Fall for Dance
New York, New York
October 6, 8, 2016
Program 4: Tesseracts of Time (Jessica Lang Dance), Fall (Royal Ballet Flanders), Cry (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), Marguerite and Armand (The Sarasota Ballet)
Progam 5: Shiva Tarangam (Shantala Shivalingappa), Woke Up Blind (Nederlands Dans Theater), Witness (Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo), Beckoning (Cloud Gate 2)
Fall for Dance concluded its 2016 series with two more eclectic programs, and two more eclectic results.
It’s tempting to label Program 4 as the most “successful” of the series in terms of quality and accessibility, if not novelty, and Program 5 the least, but the results of each are sufficiently mixed that labelling the programs as successful or not is inappropriate. And FFD’s mission, to introduce audiences to dance with which they might not be familiar, was certainly met regardless. Be that as it may, by far the most glorious dances were a pair of solos – one on each program. The most significant curiosities (each of which was disappointing for different reasons): The Sarasota Ballet’s revival of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand (featuring guest artists Alina Cojocaru, Friedemann Vogel, and Johan Kobborg), a duet created for Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo by Wayne McGregor, and Nederlands Dans Theater’s Woke Up Blind.
To say that Demetia Hopkins-Greene delivered a spell-binding, miraculous performance of Alvin Ailey’s Cry would be an understatement. Ailey created Cry in 1971 as a birthday gift for his mother (its dedication is “For all Black women everywhere – especially our mothers”), and for Judith Jamison to perform. It’s a masterpiece that ranks with Ailey’s finest pieces, including Revelations, and must be witnessed and absorbed.
I first saw Cry many years ago, spectacularly danced by Jamison. Jamison and Donna Wood Sanders (who, unfortunately, I did not see dance the role live – although her performance is available on YouTube) provided “choreographic coaching” for Hopkins-Greene’s performance. To the extent they influenced her execution, they deserve significant credit. But in addition to Ailey’s choreography, and as the best dances encourage, Cry relies upon its dancer to execute and interpret the role, and in doing so to engrave her own stamp on it. Accordingly, most of the credit for this stunning performance must go to Hopkins-Greene.
To the best of my recollection, Hopkins-Greene is considerably shorter in physical stature than Jamison (and Wood Sanders), so she risked being lost in Ailey’s monumental choreographic tribute. Not a chance. Indeed, to the contrary, unable to rely at least in part on imposing stature to help deliver Cry’s message, Hopkins-Greene succeeded in conveying it exclusively through the force of her personality and her mastery of the emotion-laden choreography. Her performance was monstrously good – and unforgettable.
Shantala Shivalingappa delivered an equally extraordinary performance to open that Program 5. The emotional content of Shivalingappa’s dance, Shiva Tarangam, is in no way similar to Cry – even aside from the obvious difference in the message being transmitted (a paean to, and celebration of Shiva, Lord of the Dance). Indian dance, at least the Indian dance I’ve seen previously, appears more controlled and rigorous than Ailey’s expansive and seemingly unrestrained choreography. And unlike ballet, for example, where the steps do not relate meaning per se, the steps in Indian dance (and arm/hand/head movements) have specific meanings and tell a story by themselves. Not knowing the code is a disadvantage – but Shivalingappa made such knowledge almost unnecessary.
However, like Cry, the quality of the performance is to a large extent also based on the dancer’s delivery. Shivalingappa choreographed the dance (although my understanding is that the dance itself is similar in form and music – devotional songs written primarily by Sri Narayana Tirtha), but it is her execution – clear with as much emotional content as the Kuchipudi style allows – that distinguishes it. It’s a long piece, roughly 20 minutes, but every minute of it is fascinating.
Describing Shiva Tarangam as a solo is a bit misleading. Shivalingappa was accompanied by three musicians and a vocalist stationed stage right. The playing by B.P. Haribabu, K.S. Jayaram, and N. Ramakrishnan, and particularly J. Ramesh’s vocals (he also is credited with additional music and lyrics) enhanced the performance immensely, as did the costumes (by D.S. Aiyyelu) and lighting design (by Nicolas Boudier). But it is Shivalingappa’s show, and she had me, and apparently the rest of the audience, in the palm of her hand throughout. From her crystalline delivery, the light that illuminates her face from within, as well as her command of the style and choreography, the ecstasy is contagious. This was another superb performance.
Program 4’s highly anticipated revival of Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand also included superb performances, but the piece overall is another example of Ashton choreography that doesn’t play well for contemporary audiences. This piece has been infrequently performed since its premiere in 1963 at the Royal Opera House, perhaps because its delivery of the “essence” of the classic Dumas story La Dame aux Camelias is too Spartan to do the story justice, and perhaps also because whatever choreographic highlights there are are limited to several pas de deux that, with rare exception, are fussy and relatively passionless.
Although the production is attributed to the Sarasota Ballet, and several male dancers from that company could be seen on stage framing the action, the dancing was essentially limited to its guest artists, and further limited to the lead characters. Johan Kobborg played Marguerite’s Father, a not insignificant role (none are), and Calin Radulescu, former principal dancer, principal ballet master, and associate artistic director of the Romanian Ballet, was the Duke (Marguerite’s wealthy escort), but these are non-dancing roles. Cojocaru and Vogel did their best with it (which is considerable), but the piece is so emotionally stunted that there wasn’t much that their performances could do to rescue it. Don’t get me wrong – this is Ashton, and the choreography is impeccably crafted – and Ashton certainly makes clear by the piece’s title that the dance is focused on the two lovers, with everything else intended to be relatively superfluous. Even so, this piece is too mannered, too fussy, and too restrained. Although it too has flaws, I much prefer the ballet of the same story created by John Neumeier, which American Ballet Theatre periodically adds to its Met schedule.
McGregor is known, at least on this side of the pond, for choreography that is undoubtedly intelligent but also severe, angular in the extreme, and demonstrative of how much a dancer’s body can be pulled and stretched and contorted. Witness, which he choreographed for Ferri and Cornejo (on commission from FFD) and which was given its world premiere on the program’s first night, is not that – at least choreographically. There’s little angularity, the dancers aren’t manipulated into pretzels, and the pas de deux is filled with meaningful, fluid interaction. Ferri and Cornejo execute McGregor’s choreography to perfection.
That being said, the piece still comes across as relatively emotionless and sterile (abetted by Clifton Taylor’s lighting, which is intentionally minimal and in large part looks artificial, perhaps intended to emphasize the same qualities in the dancers’ stage relationship). This isn’t poorly crafted, just poorly conceived and eminently forgettable – and, as reflected in the sole program note (“’We perceive. We see. We see with our eyes and we see with our minds. We want to see the truth about life and all of beauty.’ – Agnes Martin”), not a little pretentious.
But compared to what preceded it in Program 5, Witness was a relief.
Woke Up Blind is choreographed by Marco Goecke to two “love songs” by Jeff Buckley: You and I and The Way Young Lovers Do. One would think, consequently, that the piece is about love – and to an extent it is (as described in the program, the dancers “throw themselves into the unknown regardless of the consequences, driven purely by longing.”) Well ok, that’s a distillation of one aspect of love, and if that’s what Goecke sees in the Buckley music, fine.
But this is translated into something entirely different. If this is love (or longing), it’s love as one might witness it in an insect colony – or on a planet populated by aliens seriously in need of ADHD medication. The movement is jarring, percussive, angular, repetitious, and fast. The direct interaction between couples (male/female and male/male) is distant and impersonal no matter how close they are to each other physically and no matter how often they quickly strike at one another’s groins.
This is not to say that the NDT dances were in any way deficient. On the contrary, they executed Goecke’s choreography flawlessly – not an easy task – at an energy level that never waned (which, judged by the level of enthusiastic applause at the pieces end, audiences seem to appreciate regardless of the dance’s quality). Although they may have looked and moved like hyperactive ants or aliens, the two women and five men delivered superbly. But there’s more to a dance, and to Buckley’s songs, than over-abundant energy and seemingly endlessly repeated staccato movement delivered emotionlessly at warp speed.
The other dances on the two programs, though less adventurous, were generally more accessible.
Program 4 opened with the NY premiere of Jessica Lang Dance’s Tesseracts of Time. A tesseract is the four dimensional analog of a cube: as succinctly explained in Wikipedia, a tesseract is to a cube as a cube is to a square. I don’t know if the “structures” that appear in Lang’s dance are strictly tesseracts, but they’re interesting architectural forms.
The piece begins with tesseracts projected against a rear stage scrim, with dancers interacting with each other (or moving independently) on stage. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this, until the tesseract projections morph into “real” tesseract-like structural sets – similar to open cube blocks – of different sizes and shapes assembled in visually interesting ways. Suddenly, one of the dancers appears within one of the cubes, high above the stage floor. How she got there is a mystery. Soon other dancers join her moving on and in the “cubes.”
But as real-looking as this is, it was all – including the dancers – part of a projection. The projection quality is so good, and the sensation so real, that I didn’t see what this really was until I tried focusing on the dancers, and they looked a bit grainy regardless of adjustments I tried making to improve the image quality. (Ok – I’m gullible.) Eventually, these dancers (in the projection) interact with “live” dancers on stage.
This concept (a dancer interacting with the image of a dancer in a projection) is not new: I’ve seen it done many times before, but this is by far the most interesting and unusual realization of the idea. The problem with it, from the point of view of a dance, is that what was happening in the “cubes” was considerably more interesting than what was happening live. Be that as it may, this piece is a distinctive, if not fully successful, work of art, with an extensive list of contributors, from the concept (Steven Holl in collaboration with Lang), to an architectural director, to artistic associates separately for film and the filming of dancers. Tesseracts of Time is well worth seeing for its concept and ingenuity.
Unlike Tesseracts of Time, which is relatively static, Cherkaoui’s Fall, which followed it on the program, is all movement, with minimal exterior impact.
I recently saw a piece choreographed by Cherkaoui danced by the L.A. Dance Project, and was not impressed. But Fall is an impressive piece, beautifully performed by the 14 RBF dancers. Cherkaoui, the company’s Artistic Director, has here choreographed a piece that explores “falling” (the title has a double meaning – at least: fall as in falling to the ground, and fall as in Autumn), but a statement like that implies that the dance is ascetic and dogmatic. It’s not. The “falls” meld seamlessly with upright movement and lifts, which – with the help of changing lighting by Fabiana Piccioli and music by Arvo Part – creates a sensational visual movement panoply. The choreography is interesting, the staging is exciting, and the RBF dances are talented and engaging.
Program 5 concluded with Cloud Gate 2’s performance of Beckoning, choreographed by Cheng Tsung-Lung, its Artistic Director. Cloud Gate 2, the program emphasizes, is not a “junior” company in which dancers gain experience prior to joining Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the highly regarded Taiwan company, and that (presumably to the contrary), CG2 simply showcases talented young dancers in original works by innovative choreographers. I’ll take the program’s statement at face value – but “junior” companies elsewhere showcase young dances in original pieces also.
Regardless, the CG2 dancers are a talented group, and Beckoning is sublimely colorful (the costumes, by Lin Bing-Hao, envelop the dancers in blocks of color, creating a lovely, mesmerizing effect in motion), but the dance is all swirling movement and not much more. My sense of it was that it’s a cross between synchronized dance (underwater, as at the Olympics) and Chinese Ribbon dance – except here there’s no water in sight, and the dancers are the “ribbons”.
FFD has always been financially successful (at least in terms of filling the house), but has been a mixed bag artistically. Its 2016 incarnation was no different. But as I noted in my discussion of FFD’s first week of programs, its purpose is to open audience’s eyes to different kinds of dance. In that sense FFD remains a highly successful New York “Event.”