Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music
New York, New York
February 25, 2020
Tales of Hopper (premiere), Triptych (excerpt), Veiled
With increasing frequency, I’m reminded that there’s a lot more to New York dance than can be found solely by attending programs by major ballet and contemporary dance companies that are familiar to everyone in, near, or even outside the dance world. And also that there’s so much I don’t know that I don’t know. I need to get out more often.
So it was last week, when I was introduced to Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance (“CLD”), a company that’s been around a long time (20 years), but largely under the radar – at least my radar. The program consisted of three dances: one world premiere, one choreographed in 2016 (Veiled), and an excerpt from another dance created in 2012 (Triptych). They were all beautifully choreographed and executed by the company dancers. Three out of three is a pretty good evening.
The program’s most extraordinary dance was the world premiere: Tales of Hopper. That’s an unfortunate title – it makes one think of bunny rabbits scampering through the pages of a children’s book. Not so. The “Hopper” referenced is Edward Hopper, American realist artist whose work was created in the early part of the last century. You may not be familiar with the name, but you probably are with the paintings.
I’m not a great fan of Hopper’s work. There’s not enough visibly going on; not enough excitement. But I admit that that’s merely a visceral response to what’s on the surface of the paintings. Whether intentionally or not (there’s some disagreement about it), Hopper was a master of the enigmatic. There is something going on in his familiar snapshots in time of mostly lonely-looking people usually in an indoor setting with interestingly presented light illuminating the scene, even if that something is nothing, but Hopper lets the viewer determine what that is. Born in Nyack, NY with his primary home in Manhattan (Greenwich Village), Hopper’s sense of alienation is as relevant today as it was in his time – except the people in his paintings probably would be staring at cellphones rather than into depressingly empty space.
Apparently Lavagnino finds Hopper’s work enigmatic also, and ripe for filling in blanks. Her dance takes a selection of Hopper’s paintings and creates dances not so much around them, like Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (for New York City Ballet), but within them, illuminating the drama that percolates beneath the surface.
There are eight scenes, each resembling, and taking their titles from, the corresponding Hopper painting. In the first five scenes the paintings and derived stories are treated individually; the last three are interwoven into a unified narrative. All explore the unstated theme connecting the Hopper paintings: lonely people.
Although it has a significant following, CLD is not a big budget – or maybe a medium budget – company. Consequently, one might expect a bare-bones stage set and minimal costuming efforts. One would be wrong. While the piece certainly has little in the way of bells and whistles, the choice of Hopper’s paintings as a subject allows Lavagnino to keep those accoutrements minimal and still be perfectly consistent with the Hopper paintings. Moreover, this was obviously, at least to me, a labor of love. Great care went into the sets and costume design (respectively by Jesse Seegers and Christopher Metzger), the lighting design (by Frank DenDanto III), staging, choreography (which Lavagnino credits to herself in collaboration with the dancers), and the execution of this dance. Finally, the piece was accompanied by live music composed by Martin Bresnick that complements, rather than overwhelms, the simple scenarios (the musicians were Lisa Moore on piano, Elly Toyoda on violin, and cellist Ashley Bathgate).
Following a Prologue that introduces the characters as a group gathered around many of the set pieces used for each scene reflecting the unity of the piece’s overall theme, the exploration of Hopper’s selected paintings and the people in them begins – and “Morning Sun” is the appropriate vehicle to begin the exploration. In Lavignino’s dance, the setting is virtually identical to Hopper’s painting (as is the case with every scene), and the woman in the dance, Sharon Milanese, looks uncannily like the woman in Hopper’s painting.
As does the woman in the painting, Milanese rises to greet the new day. But it’s clear that, to her, it’s another day of being alone. Milanese moves toward the light source, reaching the set’s wall, and writhes against it in despair, recognizing that it’ll be a day like other days. The movement quality, and Milanese’s clearly indicated emotional desperation, is painfully executed. And here Bresnick’s accompanying score begins slowly and somewhat warily, like the approaching dawn of another uncomfortable day (not at all like Edvard Grieg’s familiar “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt), and then escalates in anxiety to match Milanese’s despair. It all may sound melodramatic, but it isn’t – it’s heart-wrenching. It was a superb performance, and a superb beginning to the piece as a whole.
“Morning Sun” complements a different painting and scenario later in the piece, and a different form of the same agony. “NY Movie” is a miraculous little vignette.
In Hopper’s painting, a woman is shown leaning against the inner wall of a movie theater while two patrons are seated, their backs to the viewer, presumably watching a movie. The woman standing has her face buried in her hands, perhaps crying, obviously emotionally distraught but trying to conceal it.
Lavagnino creates a moving version of the painting every bit as powerful, if not more. The details are similar: two patrons take their seats presumably to watch a movie, their backs to the audience, while Kristen Foote leans against the inner theater wall duplicating the positioning of the standing woman in Hopper’s painting. We know nothing about this woman: Is she a patron; an usher (at the time if Hopper’s painting, movie theaters had ushers)? Is she reacting to her companion’s failure to show up – or to not having one to share the experience with? Or is she reacting to something she saw, or expects to see, in the film? It doesn’t matter. Soon after the scene begins, Foote begins to fall apart, obviously distraught about something. A man (Malcolm Miles Young) approaches from behind the curtain that is the wall upon which Foote leans. While many in the audience can see him, Foote can’t. But she senses his presence, and his body through the curtain. She turns toward the image she sees, and gradually the man emerges from behind the curtain and he and Foote dance. Is he the man she’d been waiting for? A man she imagines will rescue her from her loneliness? I prefer the latter interpretation, but it doesn’t matter. Foote’s character is in muted ecstasy as they waltz near that theater wall.
Then, just as quickly as he magically appeared, the man disappears behind the curtain / wall. Whether he was the man she may have been waiting for, or the man of her dreams, he wasn’t real. Foote’s collapse is. Heartbroken, she returns to her position against that theater wall, alone. Again.
But that’s not the only message in this scene. What Lavagnino and Foote (and Young) were concurrently doing was creating a fantasy every bit as real, but also every bit as imagined, as the fantasy that may be playing on the movie screen. Foote’s character not only was living a dream, she’d created a movie scene. From conception to creation to execution, this one scene was masterful.
I hardly had time to catch my breath before Lavagnino and her cast were at it again. “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” “Nighthawks,” and “Automat” are three of Hopper’s most well-known paintings. Lavagnino groups them together (though maintaining their separate identities) by making them components in a continuing story, with an emotionally devastating ending.
When I see “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” in addition to Hopper’s brilliant lighting, I see two lonely people, a man and a woman. We don’t know anything about them. He’s looking at her, she’s aware of it and maybe looking at him out of the corner of an eye. To me, Hopper’s painting suggests that nothing would happen; that these lonely people would miss the opportunity, perhaps as they have in other situations all their lives. Fortunately, Lavagnino saw it differently.
Without going into huge detail, Lavagnino assumes that the two will begin a conversation that will become increasingly friendly: the beginning of what might become a relationship. Eventually, the woman (Claire Westby) gives the man (Justin Faircloth) a tiny note, presumably with her phone number. The note is written on blue paper. In “Nighthawks,” Lavignano takes a few more liberties. The painting takes place in what appears to be a bar, with three people sitting apart from each other – a man and woman who may (or may not) be in mid-conversation, and another man sitting at the opposite side of the bar perpendicular to them – and one bartender behind the bar ignoring the customers. There’s nothing cheery about it: it’s the type of establishment where nobody knows your name.
Lavagnino’s changes the bar’s population to a man and woman. [I suppose the third man is out of sight.] The man (Faircloth) and the woman (Corinne Hart) begin a conversation that becomes increasingly heated, and Hart’s character angrily shows Faircloth a small piece of paper. Blue paper. At that point we (or at least I) recognize the man as the one in the previous scene. Even without hearing any dialogue, one knows what’s happened. Onto the scene comes the woman from the Cafeteria. There is … a scene (within the scene). The trilogy ends with the woman from the Cafeteria, Westby, sitting alone in an automat (corresponding to Hopper’s “Automat”), with the wrinkled blue note in her hand. Again alone, and in despair – and looking exactly like the woman in Hopper’s painting.
Between Morning Sun” and “NY Movie” are three more scenes corresponding to Hopper paintings. They’re not bad, but not as moving as those I’ve described.
The first, following “Morning Sun,” is “People in the Sun,” which features, not surprisingly, people sitting in the sun not to greet the day, but to take advantage of it. But there’s no human interaction. It also comes about as close to humor as Lavagnino gets: with people moving their chairs back and forth to adjust to the sun, or to keep their distance from others, the scene is vaguely remindful of Jerome Robbins’s The Concert – but that’s not where Lavagnino is going with this at all. The images of people sunning themselves, without connecting with any of the sunbathers around them, is in keeping with the loneliness theme, except here it’s more a desire to be alone. “Gas,” which, like all the other scenes, roughly tracks the Hopper painting when it begins – a man (Faircloth) a lone worker at a gas station, servicing cars as they appear and disappear, with no real human interaction – but this character doesn’t seem to care much. And in “Office at Night,” Lavagnino takes the presence of a man, presumably an executive, sitting behind a desk concentrating on a document he’s reading, with a woman, likely a secretary or associate, looking at him with some interest while rifling through a file cabinet, and posits that the man (Oscar Rodriguez) is reading a correspondence that creates concern, maybe sadness (relating to his unknown business, or perhaps something personal), and out of his desperation, one thing leads to another, and he and the woman (Lila Simmons) interact physically, as if initiating, or already in, some relationship.
The evening concluded with a much more meaningful return to the structure of the Prologue, with each vignette isolated, but presented across the stage as a unified whole representative of isolation and despair; of dangling conversations and superficial sighs; of being lonely.
Each of the scenes in Tales of Hopper, while taking some liberties with Hopper’s paintings, fairly recreates and amplifies what’s there both physically and emotionally. But as I exited the theater at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music (in the same building as the Baryshnikov Arts Center) during intermission, I overheard someone complaining that it was too long. I strongly disagree – to me, the length of each tale is exactly right. But if Lavagnino and her dancers consider tightening it, I’d suggest replacing or eliminating “Gas” or “Office at Night”: the former doesn’t say anything – at least not to me – about whatever loneliness the attendant may be feeling, or the latter because it provides a cure for the man’s presumed despair, and perhaps more importantly these days, it’s not exactly a politically correct scenario.
Regardless, Lavignino and her dancers succeed with this ambitious project in every respect that matters: illuminating the Hopper paintings logically, providing a solid, entertaining, and enriching piece of dance theater in the process – and also demonstrating that the titles of the Hopper paintings, the location of the scene, and even the interesting way that Hopper lights the scenes, aren’t what’s significant about Hopper’s work: they’re just the set for what’s more important – the enigmatic stories of the people in these paintings.
All this being said, and with the exception of “Morning Sun, “NY Movie,” and “Nighthawks,” choreography takes a backseat to stagecraft and acting. The next two program pieces illustrate Lavagnino’s choreographic abilities more clearly.
The excerpt from Triptych is the first of two sections of the full piece. [I suppose I’ll have to wait until I see the whole piece to better understand how Lavagnino created a two-part dance with a three-part title.] One could gain insight into Lavagnino’s choreographic style in the lovely pas de deux created in “NY Movie.” If that wasn’t sufficient to show that she choreographs with an abundance of fluidity and lyricism, ballet-like without being ballet, this excerpt is. The cast — 5 women and 4 men (Dervla Carey-Jones, Gwendolyn Gussman, Emma Pajewski, Philip Strom, Faircloth, Rodriguez Simmons, Young, and Westby) – march down an aisle onto the stage, and thereafter the focus is on the women in religious ecstasy, inspired by the accompanying Francois Couperin composition Troisième leçon De Ténèbres a deux voix. I’ll save a more complete discussion of Triptych for when I have an opportunity to see it in full. For now, suffice it to say that the nine highly capable dancers fully communicated the sense of ecstasy in score, and that Lavagnino’s choreography not only includes solo work by the women, but wonderful partnering from the men.
The evening concluded with Veiled, a very different – but in a way very similar – dance for six women. To a score by Bresnick (titled, for no reason I can discern, “Josephine the Singer”), the women traverse the stage in various combinations, but I primarily focused on lines of women in relatively frieze form, in muted (veiled) despair; emotions simmering beneath the surface, as in parts of Robbins’s Antique Epigraphs, though on a much smaller scale (and not at all sensual). The dance has a religio/historical tone to it – and as the program note indicates – a form of grace in response to oppression. Though slower paced and somewhat more angular than the Triptych excerpt, it’s equally well- constructed and executed. I suppose it’s intended to have some relationship to the condition of women today, but I didn’t see that. What I did see was perhaps more tragic. I saw The Trojan Women.
Lavagnino has a distinguished pedigree, including performing as a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet and as a principal with Arizona Ballet, earning an MFA in Dance from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a B.A. from in philosophy from U.S.C., and has been a full-time member of NYU’s faculty since 1987. This experience, and much more, shows. CLD is now, belatedly, on my radar screen. The performance I attended was full; next time they may need a larger theater.