at an adagio tempo ­ “It was killing!” ­ and battement tendu at 32 counts going out and 32 counts coming in.

He said that the Bolshoi always wanted their dancers to “color” the movement. After leaving the Bolshoi, when Ratmansky began to learn new choreography, he was encouraged to just do the steps. “Don’t act. Be more simple.”

He began choreographing for himself, on his own body, then had to learn how to choreograph on other dancers, beginning with his wife Tatiana. One of his first big jobs was a commission from the Kirov to choreograph their Nutcracker. He was on a one month deadline. “Every big work is crazy and intense with very little time.”

Alexei RatmanskyWhen the Soviet Union collapsed, people turned their attention away from works of the Soviet era, including The Bright Stream. Fifteen years later, the public began to feel nostalgic for the old works. Ratmansky loved the Shostakovich score and thought that the time could be right to stage a new version of The Bright Stream.

Veronika Part and Stella Abrera danced Zina and the Ballerina, a touching and heartwarming excerpt from Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, in which two old friends who attended ballet school together are reunited. Every small detail in the movement displays the warmth between the women, especially in the moment when they reach out to lift each other’s chins so that they can see into each other’s eyes.

Even before the premiere of Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, the Bolshoi Ballet, who did not accept young Ratmansky as a dancer, asked him to take over the entire company. He was 34 at the time. He took up the challenge and found himself in charge of 220 dancers and 20 coaches, some of whom were legends in the ballet world.

Alexei RatmanskyAt the time that he took over, the Bolshoi was still very conservative, holding dancers in higher esteem than choreographers. So Ratmansky brought in new ballets choreographed by George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon among others. In the course of his five year tenure, he introduced thirteen new ballets. There were 250 performances per year on two different stages. He hired new dancers fresh from the school to learn the new repertoire, as the older ones didn’t always “get it”.

Even after five years of working with the Bolshoi, he still felt that the resistance to new works and new choreographers remained very strong in Russia. So he left and came to New York to pursue his choreography. American Ballet Theatre invited him to be their Artist in Residence. He just signed a long term contract with the company, and he enjoys the support he receives and the freedom to create abstract and narrative ballets. He reflected fondly on the company’s history of embracing Russian emigres.

We saw a short excerpt of the scene from the Nutcracker that bridges between the battle scene and the Land of Snow. I’d seen ABT’s new Nutcracker in the middle of a blizzard in 2010, but I’d forgotten how much I’d loved it until I saw this charming section in which Drosselmeyer’s nephew transforms into the Prince. In Ratmansky’s version, two adult dancers enter upstage and mirror some of the movement of the children, who are imagining their future selves. It struck me that in the gestures of the adults, we see traces of the children they once were. As in most Ratmansky ballets, there is always the presence of light hearted humor along with the warmth. I especially loved the excitement of the children as the first snowflakes start to fall.

Ballet Mistress Nancy Raffa and principal dancer David Hallberg joined Mr. Meehan to speak of their experiences in working with Ratmansky. Ms. Raffa said that Ratmansky always comes to the studio well prepared with a clear vision and a little black book in which he has worked through the details of his choreography. Mr. Hallberg said that Ratmansky doesn’t move forward until one section is perfected. They will work on eight counts for "what feels like two weeks". About Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, Mr. Hallberg talked about the nervousness that he and Gillian Murphy experienced the first time that they danced it on stage. “He completely blew what we thought we knew about Nutcracker out of the window.” Hallberg’s words resonated with me and that’s part of the reason why I was so stunned by some of the backlash that the new Nutcracker received. I loved Ratmansky’s telling of the story from the very beginning, precisely because he brought a new and wonderful perspective to it.

Ratmansky’s new ballet, Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 will premiere Thursday, October 18, 2012 at New York City Center.

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New York City Ballet - Year of the Rabbit
Guggenheim Works & Process

Sunday, September 23, 2012

YearLast weekend as part of the Guggenheim’s Works and Process, New York City Ballet Media Director (and former soloist) Ellen Bar moderated a discussion with NYCB dancer Justin Peck about the new ballet he’s choreographed, Year of the Rabbit, which will be receiving its world premiere on October 5, 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Also on the panel were composer Sufjan Stevens and arranger and conductor Michael Atkinson. In addition, the audience was treated to a few excerpts of the ballet, accompanied by a live string quartet.

Year of the Rabbit began as an original work by Sufjan Stevens, composed for electronic instruments with lots of overdubbing. The music describes the signs of the Chinese Zodiac, the characteristics of the animals represented, and their relationships to one another, some in rivalry and some in friendship.

The evening began with a very short film of an excerpt from the ballet being performed on what looked like a Fire Island beach. I was instantly captivated by the swells of the music, which sounded before the movement began. Dense, atmospheric, dramatic, and quirky, it reminded me of the things that excited me most in the progressive rock music of the early 1970s. Later in the evening, as Michael Atkinson described his process in arranging the music for New York City Ballet’s Orchestra, he mentioned the inspiration of composers like Stravinsky and Bartok. Peck first heard Stevens’ music on WNYC-FM and he felt that it would be great for dance. He’d already been commissioned by Peter Martins to create a new ballet when he first approached Stevens about using the music, and having it orchestrated.

Joaquin de Luz seemed perfectly cast for his solo in Year of the Rabbit. Peck explained that rabbits elude their predators by darting back and forth. This is described in the music in quirky phrases of 5/6. As the solo begins, de Luz is shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Once he takes off, he leaves the ground in a spectacular series of leaps and turns, constantly changing direction and constantly traveling until he pauses at the end of the excerpt to look around, as if checking to see if he’s still being hunted.

YearTeresa Reichlin and Robert Fairchild danced a quieter excerpt. The music slides from rousing to lush, and Ms. Reichlin’s developpes are lyrical, dreamy and expansive. Peck worked to create unconventional movement, guided by the abstract and sometimes weird sounds in the music. The movement is so lovely, with surprising and beautifully unusual details.

It was wonderful to watch Justin Peck coaching Tiler Peck through a short solo that will be danced with a larger cast at the Koch Theatre. He explained that in this section of the choreography, the upper body and lower body moved as two separate parts, with one part initiating the movement for the other. They worked together on little actions which could “stretch out or condense” a passage of music.

Peck mentioned that the full ballet will have a large cast of dancers, and given the density and complexity of the music, I could imagine that a large cast would work superbly and create great excitement on stage.

In the hours when dancers weren’t available to rehearse with him, Peck worked out his ideas on paper. We were shown drawings he'd created, which resembled layered floor plans of the stage, color coded to depict the dancers and the directions in which they’d travel and the spots where they'd arrive. One of the musicians commented, “It looks like a game of Twister.”

I found it interesting that both Stevens and Atkinson had little interest in the ballet before they began working with Peck. Stevens had once been “dragged” to see Apollo, and he had found it to be restrictive, formal and conservative. But as Peck drew him into the ballet world, and took him to see the legendary Balanchine ballets, Stevens came around to understanding them, and then falling in love with them. He said it was “sublime” to see his music expressed with the human body. As a student at Julliard, Atkinson had lived in the same dormitory as SAB students, but admitted that he too needed to be “educated”, and that as his collaboration with Peck continued, so did his appreciation of the classic Balanchine works. It was fascinating to hear the musicians speak about their impressions of the dancers’ process. They remarked about how quickly and how hard the dancers worked and how their communication happened in a language that was different from that of the musicians. Peck explained that part of his job included “translating” between the language of music and the language of dance, saying that dancers hear music differently than musicians. He worked with Atkinson to adjust the dynamics of the music so that the dancers would be able to crucial details when they are on stage in the theater.

I was very excited by what I saw last weekend and I’m so looking forward to seeing the entire ballet.

Year of the Rabbit will have its world premiere on October 5, 2012. Tickets are on sale now.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet New York Season Preview
Works and Process at the Guggenheim

Sunday, September 8, 2012

Pacific NorthwestThis lecture and performance given by Artistic Director Peter Boal and Pacific Northwest Ballet dealt with the endlessly fascinating topic of Balanchine’s choreography. I have found that no matter how long I spend in the theater seeing Balanchine’s works and reading about them, there’s always something new to learn, which so enhances my appreciation of the work. Mr. Boal along with the gorgeous dancers of PNB, Maria Chapman, Carla Körbes, Seth Orza, Lesley Rausch, Benjamin Griffiths, and Matthew Renko, explored the topic of changes made throughout the lives of the Balanchine ballets. Ballets discussed included Apollo, Four Temperaments and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

There have been a host of different reasons for the changes made to the ballets. Mr. Boal told us that in the case of Apollo, “the boss” (Diaghilev) told Mr. B (who was 24 years old when the ballet received its world premiere) to make the changes. At other times, choreography was adjusted to suit different stages and different casts. Mr. Boal, who ironically was awarded his first contract with New York City Ballet on the day Mr. B passed away, learned the choreography from Peter Martins, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell and others from NYCB. When he went on to learn the same roles with other companies, including PNB, he found their choreography to be different from NYCB’s version, and different from one company to the next.

Pacific NorthwestI have only ever seen New York City Ballet’s production of Apollo performed live, with its unadorned costumes and bare stage, so I found it really interesting to see still photos from the Ballet Russes production which included ornate costumes (the first round chosen by Diaghilev and a later version created by Coco Chanel) and a set incorporating Mount Parnassas. Quite a contrast. Mr. Boal also showed film clips of Jacques d'Amboise dancing the role in 1960, and Mikhail Baryshnikov performing it in 1978.

Even as a very young choreographer, Balanchine made the deliberate decision to remove entire passages of the story of Apollo and he was bold in answering his critics when they challenged him on that score. “I can do with my ballets whatever I want.” He understood the power that existed in editing one’s work.

It was wonderful to have Mr. Boal draw our attention to details in the choreography that helped to tell the story. After Seth Orza danced the first solo with lovely and quiet control, Mr. Boal described the movement in such beautiful language, saying that the dancer was to move like a “newborn colt”. A series of piques which melt in plie symbolize the way a newborn’s legs might fail beneath the weight of his body as he first figures out how to walk.

Pacific NorthwestCarla Körbes’ Terpsichore left me swooning -- she is just stunning. Mr. Boal pointed out that in her manege, her saute arabesques lead with the chest, rather than with the arm. This one subtle little difference made her appear as if she was floating above the ground. As Mr. Orza and Ms. Körbes danced together, Mr. Boal pointed out that Terpsichore doesn’t “engage Apollo with the eyes”, but rather with the hands. It’s such a small detail, and so crucial to the story being told by the movement.

Ben Griffiths performed a more current version of Melancholic from Four Temperaments, with heaviness in his shoulders and softer lines while Matthew Renko danced an older version which was sharper and more forceful. Mr. Boal pointed out that in the current version, the stage is empty when the music starts, and that can build tension before the dancer even steps on stage. The audience becomes concerned that the character is late, or that the dancer may have missed his cue. In the earlier version, Apollo is on stage when the music starts.

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux has had the most revisions. Designed with the intention of being a “showstopper” Balanchine and other choreographers constantly adjusted it to showcase the different strengths of the different dancers who performed the piece. A series of fabulous film clips were shown, alternating D’Amboise’s performance with Baryshnikov’s, illustrating the differences in choreography for each dancer.

PNB closed out the evening in spectacular style, performing an excerpt from the ballet. Though the stage was too small, and there was a wobble here and there, they delivered the most rousing performance that made me want to jump to my feet. This is a wonderful company that we in New York City just don’t see enough of. Their lines are so pure and their movement is so fluid. But beyond that, the dancers possess great charisma. Their dancing was playful, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much that the audience could not remain unaffected.

In addition to performing at Fall for Dance in October, Pacific Northwest Ballet will return to City Center to perform an All Balanchine Program and Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette in February 2013. Tickets are on sale now.

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Some Dance Company

February 27, 2012

Some Dance Choreography by David Fernandez
Featuring Stars From New York City Ballet and
American Ballet Theatre
El Museo del Barrio

Some Dance Company brought stars of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem together with local artists and students to celebrate the choreography of Artistic Director David Fernandez and to raise funds for Career Transition for Dancers.

Some DanceIn his program notes, Fernandez embraced the idea of dancing just for the sake of dancing, without attempting to be revolutionary or to deliver a profound message. Across the program pages drifted the word, “Some steps, some music, some dances.” The evening did succeed in having a relaxed and familial atmosphere or dancers coming together for no reason but to dance, and to support a beloved choreographer and a worthy cause.

Dance Theater of Harlem opened the night with Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style) a stylish contemporary ballet piece with strong classical undertones and shades of uptown jazz. The men are dressed in suits while the women wear elegant party dresses. The dance conjures an atmosphere of a night stepping out on the town. It’s lovely and captivating and the dancers move with glamour and flair.

Some Dance White Shirt, Black Tie and Black Pants describes the costumes worn by Lili Nicole Balogh, Nicola Curry and Nicole Graniero as they dance to Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E. It’s a lovely classical ballet piece interlaced with moments of strutting, adjusting one’s tie, finessing one’s appearance and shimmying the shoulders before straightening up.

Beethoven Sonata was danced by Kristin Draucker, Dorothea Garland, Kimberly Giannelli and Katie Moorhead. They are dressed in black jackets and black shorts, and they move to the soaring Beethoven Allegro, sometimes recalling the dramatic gestures of a passionate concert pianist.

Some DanceOne of the highlights of the evening was Vitruvian Man, danced by Chase Finlay, Ask La Cour and Amar Ramasar to a gorgeous piece of music called First Movement by Jenkins Palladio. A dance of rugged masculinity, the men are bare chested as they execute exciting turn sequences and spectacular leaps - often with the arms open wide.

A large ensemble piece danced to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, juxtaposes a host of different dance styles with good humor. The women look electrifying in sapphire blue leotards by Body Wrappers / Angelo Luzio. They execute lovely ballet sections, sometimes against a conga line complete with bunny hops. Lovely formations appear on the stage as a group mime a performance by a chamber orchestra while two party guests enjoy cocktails. The piece ends with a wedding, complete with a line of festive trumpet players and weeping women.

Some DanceAnother highlight was Ask La Cour’s performance of Icarus (APR), danced to Pink Floyd’s Money. La Cour’s character is dressed like a laborer. He is sorting through items in a milk crate before he tucks some money into his wallet. He knocks a stool against the crate in time with the famous cash register bells which open the song. La Cour’s dancing seems to transcend the boundaries of the stage. He flies across the floor until a man in a suit and dark shades enters and deliberately bumps against his shoulder. He signs a check and surrenders it to La Cour, along with a pair of shades and wings. The story of Icarus plays out as Fernandez’s choreography juxtaposes the lust for money and the lust for flight. As La Cour’s character ascends, envelopes rain down from the sky. When his hubris ultimately leads him to ruin, he collapses on his stomach, only to be relieved of his wallet by the man in the suit and shades.

Some DanceFenandez had a sensual take on Libertango. Gonzalo Garcia gives a sultry and breathtaking performance along with Nicole Graniero and Luciana Paris. A sweeping and beautifully partnered pas de deux is at the center of the piece while a woman dances a solo counterpoint behind them.

Joaquin De Luz delivered an endearing performance of Five Variations on a Theme to Bach’s Violin Concerto in G. I loved the energy that he brought to this light hearted piece full of big turn sequences with unexpected and humorous landings. He carries off the subtle humor of the movement beautifully, as if he’s sharing a private joke with the audience. I love his precision and his musicality. He did not spare the bravura, delighting the audience with his awesome speed and a great series of tours and pirouettes.

The evening ended with the entire company and students clad in a rainbow of colored leotards first taking solos and then dancing together to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.

It was a most enjoyable evening. It was so generous of the men of NYCB and ABT to have appeared, and for David Fernandez to have arranged this performance to raise funds for as great a cause as Career Transition for Dancers.

All photos by Jesse Stein.

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