Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
Holmdel, New Jersey
May 18, 2023
“Architecture of Dance” Gala Program: Variations V and Fractions (excerpts), Structures of Liberty, Minimal Complex, Youkali (vocal), Arbol, Andalouse, for flute and piano (music), Apertura, Komposition
In case you haven’t noticed, contemporary ballet has expanded in New Jersey, and not just with respect to its already well-known companies. Relative newbie (it was established five years ago) Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater (“AXCBT”), which describes itself as the ballet company of the Jersey Shore, is the first professional dance company of the Monmouth County area. It’s located in Deal Park, NJ, a hop, skip, and jump or two from the Atlantic; throw in a few grand jetés and you’re on the Asbury Park boardwalk.
I’ve been unable to attend prior AXCBT programs, but was able to get to this one, a gala that took place in an atrium in what formerly was known as Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), in Holmdel, and is now called Bell Works. Bell Works not only provided a location, but was a basis for the evening’s theme: “Architecture of Dance.” I understood that the program would feature pieces created consistent with that theme by former Merce Cunningham dancer Andrea Weber, former Paul Taylor Dance Company member Michael Trusnovec, former Martha Graham Company dancer Blakely White-McGuire, and by AXCBT’s Artistic Director and Choreographer, Gabriel Chajnik. It proved to be an enjoyable evening.
Bell Labs was built by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, and reportedly was done in the Modernist style for which Saarinen was famous. The Modernist style is something of a superset term for an architectural style (as well as styles in other art forms) in a variety of countries in much of the 20th Century, one of which (and considered by many the most influential) was Bauhaus, which arose in Germany between the two world wars. Whether Modernist or Bauhaus is the proper architectural description of Bell Labs is probably a distinction without a difference.
Regardless, Bell Works is a construction that lends itself to seeing structure as art, whether that structure is a building or a dance. The Bell Works building was internally redesigned in 2018-2019, which opened up the interior office space (now combined office, retail, service spaces – including an AXCBT studio) by removing the originally designed Saarinen metal panels that isolated the offices from the atrium area and replacing them with transparent glass, but did not disturb the original Saarinen-designed outer appearance (described by one architecture magazine as “the biggest mirror ever” due to its “mirror box” exterior).
The result magnifies the spaciousness of the entire space. When I first entered it and looked around (like many others, I never knew it existed) it appeared to me to be a horizontal skyscraper (a metaphor echoed subsequently in discussion of the building and its renovation that preceded the dance). It’s monumental but spacious, airy, and multi-functional (and will soon include a lower-level space that’s in the process of being converted from a meeting area into a theater). But for relatively small-scale productions like AXCBT’s program here, the Atrium provided a perfect setting.
The original AXCBT dances presented in this program were intended to relate to the architecture of dance in general, and to that Bell Labs style in particular. To my eye, and with one exception, the association with Bauhaus architecture was not carried through in most of the dances, especially since such a connection is difficult to specifically express visually and not a particularly entertaining idea even if it could be. Bauhaus architecture is frequently seen as characterless, boxy, and boring (from an exterior visual interest point of view – ever walk up the west side of 6th Avenue in Manhattan from about 52nd Street to 56th Street?; cereal box after cereal box), and doesn’t become visually interesting until the buildings created under its rubric broke from the orthodox “form follows function” mentality (e.g., The Sydney Australia Opera House, which, in the face of strenuous opposition by the modernist establishment, Saarinen championed). But I’m not an architecture expert, so take my comments with a grain or two of salt.] But that doesn’t really matter – and that ensemble dance, practically by definition, includes the not unfamiliar concept of dance as architecture and isn’t a particularly novel idea doesn’t matter either.
I’ll consider the pieces as presented; first briefly addressing the two opening dances – exhibitions of talent by the guest artists who choreographed the original pieces later in the program – followed by the four new pieces.
As I watched the first dance evolve, and not knowing (or recalling) until after the fact that the guest dancer /choreographers would be performing as well as choreographing, two dancers – one male, one female – took their places on stage. The female dancer moved first, assuming various posing positions that involved muscle and frame movement, and some limited movement around the stage, and nothing else. When she stopped, the male dancer moved much the same way, with a slightly different aesthetic, but still within his own spatial and emotional sphere. The dance concluded with the two moving concurrently, but still in independent spaces, without any contact or visible interaction with the other. I said to myself that this had to be a Merce Cunningham dance because of its rigidity and minimal movement, but also recognized that the dancers were intensely-focused and unusually good (and the man looked a lot like Trusnovec). The two dancers executed superbly; the dance … meh.
Turns out, when I subsequently obtained the program, that the two dancers were Weber and Trusnovec, and the piece was actually excerpts from two Cunningham pieces melded together: Variations V (1965) and Fractions (1978) – Trusnovec danced the former, Weber the latter.
The pieces as a whole (from descriptions on the Cunningham Trust site) were originally integrated with other stimuli (beyond John Cage’s music – here, 100tonecandles), and included much more dance. But I doubt that seeing these pieces in their original context would have changed my opinion of them. [Full disclosure: I’ve written previously that I find the posing and minimal movement in most of the Cunningham I’ve seen to be distant, academic, and as entertaining as watching grass grow – but I also recognized that I’m in a distinct minority, since Cunningham is generally regarded as a dance icon.] Regardless, the two excerpts staged together (“together” is the wrong word, since there’s nothing that the two dancers do “together” beyond being on the same stage at the same time) appeared to have been at least partly intended to demonstrate each dancer’s facility with the choreography, which it definitely did. But it was also unnerving – I don’t recall previously seeing Weber, but I’ve seen Trusnovec dance on many occasions. With rare exception, his demeanor and the power of his execution had always appeared to be focused outward; here, as was the case with Weber, the same intensity was there, but it was all focused inward.
The dance’s second piece was about as opposite from Cunningham as one can get, but it too fell flat. Essentially, this was a duet where the two dancers not only connected physically with each other, but were so closely connected that more often than not they appeared physically inseparable. And it included a display of acrobatics (mostly precarious lifts and straddles) that were supposed to look sensual, but came out looking at times both awkward and dangerous. And the female dancer looked a lot like Blakely White-McGuire; I didn’t recognize the man.
I later found that it was indeed White-McGuire, here dancing with Daniel Fetecua, a former Limon dancer (a soloist for ten years) as well as guest artist in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring and Tannhäuser and with other major contemporary dance companies in the U.S. and around the world. The dance was titled Structures of Liberty, was choreographed by the two of them, and was originally commissioned (in part) by Buglisi Dance Theatre in 2002. To my eye, it wasn’t the best of vehicles for them now, although both deserve accolades for getting through it without injury.
During a brief discussion prior to presenting his piece, Trusnovec confided that he found the original idea for a dance – something based on Bauhaus – to be somewhat strange. Nevertheless, his dance, Minimal Complex, is that one exception I mentioned earlier – a piece that clearly honors Bauhaus principles. Trusnovec accomplishes this via choreography that explores the connection between Paul Klee (an artist and teacher at Bauhaus) and Baroque composer extraordinaire, J.S. Bach.
One would think that Baroque and Bauhaus would be an incompatible pairing. But for his score, Trusnovec uses three of Bach’s “Preludes” from his Well-Tempered Clavier as reinterpreted in a recording called “minimalBACH” by piano duo “duo imPuls,” which places Bach’s “Preludes,” as revised by pianist Sebastian Bartmann, within the context of minimal music. Consequently, the score strips Bach of its Baroque “excess,” limiting the music to its structural essence.
Trusnovec was very obviously inspired by the fact that Klee himself did the same. As observed by author Stephanie Probst in a 2019 article in MTO [Music Theory Online] titled “Pen, Paper, Steel: Visualizing Bach’s Polyphony at the Bauhaus” : The connection between Bach and Bauhaus was one that interested Klee, a trained violinist, who (as well as others) reportedly studied forms and structures in music while at Bauhaus “to liberate the foundational graphical means from their conventional ties and thereby to profoundly enrich the visual arts,” and who worked with his students on translating two measures from a [Bach] Sonata for violin and harpsichord into a graphical system. The article, from which the above information and quotations were obtained, is way beyond my ken, but for those interested in a far more scholarly analysis than I can provide, it’s viewable online at: https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.4/mto.20.26.4.probst.html . The result of all this information is that I’ll never see Klee’s paining “Twittering Birds,” one of my favorites, in quite the same way.
Minimal Complex makes the Klee /Bach /Bauhaus connection real. As performed by company dancers Lindsay Jorgensen, Dennzyl Green, John Tarrayo, and Matthew Vincent Taylor, one can see the structure of the Bach pieces visualized. It’s a significant effort, and obviously took considerable deliberation to create.
That being said, it wasn’t sufficient to build interest. The problem is that Minimal Complex also reflects the characteristics of Bauhaus that, at least to me, are problematic. It’s more academic, with bodies moving in space for no particular purpose, and with interactions that, if not meaningless, are still minimal. There doesn’t have to be a particular purpose, but the spirit that makes Bach as Bach intended so entertaining, and that makes Bauhaus architecture as visually uninteresting as it often appears, is reflected in the dance too. It’s not fatal to the dance – Trusnovic’s efforts here quite obviously were highly intelligent decisions based on the framework required. He made a laudable attempt here to vary the physical positioning and interactions to add visual interest, to divest the score’s Bach reduction of any sense of rigidity by utilizing Jorgenson (who initially appears apart from the three men and is the first to move) as something of a counterpoint as well as visual counterbalance to the men, individually (she has brief duets with each) and collectively, and there was a built-in tension of sorts created by the appearance of one female and three male dancers. Indeed, the dance lives up to its title: it’s both minimal and complex. But there was, intentionally, no apparent emotional component to the piece.
Perhaps Trusnovec simply carried out his assignment too well. While a structural analysis and application of Bach’s music might produce a certain related aesthetic in the visual arts, I’m not sure that expressing it in dance is the best way to utilize it. In a way that takes into account the spirit as well as the structure of Bach, George Balanchine (Concerto Barocco), Jerome Robbins (The Goldberg Variations; Brandenburg) and Paul Taylor (Esplanade; Brandenburgs), and I’m sure others, created masterpieces. And that’s not at all a criticism of Trusnovec’s work here: he just had a different assignment.
Each dancer in Minimal Complex executed well, and Jorgensen demonstrated that she’s a strong enough dancer (as she further established in the three subsequent pieces on the program) to hold her own as part of the group – indeed, to be its focal point.
Following a lovely and thematically consistent musical interlude by Christine Kephart singing Kurt Weill’s Youkali, accompanied by Joe Moffitt on piano (Weill has a tenuous connection to Dessau, where the Bauhaus school moved in 1925—his family moved out before the Bauhaus moved in, but apparently was musically educated in Dessau; an exhibit honoring Weill is a permanent exhibit in Dessau), the dance performances continued with Weber’s Arbol, choreographed to Six Little Piano Pieces by Arnold Schoenberg – another composer with Bauhaus connections.
Compared to Minimal Complex, Arbol looks liberated – not just because of the different score, but in large part because Weber keyed her choreography to reflect the natural world, which the décor created around the Atrium performance area – essentially surrounding the stage with ersatz trees – facilitated. Based on what Weber has said, the connection to Bauhaus is that she sees nature as reflecting the same attributes as Bauhaus. I’d have thought the opposite, unless one is documenting a mountain timber line or the “orderly” impact of climate differences and its impact on the flora within it, but I’ll assume that the connection Weber means is a sense of natural order. A more interesting connection, and perhaps one that Weber also considered, is that the Bell Labs building “reflects” the nature around it by its mirrored exterior, though the nature that’s reflected here is more akin to the structured and manicured formalities of a French garden.
Anyway, Weber also reportedly has said that Arbol explores structures, foundational support, and how we are all interconnected. Such a statement is broad enough to encompass most any ensemble dance (except, maybe, Cunningham), and I didn’t see anything in particular in Arbol to which that’s applicable. Most of what I recall are segments where subsets of the ensemble dance in tandem, at times with arms outspread as if simulating trees. But the piece isn’t static or filled with posing. On the contrary, Arbol utilizes the stage well, includes real physical interactions between dancers, and Is not unpleasant to watch. And it includes periods of silence in between the musical segments (played by Moffitt). I don’t know whether this was intended to reflect the silence of contemplation one at times feels alone in Nature’s company, but it adds an interesting quality. The dancers, in addition to Jorgensen, Green, and Tarrayo, were Giana Carroll, Alyssa Harris, Olivia Miranda, and Gillian Worek. As is the case with all AXCBT’s dancers, they performed well.
Following another pleasant musical interlude , Andalouse, for Flute and Piano, (apparently composed by French 19th – 20th Century French composer Émile Pessard, though the piece isn’t credited in the program), played by Kephart on flute and Moffitt again on piano, the evening continued with White-McGuire’s contribution, Apertura.
White-McGuire here changes the focus from a physical relationship to Bauhaus to the connections established within the Bell Labs boundaries. To me, it clearly displays what its choreography intended to show, and it’s fun to watch.
One of the benefits of the Bell Labs internal space is that it facilitated connections between scientists, thereby accelerating ingenuity, discovery, patents, and products. With each of the above-referenced dancers participating, Apertura focuses on these interactions.
Choreographed to Miroirs (1905) by Maurice Ravel and Nature Boy by Chris Whitely, the dance works because of its limited scope. That is, White-McGuire isn’t attempting to prove anything here; just to show possibilities and connections. As a result, she’s given herself free reign to have her ensembles dance expansively, with lots of different variety, and to make it all look somewhat ideal, with freedom to explore and interact, or not, as the case may be. The fact that Ravel’s composition (actually, the choreography appears to use excerpts from it, or only one movement, since the composition overall is far longer than White-McGuire’s dance) is as Romantic and dreamy-sounding as it is helps, although that makes it distant from Bauhaus-inspired musical parameters (Bolero, Ravel’s most popular work, composed over 20 years later, is closer). Be that as it may, references indicate that Ravel’s music was played and/or studied at Bauhaus.
I didn’t think the addition of the song Nature Boy would work, but it does, adding an otherworldly and exotic level to the Ravel composition. The song here is sung by Chris Whitely, but that was recorded relatively recently; it was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1948 (written by someone named eden ahbez – the lower case is apparently intentional in 1947), and I don’t know what, if anything, it has to do with Bauhaus. But the song adds a quality of melancholy dreaminess to the dance and seemed an homage of sorts to the spirit of collaboration that once was, and that’s more important than Bauhaus fidelity.
The evening ended with Chajnik’s Komposition. I understand that the piece was intended to have been inspired by paintings by Wasily Kandinsky (who was on the Bauhaus faculty), and that the dance was accompanied by prints of his paintings. I didn’t see anything of the sort here – either I somehow missed it, or the paintings were used to accompany an earlier incarnation of the dance, or just served as inspiration for the choreographic episodes that Chajkin choreographed. I suspect the latter. Be that as it may, and utilizing unspecified music by Erik Satie (whose compositions were also played or studied at Bauhaus), the dance demonstrated nothing of the sort to me. Without the specific Kandinsky paintings as reference points, any such connection was lost.
Be that as it may, Komposition successfully displays a sequence of dance vignettes that are reasonably vibrant and that seem to evolve from one to the next, and not nearly as intellectual-looking as Krajnik’s description of his intent would lead one to believe. It was a very pleasant way to end the evening.
I look forward to my next opportunity to go down the shore to see another Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater program.