Alison Cook Beatty Dance, with Guest Artists
Peridance Capezio Center – Salvatore Capezio Theater
New York, New York
November 9, 2019
Artists in Motion: 2019
Alison Cook Beatty Dance: Seele, Banshee’s Lamentation, Messages in Time
Anastasia Ignatova: Readers of Newspapers
Ayalis In Motion: Pythagorean Peas (excerpt)
The Fun Dolls: Make it Out Alive
One of the benefits of attending assembled performances by emerging companies is the opportunity to be introduced to many nascent groups (or groups that have been emerging for awhile) that have interesting things to say and / or interesting ways to say it. And one thing leads to another: with each new discovery comes the promise if more discoveries to come.
So it was with the recent performance by Alison Cook Beatty Dance, which celebrated its 7th annual New York season with a series of four programs under the rubric “Artists in Motion,” with different dance menus for each of the four nights: a “column A” consisting of two alternating Alison Cook Beatty Dance pieces, and a “column B” comprised of dances by the eleven guest choreographers / companies. The result was a different program each of the four nights. I saw the third of the four programs.
The most ambitious pieces were those choreographed by Artistic Director Alison Cook-Beatty for her own company. I’ll address these first.
The evening opened with Seele, choreographed earlier this year. It’s a strange, but very interesting dance, a pas de trois with two women and one man where the visualized relationship involves complex emotional currents that ultimately make it difficult to determine where the center of gravity is, or if there is one. Initially, the women — Vera Paganin and Sasha Rydlizky — appear to have the bare-chested man — Richard Sayama — under their control in a clash of wills that initially appears to be for sexual dominance. But it doesn’t stay that way: it grows into a battle among the three of them for his soul – and along the way, for theirs as well. In a way, the dance reminds me thematically of Magnetic Temptations, the piece by Cook-Beatty that introduced me to her company, in its emotional turmoil and battle for the soul (“Seele,” in German, means “soul”) visualized, at least on the surface, by sirens bent on overpowering their prey. But where Magnetic Temptations took far too long to make its point (a consequence of the score used), Seele transmits a similar mood more succinctly. [The dance might also be seen as a contest of sorts in which Paganin’s character intrudes on the relationship between Rydlizky and Sayama – or Sayama intrudes on the relationship between Rydlizky and Paganin – but the piece struck me as being larger than that.]
There’s not much plot here, but there doesn’t need to be. Seele is far more emotionally complicated than a movement exercise, and it has a structure, elusive as that structure may be. Maybe it’s all some sort of game that can be seen in varying shades of gray. But the choreography is complex and intense, exacerbated by the dramatic costumes for the women and by the score that Cook-Beatty has selected: the haunting Entrada, at the River by American composer Ingram Marshall, and “Teil I” from Icelandic composer Kjartan Sveinsson’s four act “opera” Der Klang der Offenbarung des Gottlichen (which translates to The Explosive Sonics of Divinity). Even without knowing the anything about the music beyond what’s presented here, it’s clear that there’s a cosmic energy to this piece that percolates to create an ambiance that complements Cook-Beatty’s choreography.
The dancers’ relationship(s) is as complex and intense as the music. This intensity is layered in balletic lyricism (including compellingly executed overhead lifts that are rare in this performing context) that seems contradictory to the aggressive encounters, but which makes the dance as a whole far more interesting than just a series of power-driven liaisons. I would have preferred a distinctive beginning and end, but the piece is a continuum that presumably has neither a beginning nor an end, so their absence is appropriate. Seele is a thrilling piece to watch, and the three dancers were outstanding.
The other two dances, Banshee’s Lamentation and Messages in Time, are less exciting, but perhaps more consistent with what Cook-Beatty apparently likes to do: to tell stories. That’s rare in this age of contemporary ballet choreography in which idiosyncratic movement is the message, and not as easy to do as it may sound. Telling the story in an understandable way is only one component. Making the characters’ actions real is another component which can be presented with varying degrees of individual emotional development. Another is to create, or recreate, stories where one cares about, or can relate positively or negatively to, the characters. That’s a tougher nut to crack.
With one exception, Banshee’s Lamentation successfully tackles all these components. Created in 2013, the piece is very much in keeping with another of Cook-Beatty’s dances that I’ve seen, Mahaway: Spring Eternal. That piece was based on a Mayan folk tale; this one is not clearly based on any tale, but is derived from an Irish myth about a fairy woman (“Bean Si”) who is a herald of something of great importance – usually the imminent death of a family member. Sort of a combination “seer” and “angel of death.” [I had thought that a “banshee” had a Native American connection, but that does not appear to be the case.] The story is of a Banshee whose wails signal the imminent death of one of four sisters. While my research does not support it, according to the program note the banshee can in rare cases be a male, as it is here – though I suspect the change here was in large part a product of company casting limitations and/or an effort to provide a counterpoint to an all female cast.
Choreographed to Carson Cooman’s Lyric Trio for Trumpet, Cello, and Piano (played live by Kate Amrine, Jessica Wang, and Eunbi Kim on the respective instruments, wearing simple white costumes that complement the dancers), the ballet takes the audience through the period of normalcy, the disruptive entry of the banshee, the sisters’ horror at the thought of losing their beloved sister, the doomed sister’s efforts to fight the illness that will take her life, and the Banshee’s eventual carrying the sister off. The three sisters in anticipation of mourning, Carolina Rivera, Fiona Oba and Paganin, did excellent work displaying their anger and despair via their acting and Cook-Beatty’s choreography. As the doomed sister, Rydlizky was extraordinarily compelling – and Rydlizky’s ability to act vivacious one minute and vulnerable the next is rarely seen at this level. But the character of the Banshee, portrayed by Timothy Ward, was expressed with a much more limited choreographic and emotional palette. It may be that this is the only way to handle such a character, but I expected the banshee to wail; instead, I saw more of an emotionless annunciation and eventual transport.
The other story ballet, Messages in Time, which had its world premiere earlier in the run, is more difficult to assess, and I confess I grew more impressed with it in hindsight than I did while I watched it. Whereas Banshee’s Lamentation was a creation based on a known folkloric scenario, Messages in Time appears to have been created from whole cloth, and I think that part of the difficulty I had was that because the story is unfamiliar, on first view I considered it from a macro perspective, trying to follow the plot, and perhaps didn’t see the trees for the forest.
Initially, it must be emphasized that Messages in Time utilized far more than the usual sum of creative artistic energy. It very obviously is a labor of love for all involved. The story was crafted by Cook-Beatty and two highly respected artists with considerable experience under their belts: violinist Shem Guibbory, a member of the Met Opera Orchestra who has been involved for over 30 years with creating innovative work with artists in various media, and Anne Catherine de Mare, an Emmy winning documentary filmmaker with significant experience as a playwright and theater director. And ultimately it all works as a depiction of people in crisis and the emotional forces that compel the action. The problem is that even with a discernable story, varied choreography, a well-conceived score (comprised of various segments of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes for Piano and Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violin and Orchestra, pre-recorded by Guibbory on violin and Susan Sobolewski on piano), and fine work by the dancers, with rare exception it didn’t make me care, and if it has any universal message, it’s limited to “actions have consequences.”
The story takes place in a small town, and the characters “emerge from a place out of time.” [While that descriptive phrase, from the program note, is intended to provide a sense of universality, the story would benefit by being anchored somewhere.] It tells of the celebration dance (perhaps a wedding celebration) for a young poet (Ward) and his bride (Rydlizky), watched over by a town official (Sayama). [The characters are named for the dancers, so the groom and bride are “Tim” and “Sasha,” and the town official is “Richard.”] A widow, Carolina (Rivera) and her son Nico (Niccolo Orsolani) are among the attendees. Richard joins the celebration by dancing with Carolina, and Nico vehemently objects, causing Richard to react in anger and creating a disturbance. Tim intervenes to calm things down, but this is seen as a challenge to Richard’s authority.
In the next scene, in Carolina’s home, Carolina lectures her son, fearful of what might have happened. But the angry Richard suddenly appears, leaving them with a warning, but he subsequently confronts Tim about Tim’s insubordination, and orders him to an “education camp.” Tim can’t bring himself to tell Sasha, but she discovers the order as Richard reappears to drag Tim away. Time passes, Tim is beaten at the camp, Sasha bears Tim’s baby, and Richard struggles with the knowledge of what he’s done.
Cook-Beatty’s choreography elaborates on the basic storyline, but not enough to make the emotional undercurrents real. For example, the confrontation between Carolina and Nico is expansive, as is Sasha and Tim’s romantic pas de deux; but the confrontation at the party just suddenly happens, with no visible explanation for Nico’s reacting as he did beyond maybe being off his meds. Similarly, although Carolina’s response to her son is vividly conveyed, we have no idea why she becomes apoplectic about it until Richard appears later in the scene (and how did he just happen to get into Carolina’s home?). Most critically, without knowing (via the program note) that Tim was beaten to death in the “education camp,” the dance’s concluding image of Sasha and her baby and Carolina and Nico watched over by Tim looks more curious than meaningful. And perhaps I just missed it, but I saw nothing of Richard’s “struggles with the knowledge of what he’s done,” but such a struggle wouldn’t be consistent with Richard’s character.
Having said all this, however, in hindsight what was done here was not really very different from the way most story ballets are presented: as a collection of scenes that rarely flow seamlessly from one to the next. The lead characters meet, for example, and next thing you know they’re in one or the other’s bedroom dancing a romantic pas de deux. What may have happened in between is either a given or not significant. So I can’t fault Messages in Time for its structure. And there are undeniable moments in the dance that pierce the memory. I remember the depth of Carolina’s frustration with her son; I remember Nico’s gradual understanding of the consequences of his act (his is the only character to really evolve), and Orsolino’s facial registration of consequences of his understandable but impulsive act is searing – as is Sasha’s innocent bewilderment. I suppose to an extent I wanted more of a sense of Tudor than I got to accompany the somewhat Chekovian story, to have not just seen what happens but to care about it, and the way to accomplish that is more character development, but I can’t suggest a way to accomplish that – and maybe, given the story, that’s not possible: Richard is an authoritarian creep, Tim is a poet, Sasha is an innocent. Only Carolina and Nico have character depth, and Cook-Beatty already exploits that.
What I can conclude is that Message in Time is very ambitious, and perhaps a second view will enable me to see, and more importantly to feel, more than I did on first view.
In between Seele and Banshee Lamentation, Anastasia Ignatova’s Readers of the Newspapers made me giggle. A 22 year old choreographer with Russian lineage, who grew up in Italy and studied in New York and Moscow, Ignatova has an unexpectedly dry choreographic sense of humor, as well as the essential competence to pull off what on paper makes little sense. To music by Alfred Schnittke (Movements II and III from Gogol Suite) and based on a 1935 Russian poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, the little dance combines Chaplinesque tramp references, “ordinary” people dancing a cheery pas de deux, mirrors, and a dancer reading a newspaper (in the poem it was on a Paris subway train; in the dance it could be anywhere) who infects the others into becoming consumed by what they read in the papers to the point where they lose their identities (they don masks). It’s a quite clever black comedy that says what it wants to say and stops (the entire dance lasts less than 10 minutes) – a rare quality. And in this age of fake news and fake fake news, real news and propaganda, it’s all as relevant today as it was in the ‘30s. Barbara Tosto, Sofia Forero, Charlie Szwarc, Carlos Garcia, and Sara Pizzi carried it all off with a degree of insouciance that let the choreography, the music, and the scenario do the talking – anything more would have been overkill. It was great fun.
Following intermission, Ayalis In Motion appeared in an excerpt from Pythagorean Peas, choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Ayako Takahashi and the dancers. I’ve written too many times that I don’t like excerpts unless they’re intended to be freestanding, since they don’t provide a sufficient way to evaluate the piece as a whole. But the excerpt presented here at least whetted the appetite.
Aside from his theorem, Pythagoras was known for his teaching that every soul is immortal, and upon death enters a new body. Perhaps in the overall piece, that’s what Takahashi is getting at. In this curious excerpt, the dance has one performer on an ersatz bed, and other dancers are gathered to her right. As she begins to move, they gradually move toward her. I noted that to me they were dream figures. And then things get sort of interesting. Eventually, these “dream figures” take physical positions that correspond, maybe, to positions in the woman’s mind. The woman on the bed, liquor bottle in one hand and cell phone in the other and obviously several sheets to the wind, calls an old flame. The audience hears only her side of the conversation (“I heard you were married;” “It’s been seven years;” I had no idea…”). After the call (to my recollection), the woman sits on the other dancers (who extend the length of the “bed”), and rolls over their backs. Nifty. Later, she’s entrapped in a transparent lucite box (maybe intended as a representation of memories in her head), the other dancers gathered around her apparently feeding her memories or directions or both. All the while, the musical accompaniment runs the gamut from Ravel to Joplin to Andrea Bocelli singing “Time to Say Goodbye.”
There’s not much more to say about the dynamics of what I saw in this excerpt, but I found the movement qualities to be interesting without being quirky, the idea potentially intriguing, and the seven company dancers to be a committed and eclectic group. Apparently the evening-length piece has not yet premiered (I saw an indication that it’s scheduled to premiere at New York Live Arts on January 19), so perhaps I’ll be able to evaluate it more comprehensively then or on a subsequent occasion.
Prior to Messages in Time, which closed the program, The Fun Dolls presented Make it Out Alive. The dance isn’t one that requires much intellectual analysis, but it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is: a fun dance for the seven company dancers that takes the notion of “girls just wanna have fun” to a slightly higher level. The seven women, including choreographer Natalie Flynn, initially are seen in an upstage horizontal line, their backs to the audience, wearing black leotards covered by long skirts that differ in color for each dancer. That’s possibly the most “artsy” part of the dance: the rest of it has the dancers perform in varying patterns and sequences, lifting up their dresses (entertainingly, not salaciously) with a slightly Spanish flair, accompanied by lots of swirling movement. They’re girls at a party or dance, or maybe performing for an audience – but more important for this piece, they’re having fun doing what they’re doing. It may not be cerebral, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
And there’s nothing wrong with a program that provides exposure to dances and companies of the caliber presented here. While some pieces were more ambitious and /or successful than others, that’s to be expected. But the overall quality speaks to the talent available in this area and beyond, as well as to the advantages of presenting programs that display a variety of outlooks and skills – and also to Cook-Beatty’s skill in selecting emerging companies to complement hers. This particular evening was only one of four: as noted at the outset, other “guest” companies populated the other three programs. I don’t know whether the program I attended was particularly exceptional, but to a large extent it epitomized the quality of what can be seen under the more well-known dance radar. If the other programs were of the same caliber, and I have no reason to doubt it, this is a noteworthy series to keep in mind for the future.