When ODC Theater first produced the Walking Distance Dance Festival it brought together some of the gems of Bay Area dance. Now in its third year, it’s reaching farther afield to include artists from New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles as well as a few of San Francisco’s finest. According to SF Weekly,this annual festival provides “an occasion to reconsider the state of contemporary dance.”
Amy O’Neal’s solo, The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, photo by Bruce Clayton Tom
One of the intriguing programs on May 31 will pair Seattle’s congenially defiant, gender-bending Amy O’Neal with New York’s eternally saucy Doug Elkins. They have each created their own mash-up of hip-hop and postmodern dance so they are sort of part of the same sister/brotherhood. (Click on this Choreography in Focus for a video conversation between Amy and me, complete with popping lesson!)
Lucky for me—I will actually be part of this festival on that day. Because I’ll be reading and not dancing, I can attend the events just before and after my 6:00 time slot, which will be a short walk away from ODC Theater and Dance Commons at the Store Front Lab.
Rachna Nivas of Chitresh Das Dance Company, photo by Margo Moritz
I look forward to seeing the latest incarnation of Charlie Moulton, whom I knew when he was a Cunningham dancer just beginning to choreograph. He’s now half of Garrett + Moulton Productions, and they’ll be paired with the renowned Kathak group, Chitresh Das Dance Company. At some point I’ll head down to the Mission District to see Heidi Duckler’s site-specific Bowling Blues at Mission Bowling Club. I’ve heard about her work but never experienced it.
As the promotional material says, the pairings have been designed to “spark conversation.” And that goes for my reading too. Even though my bit will be toute seule, I definitely intend to trigger conversation—if not full-fledged arguments! But in another way, my reading won’t be alone at all, because I feel embraced by the Bay Area dance community just by being invited to this festival. Plus, my way has been paved by this thoughtful advance story by ODC writer-in-residence Marie Tollon.
The WDDF is actually a two-day festival, May 30 and 31, so check out their website for the full scope.
Amy O’Neal in Something light, for the sake of the dark, photo by Tim Summers. Photo of O’Neal on Homepage by Gabriel Bienczycki
Danielle Agami has the gift of turning awkwardness into something beautiful. After her terrific hour-long mouth to mouth, you feel you know something slightly crazy about each of the eight dancers in her new Los Angeles–based company, Ate9. In the manner of Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company, with whom Agami danced and served as rehearsal director, the dancers are exposed, vulnerable, not quite pulled together but celebrating their own eccentricities. They performed last weekend and have one more performance coming up on May 31.
Genna Moroni, David Maurice, Ariana Daub, Sarah Butler, photo by by Scott Simock
Although the piece is not overtly narrative dance, there are many little stories within it. David Maurice gently touches Sarah Butler, manipulating parts of her body into twisty positions. He is not caressing her but the way his hands move toward and away from her body speaks of warmth and caring. And then he gently bops her on the head and walks away. She runs after him, tackles him to the ground, and drags him offstage.
Rebecah Goldstone on floor, photo by Scott Simock
Although a portion of Agami’s choreographic ability comes from her work with Basheva, another portion is totally her own voice. There are references to bourrées and classic port de bras that are neither mockery nor wannabe but just make use of a sudden lightness. There’s a humor throughout and a pleasure in the music choices. While Nina Simone sings “That Ain’t Good,” David Maurice dances an astonishing body-disruptive solo. Since the piece is called mouth to mouth, you pay attention to the kisses, which start off as clumsy, mis-aimed attempts and end up being softer, nurturing mouth-to mouth-contact.
May 31, Salvatore Capezio Theater, Peridance, NYC. Click here for info.
When one downtown choreographer’s work is spread over a whole month, there is time to contemplate that artist’s work. I dropped by the Danspace Project for the first “A catalogue of steps,” part of PLATFORM 2014 on/by DD Dorvillier last Wednesday (five more to go) for half an hour of the three-hour stint, and found a quiet and concentrated space. An oasis in the middle of my week. The intensity of the dancers, especially Katerina Andreou, pulled me in immediately—and that’s hard to do without music, lights, and a crowd watching. I felt the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church was really a sanctuary at that moment, with light streaming through the stained glass windows and the carillon chiming every half hour.
Katerina Andreou and Oren Barnoy, photo by Ian Douglas
When she dances, Dorvillier has an uncanny knack for interrupting her own flow of movement with bluntly honest radical changes. A soft caving in of the chest might make way for a carefree skip. It’s like she suddenly empties her body of all intention and quickly replaces it with a completely different intention. That kind of restlessness is hard to transfer to other dancers, but the three who are devoting themselves to these long days of “Catalogue of Steps” are doing a terrific job. They allow us to see Dorvillier’s choreographic mind at work.
When I entered the sanctuary Katerina Andreou was plowing through a physically wild solo with utmost precision while Oren Barnoy and Nibia Pastrana, sitting on the floor, were slowly leaning in toward each other in a kiss that never happened. (At a certain point the dancers changed places in this and other sequences.) The juxtaposition gave food for thought during several repetitions. Only about 15 audience members were there, free to walk around the periphery and peruse note cards used in the choreographic process.
Oren Barnoy at window, photo by Ian Douglas
Throughout the month there will also be a series of solo performances by dance artists who have collaborated with Dorvillier like Jennifer Monson, Jennifer Lacey, and Walter Dundervill. And then, as culmination (or not) in June there will be four performances of Diary of an Image, a new work by Dorvillier with music by Zeena Parkins, lighting by the extraordinary Thomas Dunn, and Dorvillier herself dancing.
Assorted conversations in the flesh and on paper accompany this series, whose full title is PLATFORM 2014: Diary of an Image by DD Dorvillier. For full information, click here.
Sarah Lane as Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, photo by Gene Schiavone
Usually the word “star,” when applied to ballet dancers, is reserved for principals. But at American Ballet Theatre, there are three female stars who are still at soloist level. I mean real stars: They light up the stage, they are mature in their artistry, and they are unmistakable individuals. They just don’t have the rank or hype to go with it. I’m talking about Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, and Stella Abrera.
These three women each have such a magnetic presence onstage and dramatic range (not to mention sterling technique) that they could be top ballerinas at any other company. I think ABT audiences would be happy to see them in lead roles.
Stella Abrera, left, with Diana Vishneva in Bayadère, photo by Gene Schiavone
This season Lane and Copeland are cast as Swanilda in Coppelia, and Abrera and Copeland are cast as Gamzatti in Bayadère. But none of them will get a crack at Giselle or Odette/Odile. For the full calendar, click here.
Lane has a sweetness and vulnerability that Ratmansky used to advantage in his latest premiere for the company, The Tempest. As Aurora a few years ago, she had the most natural radiance and sense of wonder of any of the ABT ballerinas. She was majestic in Tudor’s Shadowplay, where she’s held aloft as a celestial figure. And she was fresh as a breeze in Les Sylphides.
Misty Copeland in Bayadère, photo by Rosalie O’Connor
Copeland has a strength that makes her look invincible, which is why she was such a good choice for Ratmansky’s Firebird. Her sense of shape is highly defined—and she’s got a fire too. As Mercedes in Don Quixote, she ruffles her skirt to jazz everyone else onstage. As a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, she’s bursting with mischief. In Balanchine’s Duo Concertant just this week, she infused the steps with joy and verve, and she projected the subtlest whiff of romance. She’s terrific in contemporary work too (in works by Tharp and Marcelo Gomes).
Abrera with David Hallberg in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, photo by Marty Sohl, 2005
Abrera’s fullness in slow movements takes my breath away. As the Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, just opening her arms from high fifth was an event to witness. She absolutely sparkled in the first movement of Symphony in C recently, and I’ve seen her tear around the stage in crazed grief as Lady Capulet. In Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, she alone of the six original dancers embodied the subtle hints of narrative.
I have been continually knocked out by these three stars for years. Of course when casting and promoting dancers, there are factors I know nothing about. So this is not a complaint. But from an audience point of view, I would be thrilled to see any one of these ravishing dancers as Giselle, Juliet, or Odette.
Known for formal rigor spiked with moments of surreal humor, John Jasperse premieres a new work called Within between. Curiosity is what drives his choreography, for example, What happens (as in Canyon) if someone inside a traveling box lays town masking tape across the floor and walls for the whole performance? Or, what happens (as in Fort Blossom) if two male dancers are nude and two women are covered up?
Photo of early version of “Within between” by Lauren Burke, courtesy of American Dance Institute
Don’t expect lovely dance phrases or muscular effort that whips up a visceral momentum. Don’t even expect the patterns of minimalist choreography. Do expect some sort of paradox. This new dance plays with states of “belonging versus exclusion.” According to the press release, Jasperse is creating a work that is “both mine and not mine.” In my “Quick Q&A” with John last year, he talked about how his perceptions of his own choreography slide around from, say, sexual to medical. He definitely works on that edge of ambiguity where the same action can seem serious one moment and absurd the next. Sometimes the most mundane actions take on an unexpected beauty. In Misuse liable to prosecution, when a prone dancer who held a bottle of water between her knees raised her legs, the light shimmered through the bottle in the most beautiful way.
May 28–31 at New York Live Arts. Click here for more info.
Sensual and sensational, the dancers of Alonzo King’s LINES Contemporary Ballet stretch and ooze through his inventive choreography. King brings out different aspects of contemporary ballet with every music choice he makes. In this concert, we’ll hear music by jazz composer Pharoah Sanders, Japanese-American Miya Masaoka and, for the new work, new music composers John Oswald, Michael Jon Fink, and Peter Garland.
Meredith Webster and David Harvey. Homepage photo of Caroline Rocher, photos by RJ Muna
Two of LINES’ most stunning dancers are stepping down after this season: Caroline Rocher, who was a 2001 “25 to Watch” in Dance Magazine; and Meredith Webster, who will serve as ballet master. With no shortage of star power, the LINES gala on May 21 is chaired by Linda Ronstadt. Anyone who’s met Alonzo King knows he’s a good talker, winding his way from frappés to philosophy. This season gives a chance to hear him expound on May 22. And on May 23 King will sign copies of LINES’ coffee table photo book, which reflects the striking sense of design that King, along with costume designer Robert Rosenwasser, has made a part of his aesthetic since the beginning. May 21–25, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. Click here for tickets or here.
Where has American modern dance gone? Has it been subsumed or consumed or bumped off by contemporary dance? Or by contemporary ballet? By hip-hop? Have the earthy heroics of early modern dance become irrelevant? Replaced by the anti-heroes of Judson Dance Theater and later? Has modern dance fled to Europe and looped back to us in conceptual non-dance? Or has it gone to Korea? If modern dance returns in the form of a re-organized troupe of Paul Taylor’s, will anyone go see it?
Barbara Morgan’s famous photo of Graham’s Primitive Mysteries, 1931
These questions have been sparked by my recent viewings of the Limón and Graham companies and by participating in Valentina Kozlova’s quest to discover “contemporary dance” talent. Plus, there was that strange announcement by Paul Taylor saying he will no longer make new dances but will open his company as a home for modern dance.
Different kinds of dance speak to us at different times. When Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey broke away from Ruth St. Denis in the 1920s, they were searching for an American form of dance, a form that would replace vaudeville with art and replace decoration with substance. Their pioneering work, inspired by American landscapes and cityscapes, was physically grounded and spiritually uplifting. In modern dance classics like Graham’s Primitive Mysteries and José Limón’s Psalm, the group yields to the suffering and exaltation of the chosen individual.
José Limón’s Psalm, photo by Beatriz Schiller
I used to think that modern dance turned into contemporary dance, that it evolved naturally. (In my own evolution as a dancer, I passed through Graham, Limón, Cunningham, Tharp, and Trisha Brown.) But I see now that the work of Graham and Limón is still very much with us. Modern and contemporary dance co-exist. When their companies perform those early classics, we feel that grounding underneath them. We feel the brave pioneering aspect of it, the insistence on human dignity in the face of adversity—even if we don’t feel it speaks directly to us today. The contraction and release of Graham, and the fall and recovery of Humphrey theatricalized deeply felt human emotion. These visceral approaches, framed by a strong sense of design, formed the foundation of modern dance.
When Cunningham left Martha Graham’s company in the 1940s, he kept the austerity but left the drama behind. He scattered his dancers all over the space, de-centering it, allowing the audience to choose where to look. At the same time he embraced the verticality of ballet rather than the earthiness of modern dance. And he eschewed any kind of overt narrative. His style was so different that it needed a new name, and contemporary dance was born.
Gyeong Jin Lee’s solo Stranger, photo by Yelena Yeva
In recent years, “contemporary” has become a catchall term meaning anything that’s not identifiable as ballet, especially on TV and in competitions. So I was curious when I served as a judge last month in the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, which this year focused on “contemporary dance” (results are posted here). What we judges found was a whole gamut, from glittery pink ice-skating skirts and pointe shoes to fierce solos that were gripping to watch, in much the same way people reacted to Graham’s early work. Three of these enthralling solos came from Korea.
JuMi Lee’s solo Hailling Sorrow, photo by Yelena Yeva
It turns out that the Korea National University of Arts School of Dance is producing terrific dancer/choreographers who know how to delve inside themselves for material. Their teacher, Jeon Mi-Sook, a fellow judge at VKIBC, told me that the students study ballet, Graham, Limón, and Cunningham at different stages of their training. What struck me was that, like early Graham and Humphrey, their dancing was deeply visceral—to the point where one movement was almost sobbing—contained by very designed shapes. They haven’t yet acquired the irony of today’s American visceral dance makers.
Back to Paul Taylor’s plan of renaming his company Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. It’s nice to know there is a plan, as Taylor is aging. And it’s generous to offer up his dancers for the preservation of modern dance in general. But is that what today’s dance audience needs or wants? Clearly, the Graham and Limón groups have to infuse their rep with new works in order to attract an audience. If Taylor proposes to become a curator rather than a choreographer, he will be showing some modern dance classics that already have a showcase. (I can’t imagine that he’ll acquire works by Cunningham or the postmodern Trisha Brown works, as his dancers are not trained in those styles.) Would he bring in the work of Taylor alumni like Tharp, Parsons, Mazzini, and Corbin? Would that strengthen or dilute his programming? Is it naïve of Taylor to think that American modern dance still has some caché, considering there is so much fascinating new dance coming out of Israel, Europe, and Asia—and the U.S.?
Although I am asking these questions, I am not bemoaning the loss of modern dance as we once knew it. I guess I’m just more interested in seeing what’s happening in dance now, from all over the world, rather than capturing the heyday of a certain period. Maybe there’s another way to honor American modern dance—to appreciate how it’s grown and spread and sewn seeds far and wide. I would go to see a documentary film about that period, but prefer to see live dancing of our lives now.
While many Americans choreographers are bee-lining it to collaborate with international composers, Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, is placing his bets on Americans. It seems preposterous, but he is choreographing seven new works for a six-day festival—exactly the number of ballets that Balanchine made for the famous Stravinsky festival in 1972. From George Gershwin to John Zorn, Byrd is determined to satisfy his American itch.
Spectrum Dance Theater in Donald Byrd’s LOVE (2012), photo by Nate Watters
The title of the festival is promising: “Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers and Dance.” That adjective describes perfectly his premiere for Dance Theatre of Harlem last season. I was taken by—rather grabbed by—his rambunctious Contested Space, which I called “relentlessly inventive” in this posting. The first program of Rambunctious, May 15–17, includes music by Gershwin, Copland, and Persichetti, at Freemont Abbey Arts Center. For the second program, May 22–24 at Washington Hall, the composers are Wuorinen, John Zorn, and Don Krishnaswami. All the music will be played live by Seattle’s own chamber music group Simple Measures, including an overture to each performance by Charles Ives. For more info, click here. And to catch up on the voice of Donald Byrd, see his Choreography in Focus.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to break through to a new mode, a different look. When 40 NYCB dancers fled across the Koch Theater stage in unmanageable hordes, one knew right away that this was a different kind of ballet. To the music of Woodkid, and wearing variously dotted unitards, the dancers created tableaux that cast huge, heroic shadows on the backdrop (lighting by Mark Stanley). Spartacus for today.
JR’s installation last season, using NYCB dancers to form a huge eye, photo by me
This pièce d’occasion, Les Bosquets, was created by French street artist JR, who had wowed us last season with a design on the mezzanine floor that showed an uncanny choreographic sense. His stroke of genius attracted a younger audience, and Peter Martins invited him back to create an eight-minute dance for the week of 21st-century programs.
A lot happened in those eight minutes. The theme of a prince trying to reach his ideal woman amidst a forest of obstacles was familiar from classic ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Firebird. But here, the prince was jookin dancer Lil Buck, which made an aesthetic/cultural point. Since both Lil Buck and the ballerina, Lauren Lovette, were dressed in papery white, they seem destined to be together. And yet they never came together—except in live, ultra close-up film. As in Romeo and Juliet, everything aligned to keep them apart, even a line of other dancers. (if you want to see a duet between a street dancer and a ballet dancer where they really do dance together, check out this wonderful behind-the-scenes video of William Wingfield and Whitney Jensen.)
Les Bosquets with Lil Buck and Lauren Lovetter, photo by Paul Kolnik
In the end, when they all lined up for a bow, one could see that the thousands of dots, spread over the costumes of the 40 dancers, formed a pair of eyes—an echo of the collectively made eye that JR created last season. Les Bosquets has been dismissed as a novelty or a crowd-pleaser, but I found it tantalizing. It made me wonder what JR would do with a longer span of time.
Barber Violin Concerto with Charles Askegard, Megan Fairchild, Sara Mearns, and Jared Angle, photo by Paul Kolnik
Apparently Peter Martins helped translate JR’s ideas into steps, and it’s interesting that this collaboration was on the same program with Barber Violin Concerto, which was a past foray of Martins into new territory. He originally made it in 1988 for two NYCB dancers and two Paul Taylor dancers—Kate Johnson and David Parsons. Megan Fairchild’s rambunctious jittery energy in the Kate Johnson role was as far from Martins’ comfort zone as Lil Buck was.
In the context of NYCB’s Balanchine and Robbins rep, Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux (1992) is a breakthrough too. The movement is rangier, quirkier, and the walking—this may seem like a small thing—is done heel-first. How often you see ballet dancers walk like a normal human on the stage? They are trained to walk toe first, which I have always felt was unnatural. I loved the way Amar Ramasar, with his broad hunky shoulders, shifted deliciously as he took those insolent Forsythian heel-first walks.
Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle in This Bitter Earth, photo by Paul Kolnik
My last comment about this program: In her comeback after a sabbatical and hip surgery, Wendy Whelan performed Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth (excerpt) with Tyler Angle, gliding through the piece with a calm force—or a forceful calm. But actually Whelan’s’ presence hovered over the evening. For years she was the go-to girl for Herman Schmerman and she had created a lead role in Ratmansky’s Namouna (the whole second part of the program). But more than that, her ability to imbue contemporary ballet with crystal-edged clarity and a completely unsentimental kind of spirituality makes her the ideal interpreter of 21st-century choreographers. Which is why it will be sad that she will give her farewell to NYCB this October.
You will never see a ballet as funny as Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. Made in 1956, it captures the daydreams of a group of appealing neurotics during a Chopin concert played live on the piano. We see their flights of fancy: the young lady who tries on different ridiculous hats, the hilarious Mistake Waltz, the cigar-chomping guy who dreams of stabbing his wife, and the umbrella scene. The umbrella scene—so whimsical about the state of uncertainty and the state of loneliness. (Brian Reeder told me in this Choreography in Focus how touched he is by the hint of melancholy in that scene.) One could say the ballet looks dated, but it’s choreographed with such brilliant craft that you may be noticing how each scene builds as you are giggling uncontrollably.
The Concert. Homepage photo of by John Ross.
The Concert is paired with Glass Pieces, which always blows me away with its kinetic subtlety and power. Starting with what looks like random sidewalk traffic, the choreography gets swept up in Philip Glass’ momentum. Sandwiched in between these two masterworks is Op. 19/The Dreamer, which, I have to admit, I have not yet unlocked. But hey, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild are dancing it together on two nights, so that’s all I need to know. May 9–10 and 18–19. Click here for tickets.
Glass Pieces, photo by Paul Kolnik. Homepage photo by John Ross