writers on dancing


Letter from New York

by Mindy Aloff
copyright ©2005 by Mindy Aloff

Quote for the day:
“Dance companies do a very bad job of picking their images. They typically pick images that speak to their core audience and to themselves. If I see one more ballerina on point in arabesque, with a bun, it’s going to kill me.”
—Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., and savior of dance companies including ABT, in an interview with Jennifer Dunning, Arts&Leisure, The New York Times, 15 May 2005

Every so often, a theatergoer has a run of luck, attending one extraordinary event after another, so that his or her entire life in art seems to have been summed up and rounded off within a few weeks. I’ve enjoyed this kind of luck lately, and here, in no particular order, are some of the memories that were part of it:

Duccio’s Madonna and Infant Christ
Wednesday 11 May, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s about to be taken behind closed doors to see if conservators can help the warped and splitting wood, the flayed skin of gold leaf, the edges of the frame where burning candles ate into the little object, the size of a student’s looseleaf binder, perhaps for centuries. However, if you can see it before science rehabilitates it, try, for it contains an image of such tenderness infused with sorrowful foreknowledge that it makes a Nativity scene by Giotto on an adjacent wall look stiff and unwelcoming. For this picture, probably commissioned from the Siennese painter by a patron for private devotion (so private, in this case, that the provenance of the object prior to the mid-19th century is unknown), Duccio has chosen to show the familiar iconographic gesture of the infant peering quizzically under the Virgin’s veil as she cradles him in one arm. The infant’s focus—part curiosity, part affection—is entirely on the mother’s face. The mother’s focus, however, is only partly on the child; another part of her is looking through him into time, and her reflections well up in her face, with its exaggeratedly long, straight nose and the shining crosspiece of her brow, as the barest suggestion, yet unquestionably a suggestion, of the Crucifixion. The depth of reference in the patterns confers a tension on the painting that is palpable and visceral, and, after a while, I had to look at other things, just to clear my brain. For most of the world, the big news about Duccio’s painting is that the Met paid $45 million dollars for it. For the museum, at least insofar as the wall-legend read, the big news about it is that the figures are depicted as standing behind a parapet of geometric shapes, which insists on pushing them back into space and gives the image an illusion of spatial depth, thereby lending Duccio some of the glamour of the Florentine Renaissance. Both of these facts have their interest; however, the emotion in the painting is the thing that bowls over the average lunk who passes in front of it, that has remained alive for all these centuries, and that can’t be dowsed by the panel’s position, under security glass, in the brightly-lit room of a museum. This is art, it seems to me, of the very highest, standard-setting order—something that pleasures the senses while punching one in the gut, and that prolongs both the pleasure and the punch the longer one regards it. It has nothing to do with elitism and everything to do with lasting immediacy and connection.

Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton in the pas de deux from “Agon”;
Louise Nadeau and Christophe Maraval in the pas de deux from Kent Stowell’s “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet”
Sunday 8 May, “Works & Process,” Guggenheim Museum: “Balanchine Continued. . .at Pacific Northwest Ballet

After 27 years as co-directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Francia Russell and Kent Stowell are retiring. Their successor, Peter Boal, who is leaving the New York City Ballet to take the job, has announced a spectacular 2005-2006 season that includes the company première of Balanchine’s full “Jewels.” However, as good as that might be, the experience of seeing Barker and Stanton phrase Balanchine’s “Agon” pas de deux in a way that gives it the effect of speech in the silence of the night was, for me, the opening of a door on a room I thought had been permanently sealed many years ago. The entrance where the dancers rush onstage, the woman followed by the man, as if they’d just been debouched from the street at rush-hour into the temporary island of an apartment, had a rekindled urgency, and their interactions in the partnered adagio had the old quality of confidences being divulged, and of questions being posed and then answered, rather than, as has become the case in so many companies where “Agon” is performed, the look of two CEOs exchanging pleasantries in a business meeting or of two acrobats polishing their tricks for a tv appearance. Barker, towering, blonde, with perhaps the most beautiful arabesque penchée in American dance at the moment, was trained entirely at the PNB school and went directly into the company, rising through the ranks to her current status as its de facto prima; she is its calling card and, by extension, that of Russell and Stowell’s directorship. Still, the phrasing and overall tone must be attributable to the curatorial passion of Francia Russell, who stages and coaches Balanchine’s works around the world and who has a special connection herself, to “Agon,” for which she served as the clay on which Balanchine worked out some of the parts: during an interview on the Guggenheim program with Lourdes Lopez, executive director of The George Balanchine Foundation, Russell noted that she understood what the choreographer wanted musically, which is why he called on her in the studio. Clearly, she still understands.

Although Guggenheim program featured excerpts from four of Balanchine’s ballets in PNB’s current repertory, it also contained excerpts from eight other works from the rep, four of them by Stowell. The lark-nightingale pas de deux from his evening-length ballet, “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” (Tchaikovsky), showed a Romeo more in line with Shakespeare’s character than in any other balletic version of “Romeo and Juliet” I know of: melancholic, effusive, prey to his own impulses, Stowell’s Romeo falls down and sobs at the prospect of leaving his bride, who, decisively the stronger personality, helps him to stand and, eventually, to save his own life by fleeing. Prokofiev’s score does not permit this complex portrait of the hero. I’ve liked some of Stowell’s choreography in the past, as he’s quite sensitive to music, but I was surprised to find his Romeo so accurate to the play as well and the pas de deux so affecting in its development of character and its storytelling prowess. As Russell and Stowell explained to Lopez, the costs attendant on touring have made the company’s appearances in New York few and far between. (The last was eight years ago.) This Guggenheim evening, then, was a valediction. It was enhanced by the presence of Diane Chilgren, playing all the music in piano reductions.

Alexandra Ansanelli as Columbine in Balanchine’s “Harlequinade,” New York City Ballet, Thursday 12 May, New York State Theater.

A glorious performance—and completely unexpected. Anasanelli was phrasing the movement and seemed to have conquered the mannerisms of her use of her head, which have plagued her from her earliest days with NYCB. The final pas de deux, in which Columbine effectively becomes transformed into “La Bonne Fée” by adopting that character’s creamy legato technique, includes a phrase for the ballerina of an independent double attitude pirouette that Harlequin “catches” and converts to an off-balance promenade: Ansanelli’s lustrous execution on the 12th wouldn’t be diminished by comparison with the original Columbine, Patricia McBride. Benjamin Millepied’s Harlequin provided Ansanelli with courteous and reliable partnering, and Millepied’s entire performance over the two acts provided the audience with a dancer who was deeply inside his part. “Harlequinade” isn’t favored by many Balanchine dancers and mavens I know; perhaps the reason has been that good performances of it have been rare. In this cast, on this evening, the adult soloists, including those whose roles are purely pantomime—Andrei Kramarevsky as Columbine’s guardian, Adrian Danchig-Waring in the thankless role of Columbine’s foppish suitor—performed as if they believed in the ballet, something I, for one, haven’t seen in many years of “Harlequinade”-watching at NYCB. A joy.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Tuesday 19 April;
Nrityagram, Joyce Theater

Joan Acocella, dance critic for The New Yorker, wrote honestly, judiciously, and definitively about the Morris concert in the issue of 9 May. Her essay included reports of similar brilliance on the Martha Graham Dance Company at City Center in early April and on Nrityagram, a company from India devoted to the classical Odissi dance tradition, with choreography by their artistic director, Surupa Sen, at the Joyce. I have no idea whether Acocella publishes so infrequently about dancing in the magazine by choice, like her predecessor, Arlene Croce, or whether The New Yorker, like other magazines now, thinks that the art is best covered infrequently. Whatever the reason, Acocella writes rings around her fellow critics there, and the infrequency of her voice on dancing is a loss for all of us.

Christopher Caines: dances for the Actors Shakespeare Company’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” Friday 29 April at New Jersey City University, Jersey City, N.J.

For the Capulets’ ball of this traditional production, Caines made a series of line, chain, and hand-to-hand partner dances based on Renaissance dance steps. (The men had a passage of jumping steps that seemed to spring from the volta, for instance.) The patterns of the lines in space, including a sinuous loop doubling back on itself, were of his own devising. Sufficiently simple that actors without dance training looked expert doing them, yet sufficiently complex in the patterning as to give the eye a wealth of visual interest, the choreography was wise, lovely, completely appropriate to its context, and didn’t include a single instant of anyone rolling around on the floor. (The actors supplied plenty enough of that elsewhere.). In June (16-19), Caines will present a new dance to a choral work by Thomas Tallis, with a 40-voice choir, to mark the 500th anniversary of the composer’s birth, at Danspace at St. Mark’s Church in Lower Manhattan. If the language of dancing is what you want from choreography, I recommend the program sight unseen.

George Gershwin evening, Brooklyn Philharmonic
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Saturday 7 May

For its 50th anniversary season, the Brooklyn Philharmonic programmed music sentimentally affiliated with the borough: this last concert of all-Gershwin—whose family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan before George could crawl—was no exception. (In a future season, perhaps the Philharmonic will consider an evening devoted to native Brooklynites Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla, both of whom, like Gershwin, eventually went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.) For an excellent review of the evening, see Anthony Tommasini’s “Gershwin: Bringing It All Back Home,” The New York Times, 10 May. The audience did love the entire program, conducted by guest Chelsea Tipton II (who had something like four days to rehearse with the orchestra after he was brought in to replace the indisposed Robert Spano). The first half comprised “Rhapsody in Blue” (with Leon Bates swinging through the cadenzas for the piano) and “An American in Paris,” but the packed house was brought to its feet after intermission by the larger-than-life music-making of a suite from “Porgy and Bess,” arranged for voices and orchestra by Lorin Maazel, whose forces consisted of the orchestra, three outstanding soloists, and a huge choral group, the Total Praise Choir from Brooklyn’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, located practically next door to the theater. When the Bess of soprano Cynthia Haymon (the Bess of the much-lauded 1986-7 production of the full opera at Glyndebourne) and the Porgy of baritone Kevin Deas made love to one another in the song “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” voice pouring into voice like two streams of melted butter, it was difficult to believe that anyone of a less than angelic order had actually written the music.

I’ve been attending the Phil’s anniversary concerts because nearly all of the works in them have been staged by or linked in some way with dancers, all of them very well-known: “The Seven Deadly Sins” of Brecht and Weill (Balanchine), Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin” (Balanchine), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Duncan), “Rhapsody in Blue” (Anton Dolin et al), “An American in Paris” (Gene Kelly, Christopher Wheeldon). And, of course, the first production of “Porgy,” directed in 1935 by Rouben Mamoulian, featured John W. Bubbles, generally considered the father of rhythm tap, as Sportin’ Life. In a phone interview on Sunday, 8 May, I asked Evans Mireage, advisor to the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a strong voice in its programming, whether there was any intention to bring together, in one season, so much wonderful music that had served dance so beautifully. The answer was a genial yet unequivocal no.

Dancing in Tongues
Young dancers are perpetually seeking edge, and nothing seems to cut as deep right now as choreography for parts of the body not usually incorporated into dance performances. In her concert at the Joyce SoHo on Thursday, 14 April, the Canadian native and rapturously unpredictable Aszure Barton (whose inspiration seems to come from channeling Doris Humphrey while club-dancing) concluded her new suite, “Lascilo Perdere,” with a duet for a man and a woman whose unifying device (so to speak) was their physical connection through his tongue, which she held for the adagio’s duration between her teeth. As grotesque as this might sound, it actually wasn’t, although it did take a few moments to get used to it without squirming empathically. However, when the woman took a full back fall, encouraging the man to fall facing her, without injury to either party, Barton made her case for the dramatic significance of the connection to a work about the insane frontiers of passion as well as for the virtuosity of her dancers. Aszure & Artists will be performing at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. Pocket some mints and go.

Finally, Christopher Williams—a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence dance program and a former student of Jacques Le Coq, the late theoretician and pedagogue of movement and mime (at one point in the 1970’s and/or 1980’s, Le Coq used to make cameo appearances in the U.S. as the placard servant for Marcel Marceau)—briefly featured a (prop) tongue for one of the 11 female saints impersonated by a host of downtown dancers at P.S. 122 in his elaborate, ambitious, and scholarly extravaganza “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.” (Each “Virgin” we saw represented 999 others we didn’t.) Unfortunately for the saint, whose head was encased in a Medieval torture instrument, the tongue was soon detached—by her own teeth, so it seemed—and flung to the floor, where it was scooped up by one of the coldly indifferent, bare-chested male figures who were torturing her. I expect that it will not wind up in a burger at a fast-food restaurant, as “Ursula” strongly suggests that Williams is a vegetarian, as well as a young man with a love-hate relationship to the choreographic imagery of Martha Graham. In the finest of the dances, the Saint Agnes of Vicky Shick studies the abdomen of a darling marionette of a lamb, beribboned in red, then unties the ribbons and, in a tip of the hoof to Graham’s Medea, drops them, as if they were intestinal delicacies, into her mouth.

The martyrdom of saints, with or without vittles, is not the usual fare on my appointed rounds as a critic. Indeed, I’ve never seen a work quite as off-the-beaten-track at P.S. 122 as this one—and P.S. 122 is an institution that specializes in experiments that attempt to run dirt bikes into unchartered forest. Or quite as refined in its production elements. For one thing, the production team includes a credit line for “Medieval Hagiography Scholars” (two). The “Early Music Research/Transcriptions” are credited to Susan Hellauer and Frederick Renz. The astounding costumes and evocative lighting were co-designed by the choreographer. And the live band played both actual music from the Middle Ages and new music that gave the Middle Ages a kick in the modals from time to time. Furthermore, there, reuning on moveable chairs near the band, were Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner, two members of the extraordinary women’s a capella quartet Anonymous 4, whose dissolution was all over the Internet just a few months ago. And the dancers included some remarkable performers, such as Shick or, in a performance that also deserves to win a Bessie, Janet Charleston as St. Lucy. Williams, himself, isn’t listed as a performer; however, some guy who impersonated a large, exasperating lizard with a spectacular pounce took a separate bow at the end, and I thought he might have been the choreographer. (Elizabeth Zimmer, the dance editor of The Village Voice, who made an appearance as Saint Wilgefortis from Old England, has compared Williams’s jump to Nijinsky’s in reviews, which also suggested to me that Williams might have been the reptile, giving the phrase “Leaping Lizards!” a whole new dimension.)

Now, in order to do justice to its elaborate array of elements, I’ve spent a lot of space on this concert, and you might think from my doing so that it was completely engrossing. Actually, it wasn’t. Of the 11 numbers, perhaps four were riveting from beginning to end; the others, despite magnetizing passages, didn’t really progress, so that one left the figures in the same state as they were at their entrances. Nothing was conventional; however, lack of convention, in itself, isn’t equivalent to a great time in the theater. In fact, the hour is more interesting in retrospect than it was to undergo. I began to get interested in William’s possible ideas (as opposed to their realization) when my college-age daughter poked me in the ribs and mouthed the word, “PETA.”

On the way home, she explained that every dance had been inspired by the characteristic movement of a particular animal: a cow, a cockatoo, a horse, and so forth. And off the beaten track as this seemed at first, when I think back to the images, I wonder if she may have been right on target. Her capstone evidence was that the saint who threw herself against the naked backs of several men, then went over to one of P.S. 122’s pillars and seemed to run her tongue along it, then nosed an opening in the wall of men and propelled herself to freedom lickety-split, was actually a hamster. (“When I saw her lick the pillar, I realized that that was the water-dropper.”) Interpretation or intuited inspiration? Williams, who is also a puppeteer, has apparently been obsessed for some time with images of beasts as well as supernatural creatures drawn from Medieval iconography. “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins” transformed its human cast into puppets and brought out the humanity of its lone puppet. It’s not dancing, really, despite its energetic movement; much of the imagery is overcast with menace or, sometimes, sadism; and too many sections just peter out. Still, as a production, it evidenced tremendous thought. And that, in itself, is very rare.—Mindy Aloff

Volume 3, No. 19
May 16, 2005

copyright ©2005 Mindy Aloff



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last updated on May 1, 2005