Ailey Citigroup Theater, New York, NY; February 28, 2014

Trainor Dance: Kaitlyn/Caitlin, The Air Turned White
Texture Contemporary Ballet: Take…Taken…Taking…
Ariel Rivka Dance: The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther

Jerry Hochman

Hana Ginsburg Tirosh and Claire Cholak of Ariel Rivka Dance in 'The Book of Esther, The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther'. Photo © Rachel Hagen

Hana Ginsburg Tirosh and Claire Cholak of Ariel Rivka Dance in ‘The Book of Esther, The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther’.
Photo © Rachel Hagen

While sometimes dances by different companies on the same program can be jarringly incompatible, the four dances presented on February 28 at the Alvin Ailey Theater, two by Trainor Dance, and one each by Texture Contemporary Ballet and Ariel Rivka Dance, were sufficiently different so as not to step on another company’s toes, but similar enough in terms of interest (whether of content or choreographic ability, or both) to share the same program. I’ll discuss them in reverse performance order.

A year ago, Ariel Rivka Dance premiered “Vashti”, a dance based on biblical references to the woman who preceded the more well-known Esther as Queen of Persia. Artistic Director and Choreographer Ariel Rebecca Grossman has now revised that piece, coupled it with a dance based on the story of Esther, and combined them into “The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther”. The coupling makes sense both thematically and choreographically.

The biblical Book of Esther forms the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated the week of the performance. References to Vashti are limited, and appear as more of a curious prequel than the biblical book’s main event. But giving her story equal prominence with that of Esther is understandable if the prism through which the stories are presented is a feminist one. Indeed, given the biblical story, this prism is the only way the stories can be realistically seen – Ms. Grossman has simply rescued this ‘realistic’ view of the story from interpretations that minimize Esther’s role (or consider her unworthy of praise for being in the position she was in to begin with), and that ignore Vashti entirely.

As told in varying interpretations of the biblical account, the Vashti story relates that at the culmination of a months-long festival of drunken revelry, King Ahasuerus (determined by certain historians to be either Artaxerxes I or II), ordered his wife to dance naked before him, his drunken friends (and, depending on the source, the entire populace of the city of Shushan) to show off her beauty. Shushan is the Hebrew name for the ancient royal city of Susa in modern-day Iran. At great risk, Vashti elects to maintain her dignity and refuses to participate in the debauchery, and is thereupon dismissed by the king and executed. In the second story, Vashti’s replacement, Esther (in some accounts selected from the king’s harem, in others selected following a nationwide ‘beauty pageant’) is secretly Jewish. Her uncle Mordechai (in some accounts her cousin) gains the king’s praise by saving his life, but arouses the enmity of the king’s vizier, Haman, because Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. Enraged by the perceived slight, Haman vows to destroy all the Jews in Persia, and persuades the king to consent. But at great risk, Esther (Asturya according to certain historical accounts) reveals her secret identity and Haman’s plot to the king, and the king, furious (since Esther was his favorite and since Mordechai had saved his life, and both would be killed), executes Haman in punishment, thereby saving the Jewish people in Persia from annihilation.

Rachel Bier and Anastassia Perfilieva in 'The Book of Esther The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther'. Photo © Rachel Hagen

Rachel Bier and Anastassia Perfilieva in ‘The Book of Esther The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther’.
Photo © Rachel Hagen

Ms. Grossman’s rendering of the two interconnected stories, applied to the music composed by her husband (and company Executive Director), David Homan, focuses on the heroic decisions made by the two women – they are recounted less as discrete events than as overall passages of time (emotional ‘journeys’, as the dance’s title indicates).

The dance opens with a brief prologue which introduces what the viewer will soon see: Esther (whether already queen or pondering the possibility), pensively reflecting on the consequences of the crown on the stage floor in front of her. The dance then segues into ‘Part I: Vashti’s Choice – The Allure of the Crown’.

Although its content is essentially the same, this rendering of the story of Vashti is improved from the version I saw a year ago. The sweep of the choreography is still predominantly upstage right to downstage left, and the movement quality is still predominantly a sweeping, liquid, circular motion, but it is now balanced by greater movement variety, and has less explicit story details (e.g. there’s no ‘command’ from the king in the form of a bright light emanating from somewhere in the distance commanding Vashti to dance naked), which allows the dance to focus on Vashti’s emotional chaos. Hana Ginsburg Tirosh reprised her role as Vashti, transmitting appropriate wariness and honor at being selected queen, bewilderment and confusion caused by the king’s command, inner turmoil, and resolution.

‘Part II: Esther’s Dilemma – The Risk of Revealing’ is choreographically similar to Part I, but has much greater variety of movement because there are additional characters with distinct personalities and roles to play: Mordechai (modified to ‘Aunt Mordechai’), and Haman. Kristen Licata danced a knowing and compellingly persuasive Aunt Mordechai, and I particularly liked Danita Shaheen’s Haman (identified as ‘Good/Evil Haman’, for no reason I can deduce) – possibly because this character, as a consequence of the story, was able to dance to more aggressive choreography and to display more vivid emotion. Claire Cholak was an innocent, troubled, and ultimately triumphant Queen Esther. As the Shushan women, Anastassia Perfilieva, Rachel Bier, and Kyleigh Sackandy danced both alluringly and compassionately. The women are identified as Ora, Orlee, and Leora. The root of these names, ‘ora’, means ‘light’ in Hebrew, so presumably the characters and their names were created by Ms. Grossman to reflect the guidance they provided to the queens. Overall, the choreography and stage action mirrors Mr. Homan’s music, a pulsing, circular composition, punctuated by increasing or decreasing tempo to match the ebb and flow of the women’s journey.

I would have preferred seeing the queens’ turmoil expressed more aggressively in the choreography, perhaps with a Graham-like cutting edge, but what’s there transmits the emotional agony adequately, and is demonstrated in a manner consistent with the lyricism that infuses Ms. Grossman’s choreography. And although creating and elevating the roles of the women of the village is understandable from a feminist point of view – essentially making the queens’ predicament one that impacts all women – their active involvement in the queens’ decision to me diminished the individual queen’s heroism that the dance celebrates.  But I suspect that most viewers may decide that such concerns are irrelevant – and perhaps they are. Ariel Rivka Dance’s “The Book of Esther” is a portrait of women’s heroic response to difficult challenges, and the portrait it paints is clear.

“The Book of Esther” was preceded by two dances by Trainor Dance, with one by Texture Contemporary Ballet sandwiched between them.

Alan Obuzor of Texture Contemporary Dance in 'Take...Taken...Taking...' Photo © Rachel Hagen

Alan Obuzor of Texture Contemporary Dance in ‘Take…Taken…Taking…’
Photo © Rachel Hagen

Based on this program, Texture Contemporary Ballet, founded in 2011 by Artistic Director Alan Abuzor and based in Pittsburgh, is a company to add to the radar screen. “Take…Taken…Taking” choreographed by Mr. Abuzor, is an abstract ballet to typically pulsing music by Philip Glass. It is divided essentially into three discrete sections, with the opening and closing sections fluidly segmented as well. The first features compellingly staged rapid-fire movement, with a coldly aggressive edge, though not at all angular or mechanical. As this section progresses, the focus of action shifts from one group of dancers (or pair or solo) to another, and from one stage location to another. Although the action is constant, it’s never repetitious or overly busy, and the women (all of whom dance in pointe shoes and to a ballet vocabulary) execute Mr. Abuzor’s choreography adeptly. They included Associate Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer Kelsey Bartman, Amanda Bailey, Jennifer Grahnquist, and Artistic Administrator Alexandra Tiso.

In the middle segment, Mr. Abuzor dances solo. The choreography here is complex and varied, and crisply executed, as is the piece as a whole. But here he displays emotional turmoil: he’s obviously wrestling with some matter of great significance. But seeing him so overwhelmed, by something, grows tedious. As well performed as it was, this middle segment lasted too long, and the segue into the third section, which lightened the mood, increased the pace, and wrapped things up nicely, was most welcome. Overall, “Take…Taken…Taking…” demonstrates considerable choreographic ability, and the dancers that performed with Mr. Abuzor were appropriately energetic, competent, and engaging.

Caitlin Trainor, artistic director/choreographer of Trainor Dance, has an eclectic dance background. Although this includes ballet (she performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet), the thrust of her choreographic style is ‘modern’ as opposed to balletic. But such labels are misleading – based on the two dances on this program, I would describe her work as hybrid and conceptual, and highly skillful.

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Caitlin Trainor in Trainor Dance's 'KaitlynCaitlin'. Photo © Paula Lobo

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Caitlin Trainor in Trainor Dance’s ‘KaitlynCaitlin’.
Photo © Paula Lobo

The evening opened with Ms. Trainor’s “Kaitlyn/Caitlin,” a brief duet of sorts with the choreographer and Kaitlyn Gilliland, who I recall well from her years dancing with New York City Ballet. In this piece, Ms. Trainor explores stylistic differences between ballet and modern dance as the two dancers essentially take the same music and movement qualities and execute them differently – just as they wear the same red costumes, except they’re not quite the same. At times, Ms. Trainor, barefoot and executing ‘modern dance’ movement, and Ms. Gilliland, in pointe shoes and dancing ‘ballet’, look like distorted mirror images. Although this sort of thing has been done before, I don’t think Ms. Trainor’s purpose here was ‘compare and contrast’ or to argue that one form of dance is superior to another. This wasn’t a competition. Rather, to me Ms. Trainor treated the two dancers and forms of dance as fraternal twins – and I found it refreshingly simple and to the point. And I confess that I probably would have enjoyed it regardless of its quality simply for the pleasure of being able to see Ms. Gilliland on stage again.

Ms. Trainor’s second piece was also a duet, of sorts, between her and a filmed version of herself projected on an upstage screen. This description sounds similar to a piece performed last September by American Ballet Theatre’s Roberto Bolle (in a program at City Center titled ‘Roberto Bolle and Friends’) called “Prototype”, but Ms. Trainor’s dance is neither as indulgently complex nor, curiously, as accessible.

“The Air Turned White” is a tough piece to like. The music, by Maria Niro, is the kind of collection of screeches that makes my skin crawl. And the film, which included images of Ms. Trainor on a white background (as if on a bed, or moving across a billowy cloud), was broken down into individual cinematic ‘screeches’ of movement. On stage, Ms. Trainor at times seemed to emulate the movement on the screen, at other times to reach out to it, as if her image in the film was some goal to be achieved or dream to realize. It’s slow and ponderous and in every way something that I usually can’t wait to be over. And the fidgety audience appeared to feel that way too. But there was something about “The Air Turned White” that was mesmerizing. Rather than waiting for it to mercifully end, I found myself looking forward to seeing the image that Ms. Trainor would show next.

It’s not an exciting piece to watch, but “The Air Turned White”, skillfully conceptualized and performed, is interesting. And being ‘interesting’ is a quality much too infrequently seen.