Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance
New York City Center, Studio 5
New York, New York
November 27, 2022
“Salon Program”: The Winter’s Tale (excerpts from work in progress), Mythologies (revised)
I’ve seen Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance twice previously over the past two years, and have been impressed with both the company and Lavagnino’s choreography. So when presented with the opportunity to see her company again at a “Salon” performance on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I took advantage of it.
Based on the two pieces I saw – one, a work-in-progress that presents a familiar work, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, with a different focus; the other, a revision of a piece, Mythologies, that I saw in its previous form a year before to the day – the quality of Lavagnino’s choreography and of the CLD dancers hasn’t changed.
I’ll address the two pieces in the order presented.
I didn’t know how much of the work in progress Lavagnino’s The Winter’s Tale was until I reviewed the program. As she explained in her introductory remarks to the substantial Salon audience at City Center’s Studio 5, the excerpts being shown were prepared independently from each other and there are significant narrative holes that have yet to be choreographed. Moreover, she advised that the piece’s score, by Lavagnino’s frequent collaborator Martin Bresnick, has not been composed yet (and isn’t expected to be completed until 2024), so for the purpose of the rehearsals and this showcase she utilized excerpts from “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons.”
I don’t think the scenes, independently or as presented, were intended to be critically evaluated, and I normally wouldn’t guess, much less opine on, how the final version will look of anything I see only as one or more excerpts. Nevertheless I’ll make a limited exception here. And for brevity’s sake, I’ll assume the reader’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s play (if that’s not the case, a synopsis is easily ascertained).
The Lavagnino dances I’ve seen previously are marked by a concisely-presented narrative or theme, balletic lyricism, rich detail, and effective characterization – including, where appropriate, sufficiently credible acting to further enhance the choreography and move the plot forward. The excerpts from The Winter’s Tale presented at this showcase indicate that the same choreographic qualities will grace this piece. That the scenes were presented in a form adapted to this Salon performance situation – that is, in proper sequence (thereby providing a Swiss Cheese-like narrative) and with no pauses in between an individual act’s scenes – enhanced the viewing experience.
Lavagnino also made it clear in her introduction that she’s adapting Shakespeare’s play with an emphasis on the consequences of an exclusive male hierarchy and male societal domination, including but not limited to its subjection of women. Fair enough – though some might argue that Shakespeare himself deals with this issue subtly but effectively in his story’s ending, where Leontes, the autocratic King of Sicily, belatedly recognizes the consequences of his testosterone-infused mistreatment of his wife Hermione and their daughter, including having caused the death of his son.
The first five excerpted scenes were from what likely will be the ballet’s opening act. In the first (“Opening Court Dance”), a group of eight dancers, identified as Members of the Court, emerge from the wings in a sort of generalized atmospheric introduction to Elizabethan England. The created ambiance is pleasant; almost jaunty. I suspect it will be revisited in some fashion (either by replication or contrast) when the dance in its entirety concludes. The next presented scene skips ahead to a solo by Paulina (Justin Faircloth – more on this below), Hermione’s friend, seeking fairness and/or mercy following unsupported allegations of adultery made against her by Leontes, which is then followed by a duet between the two friends. These scenes are warm and heartfelt and beautifully choreographed and executed, and succinctly visualize the emotional quality and mutuality of their relationship.
The fourth scene features a solo by Hermione as her husband prosecutes a sham trial. As presently constituted, the audience sees her visceral reaction to the accusations made against her, as well as the responses of Members of the Court, who here act both as a jury and a Greek Chorus of witnesses (well, a Sicilian Chorus) to the injustice. It’s already a powerful scene, enhanced by the understated but deeply expressed emotional emphasis provided by Corinne Hart, who plays Hermione (as well as by Philip Strom’s uncredited Leontes), and by Lavagnino’s admirable decision to replace “standard” ballet mime with sign language (as in for the deaf), which provides the viewer with a more unaffected-looking representation of the emotions expressed, and, as Hart splendidly executes it, enhances rather than interferes with the viewer’s understanding of what Hermione is thinking and saying. This excerpt is already a compelling piece of choreography and dance theater. It was followed by a brief excerpt that visualizes the Oracle (Erin Gallagher) expressing the insight that Leontes seeks and thereafter rejects.
Subsequently, in two scenes from what is expected to be the second act, Hermione’s rescued child, Perdita (Emma Pajewski), is shown in a distilled but romantic and emotion-packed duet with Florizel (Strom), Polixenes’s son. [Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is the person with whom Leontes suspected Hermione of having the affair and of fathering her child.] The excerpted scenes conclude with a solo (partially within the group framework) danced by Autolycus, a vagabond, peddler and pickpocket in the play, here powerfully delivered by Dervla Carey-Jones. In addition to those dancers already mentioned, the rest of the cast performed admirably as well (many in multiple roles), including two new company dancers Alexis Branagan (whom I remember well from her association with American Repertory Ballet and as a dancer with New York Theatre Ballet), and Michael Wayne Miles, Jr.
Based on these excerpts, and with two caveats, each of which in the overall scheme of things is relatively minor, I look forward to seeing the full-length piece.
The first caveat is the score. The Richter music fits Lavagnino’s choreography and her conception of the piece like a glove. A different score will likely have an overall impact on the piece in one way or another, and may result in the excerpts, in context, appearing somewhat different than they currently do. [As of course, would be differences in costumes, staging, and any changes made to the choreography presented here.]
Of greater concern to me – though possibly to no one else – is my second caveat.
As noted above, one of the intermediate scenes features Hermione’s friend Paulina pleading for her life. Also as noted above, the dancer in the role is Faircloth.
An artist is certainly entitled to tinker with her or his literary inspiration, and to reimagine and reemphasize certain events through a different prism. But here Lavagnino changes the character of Paulina into a man dressed like a woman playing a woman’s role not because it adds emphasis to the point of view she’s presenting but, as she said during her introduction, because it’s a payback of sorts since in Shakespeare’s time men played women’s roles.
That’s undeniably true. But it’s an historical injustice that didn’t legally survive (at least with respect to women playing women on stage) long past the time that Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale – although the stigma associated with women participating in commercial theater did continue for more than a century thereafter. Be that as it may, shining “new” light on this particular issue doesn’t impact either the story as Lavagnino reimagines and targets it, or this issue itself. [Indeed, if anything the tables have long since turned, and except in comic situations it appears far more acceptable to have a woman play a man’s role (particularly in ballet, where there’s a surfeit of highly capable ballerinas and a paucity of capable danseurs) than the other way around – though I concede that’s a personal rather than scientifically-based observation.]
Equally certain is that an artist has the freedom to insert an LGBTQ character into a role even if only to make the point that anyone of whatever gender orientation (or weight, or height, etc.) can play any role, or to shed light on and provide opportunities to a marginalized community. But here the casting sticks out like a sore thumb and, more importantly, is an unnecessary distraction that the viewer must either overlook or credit, all while wondering whether the strap on Faircloth’s costume would slide off his shoulder. Perhaps it would be more meaningful in context to have Paulina changed, say, to Paul, Hermione’s male true friend (with the same choreography and Faircloth’s passionate portrayal), who’s as sensitive and caring as Leontes isn’t. Just a totally unsolicited thought – although I suppose that that might dim the dance’s focus. [There’s a third alternative – having a woman play the role of Paulina – but that would be too easy, and might also, as presently choreographed, raise its own collateral issue.]
I must reemphasize, however, that my concern here seems only to have registered with me. I didn’t take a survey, but I noticed no adverse reaction to the casting of this role by anyone else in the audience.
Lavagnino’s revised Mythologies does change the dance’s focus somewhat (at least as I originally saw it), making Lavignino’s intent with respect to issues relating to gender-based character traits more clear. And although I don’t have a sufficiently reliable photographic memory, I sensed that this update adds significant additional choreography in order to buttress that targeted focus. Also significant is that this version adds additional text (or more greatly emphasized text) by writer and dramaturge Brian Sostek, narrated by Kate Maguire. The accompanying score itself was co-composed by Scott Killian, Jacob Lawson, and Carol Limnik, and may or may not have also been a revision of the composition I heard last year.
It turns out that the suspicions I expressed in my review a year ago as to Lavagnino’s real intent here– that Mythologies may have been less a narrative relating to Greek mythology than a commentary on “mythologies” of male and female character – was right (as was my sense that the piece as presented last year may have been a work in progress). The changes that I sense in the updated choreography also uptick the clarity of the “fluid sexual coupling” for which the mythologies provide a convenient context. Now each of the three groups identified in the piece (Sirens, Men of Thebes, and Amazons) is better balanced choreographically – and any narrative, real or simply perceived, is at most minimized. It’s stereotyped mythology that Lavagnino is addressing, not a mythological story.
However, this clarified focus – the illumination of an under-emphasized but undoubtedly existent past and present character and lifestyle – does not come without some collateral damage. Although the choreography is very nicely conceived and executed, with Lavagnino’s continuing emphasis on providing a ballet-based lyrical context to her choreography evident at all times, it’s more monochromatic than it was before. Sexual attraction in one form or another (though not at all visualized as salacious) is as omnipresent as it is natural: essentially, it’s all coupling, or the impulse to pursue it, all the time (which, as I now dimly recall, may not be far off the mark). Nevertheless, though this may be the way life was and remains, the constant visualization of it, despite limited contextual choreographic variety, can be numbing.
I initially viewed the Sirens as the more choreographically effective grouping. I still do. In this revision, however, they’re more than just a mythologically-based group: they’re a metaphorical life force that not only exists for mutual gratification and to lure men to them (though for a different form of gratification, not to their deaths), and their siren call is heard (literally) in all of the dance’s structural contexts. Indeed, one or more of the Sirens physically appear as metaphoric lures in most every scene even after the dance’s initial focus on them as a group has ended and the environment shifts from sea to land. All humans, represented by the Men of Thebes and the Amazons, are subject to the siren’s call. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (it does provide the ballet with a sense of unity it previously lacked), the downplay of the physically aggressive portrayal (particularly of the Amazons) is unfortunate. All in all, however, I prefer that to a muddled message.
But much of the added vocalization (the emphasized words, not the identification of the mythological groups or the melodic siren calls) made me cringe. The choreography more than adequately addresses the issue of gender-based expectations and characteristics (women can be graceful and seductive, but also strong and powerful, and vice versa, and men can be both powerful and sensitive), as well as the visualization of fluid gender couplings. Driving the point home with emphasized verbal conclusory statements that essentially direct the audience’s evaluation of what’s being presented to them is overkill; the equivalent of hitting a donkey over the head with an anvil to get its attention – and particularly unnecessary in this situation because Lavagnino here, at least in this venue, is probably preaching to the choir. The choreography makes the point sufficiently well; the verbal anvil, at least to me, is intrusive and superfluous.
The CLD dancers are a strong group, each of whom handled Lavagnino’s choreography very well. The Sirens are as seductively portrayed as they were in the piece’s prior incarnation (here danced by Branagan in addition to the original’s Gwendolyn Gussman and Pajewski); the Men of Thebes (danced here by Barrington Hinds, Strom, and Miles) now display a clearly expressed sexuality and sexual duality; and the Amazons (Branagan, Carey-Jones, Gallagher, Hart, and Dorothea Garland) now have a less militant collective character.
Notwithstanding the concerns expressed above, which, again, as with my caveats with respect to the in-progress The Winter’s Tale, are relatively minor, Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance is marked by effective, accessible, and genuine-looking choreography and by an ensemble of dancers who know what they’re doing and do it well. I look forward to the company’s return.