City Center Dance Festival, Parts 1 and 2
New York City Center
New York, New York
March 24, 2022: Paul Taylor Dance Company – Roses, Pentimento (Lovette world premiere), Brandenburgs
April 2, 2022: Ballet Hispánico – Doña Perón
City Center is hosting its first of what may be an annual Dance Festival this year. The series presents four New York-based dance companies in performances spread over three weeks. This review will address programs by the first two scheduled companies, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Ballet Hispánico. A subsequent review will address performances by the other scheduled companies, Martha Graham Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Many years ago, in the course of a review, I asked myself, rhetorically, what a masterpiece is. My subsequent elaboration was that a masterpiece must have choreography and staging that clearly communicates whatever it is attempting to say (narrative or not), and that does so in an interesting and entertaining way. And it’s more than simply being the style du jour or a very fine example of its genre. One way or another, a masterpiece doesn’t just ‘present’ something to an audience, it resonates with an audience’s mind or its heart or both. If that makes deciding what may or may not be considered a masterpiece somewhat subjective, albeit a subjective opinion shared by many, so be it. But as with other works of art, it’s a determination that works not only for its time, but for generation after ballet-going generation.
I’ve referenced this here because it’s rare enough to find one piece in a festival of this nature that might be considered the best work that particular choreographer created to date. It’s rarer still to find one piece that might be considered a masterpiece. To find two premiere pieces that satisfy both criteria, in two separate performances by different choreographers and companies, is astonishing.
I’m easy – we’ve established that a long time ago, and maybe branding them as masterpieces is a stretch, particularly since neither is the kind of epic piece of work that might prompt such a labelling (the ballet that I was reviewing when I wrote the above was Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy,” which undeniably qualifies regardless of the criteria applied). Then call them “masterworks” if that sits easier, or simply “brilliant” if that works better for any readers. But each of these very different dances, for different reasons, is so well-choreographed, staged, and performed, and so undeniably “right” for what their choreographers were attempting to do, that they merit the superlatives.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
All the dances on the three programs that Paul Taylor Dance Company presented as the inaugural company at the Festival, most of which can be, and have been, considered masterpieces, had been seen previously – save one. Accordingly, the highlight of the PTDC’s appearances at City Center last week was the world premiere of Lauren Lovette’s Pentimento. The piece had incubated for over two years (since before the pandemic), and is Lovette’s first for the company.
Shortly before the engagement began, the company announced that Lovette had been named as its first Resident Choreographer. Based on Pentimento, it was a wise choice.
I’ve appreciated all the dances choreographed by Lovette that I’ve seen, from For Clara to Not Our Fate to The Shaded Line for New York City Ballet, La Follia Variations for American Ballet Theatre; and those pieces that she choreographed for a program, titled “Why It Matters,” that she and colleagues presented last August. They’re all ballets. Accordingly, one might have expected her choreographic trajectory to be limited to ballet, but Pentimento proves that that’s not necessarily who she is. While it’s more in line with the exuberant pieces that Lovette has created rather than the ones that address social issues (or perhaps because of that), Pentimento is her finest work to date.
At least in its original Italian usage relating to painting, “pentimento” means the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or paint strokes that have been changed and painted over, and which reemerge over time as the covering layers age and become somewhat transparent, revealing what lies beneath. The word is Italian for “repentance,” indicating that the painter repented what he / she had originally created, and painted over it.
But as it has evolved, the word’s use isn’t limited to the visual arts, and its meaning, colloquial though it may be, includes a “revealing” of events from one’s past that had been overwritten many times by the passage of time and the accumulation of memory, and has less to do with repentance than acts being seen in a new light. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this latter meaning is what Lovette intended by her title.
Based on what I’ve read of comments she has made on social media, Pentimento is a product of her memory of events in her life, and is highly personal to her. I don’t doubt that at all. But Pentimento is not just a collection of specific or generalized memories and emotions; rather, it consists of scenes that may have originated as from one life, but which in execution become far more universal.
Whatever they may represent, however, these memories are fleeting remembrances that come and go and are succeeded by another memory, and then another. And deciphering what these memories may represent is not the point; these are emotional memories given abstract physical form.
So far, I’ve danced around what Pentimento really is. Memories or not, emotions or not, Pentimento is a celebration of life. It’s Lovette’s most joyous choreographic work.
Dissecting the dance into component parts is not helpful here, and I gave up trying to keep track of or define them early on in the piece. It’s just not important. Suffice it to say that the parts reflect individual and collective gains and losses, struggles and successes, and points in between; that “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” life goes on – and that life is good. What holds the dance together is its ceaseless movement variety; its color (emotional as much as physical); and its overall stylistic unity. Choreographed to Argentine Composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, Op. 23, which is divided into discrete movements. Pentimento is similarly divided, but the segments flow together so seamlessly that the divisions among them, while relatively clear, are insignificant. [An aside: my first exposure to Ginastera’s music came from its use as the score for Christopher Wheeldon’s Estancia, created in 2006 for New York City Ballet. In that piece, Ginastera’s music sounded so concurrently atmospheric and majestic that I compared his music to that of Aaron Copland. Suffice it to say that this composition is very different. Nevertheless it’s a perfectly-selected accompaniment to Lovette’s piece.]
Lovette accomplishes this cleverly, and in a way that resembles, but that far exceeds, the cleverness she showed in La Follia Variations, which is the dance (of those I’ve seen) that Pentimento most resembles. But where La Follia Variations has a beginning visual motif that is echoed at its conclusion, Pentimento’s motif is a continuing one: a red scarf that connects one component part to another. Some readers may recall pandemic video postings that took a single object and seemingly transported it via the magic of TikTok or some other social media platform from one person to another, and from one time and place to another, but appearing to be a continuing and uninterrupted process. Here, the scarf is part of a continuing process, and it’s even more magical than many of those clever social media videos were.
As noted, Pentimento doesn’t make a statement or take a social position. But that doesn’t make it deficient. The viewer is engaged throughout, captivated throughout. Like her other recent pieces, Pentimento demonstrates Lovette’s full control over and use of every corner of the stage, and her ability to manipulate individuals and ensembles interestingly. There are no empty moments in Pentimento; it’s all as smooth as a … silk scarf. To the extent some might consider it too light, and not epic enough to have lasting significance (a conclusion with which I’d disagree), then take it as a piece that is a breath of fresh air, and that’s really wonderful for what it is. It’s certainly nothing less than that.
Perhaps most significantly, Pentimento blends effortlessly into the Taylor legacy of, among many other qualities, sensitivity, a sense of spontaneity, and where appropriate, joy. It’s been a very long time since I first saw it, but one of the Taylor pieces I thought of as I watched Pentimento was Diggity – in spirit, though with little of the lovable strangeness and none of the cardboard dogs. I suspect that Lovette will eventually include other Taylor qualities in her work, like social consciousness, metaphoric statements, lyricism, and occasional weirdness as her opportunities with the company continue.
Pentimento also is an ensemble piece in every way, although at one moment or another every member of the ensemble is highlighted. The fourteen-dancer cast (nearly the entire company) delivered super performances, but particular standouts were Lee Duveneck, Madelyn Ho, and Lisa Borres (who seemed hardly able to contain her bliss).
Pentimento was bracketed on the program I saw by two dances choreographed by Paul Taylor: Roses and Brandenburgs. It’s testament to the quality of Lovette’s work that it was not overshadowed by either of these pieces, both of which have been described as masterpieces.
I’ve reviewed Roses and Brandenburgs previously, so will keep my comments here to a minimum.
Roses displays a side of Taylor’s choreographic skill not usually seen from him – or, these days, from anyone else. As I’ve described it previously, Roses is an unapologetic bouquet to romantic love. There’s not a salacious moment in it, but the stage relationships are clearly conveyed.
To me, what distinguishes Roses is its gentle sense of mutuality and non-obsessive reliance. The couples contently lean against each other. They ooze security and comfort with each other, but there’s also a sense of experimentation and playfulness. For example, a repeated theme throughout the dance, in group segments as well as duets, is one derived from gymnastics: tumbling. But here, the dancers tumble atop and over their partners – lengthwise. Then, with their positions reversed, the tumbling continues. The sexual side of the relationships is apparent, but camouflaged so skillfully that some in the audience wouldn’t notice, and that none would care that it’s a visual metaphor.
Roses consists of six couples: five choreographically examined from the beginning and through most of the piece, with the women in black and the men in grey. As the dance concludes, a sixth couple emerges, each in white. There’s a distinction between them, but aside from the costumes it’s not easy to discern. If nothing else, the couple in white comes across as more committed, with a connection that’s deeper and more concrete. In hindsight, in light of the couple in white, the first five couples’ relationships, while undeniable, are lighter, more like mutually pleasant continuing discoveries. But I’ll concede that without the couple in white I wouldn’t have noticed anything absent from the stage relationships choreographed for the first five couples.
The piece is choreographed to Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Heinrich Baermann’s Adagio for Clarinet and Strings. The music is an appropriate conduit for Taylor’s choreography, but, at least in this performance, it lent a lachrymal tone to the piece that I didn’t previously sense.
In any event, the six couples – Jessica Ferretti and Shawn Lesniak, Christina Lynch Markham and Jake Vincent, Raechelle Manalo and Alex Clayton, Ho and John Harnage, Kristin Draucker and Michael Apuzzo, and the couple in white, Jada Pearman and Duveneck – danced exquisitely, but the standouts, to me, were Ho and Harnage and Draucker and Apuzzo.
The evening concluded with Taylor’s classic Brandenburgs. Created in 1988, Brandenburgs evokes its own memories – one of which is Taylor’s landmark 1975 dance Esplanade, but reflecting the more formal nature of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (#6, movements 1 & 2, and #3), it’s considerably less playful and more Baroque. While, to my eye, nothing can match Esplanade, Brandenburgs is without doubt an essential constituent of the classic modern dance canon.
Reflecting the relatively high number of newcomers to the company who performed Brandenburgs, it’s not at all surprising that this performance was somewhat less electric than others I’ve seen. But with a masterpiece like Brandenburgs, inevitably they’ll get there – and many already are. The cast included Harnage, Ho, Duveneck, Clayton, Devon Louis, a particularly impressive Maria Ambrose, Pearman, Adam Dickerson, and Jake Vincent.
I haven’t seen all of Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ever-growing choreographic output; that would have been virtually impossible. But I have seen many of them, most of which I found commendable and a few I didn’t. But nothing I’ve seen from her before prepared me for her Doña Perón. With this, the company’s first evening-length dance, Ochoa and Ballet Hispánico deliver a knock-out punch to the gut that will resonate in audience’s memories for years to come.
Aside from its quality, Doña Perón is as different from Pentimento as a tornado is from a gentle breeze. There’s little in it that would prompt a smile. But in its way, Doña Perón provides a sense of joy also – the joy of seeing a dance that’s so mesmerizing that one waits impatiently not so much to see what comes next, the audience knows that, but to see how Ochoa and her colleagues present it. That is, it’s the joy of having witnessed a monumental example of stagecraft, choreography, and execution. At the piece’s conclusion, I and the sold out audience couldn’t rise and cheer fast enough.
Before I proceed, up front I must recognize those who contributed to its success. To wait until the end of this review to do so would be a disservice to all of them, because Doña Perón depends so much on the entire creative team’s contributions. In addition to Ochoa, Christopher Ash’s scenery, lighting and projection design leaves a viewer breathless with its perfect enhancement of and synchronization with the choreography and Peter Salem’s music (played live by a quintet of musicians obviously experienced in the styles of music and dance displayed here), and the costumes designed by Mark Eric are – with one noteworthy exception – somewhat understated, but all are exactly right. Each of the fourteen company dancers who comprise the dance’s supporting cast were outstanding, as was Chris Bloom’s Juan Perón and student dancer Nina Basu’s Young Evita. But Dandara Veiga, the dance’s focal point and one who I don’t recall previously seeing, ripped the stage apart.
It’s a tough story to tell, but one that demands to be told. Doña Perón, here in its New York premiere performance following its New Orleans premiere on March 12, is a selective but deep dive into the life and death of Argentina’s María Eva Duarte de Perón, better known as Eva Perón, the wife of Juan Perón, and still better known simply by her nickname, Evita – the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death from cancer, at age 33, in 1952. [For obvious reasons, Ochoa was precluded from using “Evita” as the dance’s title.]
Eva Perón’s life is fascinating, but as Ochoa hastened to mention during a post-performance discussion, her ballet isn’t a documentary. Rather, and not unlike most other narrative ballets, it’s a series of scenes from her life, adequately described in the program notes, pulled together with Eva Perón as its continuing link. I suppose Ochoa could be criticized for her selective scene selection from among the panoply of events in Eva Perón’s brief but tumultuous life, but that’s a spurious argument. The vast majority of narrative historical ballets do the same thing, and those that Ochoa selected are representative. Similarly spurious would be criticism about one-dimensional characterization. On the contrary, Ochoa’s Evita presents a broad range of emotional evolution, and she’s the character who really matters. And I suppose further that she might also be criticized for inflating and romanticizing Eva Perón’s image, and for the seemingly manufactured melodrama that permeates the piece, but to do anything less would deny the reality of Evita’s life and her continuing veneration in her country. There are somewhat more valid concerns or observations, which I’ll address later, but in the overall scheme of things, they don’t matter either.
One of the sources I found (referenced and footnoted in Wikipedia) is an illuminating 1995 interview with Argentine writer, commentator and journalist (and former head of the Latin American department at Rutgers) Tomás Eloy Martínez (1934-2010), who in an interview referred to Eva Perón as “the Cinderella of the tango and the Sleeping Beauty of Latin America.” Martínez suggested she has remained an important cultural icon for the same reasons as fellow Argentine Che Guevara:
“Latin American myths,” he said, “are more resistant than they seem to be. Not even the mass exodus of the Cuban raft people or the rapid decomposition and isolation of Fidel Castro’s regime have eroded the triumphal myth of Che Guevara, which remains alive in the dreams of thousands of young people in Latin America, Africa and Europe. Che as well as Evita symbolize certain naive, but effective, beliefs: the hope for a better world; a life sacrificed on the altar of the disinherited, the humiliated, the poor of the earth. They are myths which somehow reproduce the image of Christ.”
In this light, Doña Perón’s portrayal of its protagonist, coupled with the brief but informative information provided in the intelligently-written program note, is not only justifiable, but essential to make the reality of her life, and her country’s continuing reverence for her, understandable and accessible.
Ochoa divides Evita’s life into ten seamless segments, from the illegitimate and rejected daughter of a wealthy landowner, to her decision to escape from her poverty-infested life (cleverly represented by a projection onto a stage right billboard-like screen that shows railroad tracks leading into infinity, but which concurrently look like stair steps leading up and out from the slums), to a resourceful and ambitious dancehall girl, to an actress and radio personality, to her introduction and relationship with Juan Perón (with each exploiting, but obviously devoted to, the other), to her becoming a political and social icon to her premature death shortly thereafter. Throughout this, Ochoa recognizes Evita’s irrefutable and ever-expanding determination, and also recognizes but leaves unanswered the underlying question of whether Evita’s advocacy for and support by the descamisados (“shirtless ones”) and women, Argentina’s poor and disenfranchised, was real or convenient opportunism.
And from beginning to end, Ochoa incorporates, without specifically referencing it in her program notes or the dance, Eva Perón’s increasingly evident position as “Spiritual Leader of the Nation,” a title awarded her (recognizing the venerated position she’d secured – and no doubt upon the demand of her husband) by the Argentine Congress in 1952, shortly before her death.
Ochoa accomplishes all this using two basic constructs that have been used before, but perhaps without such a dramatic impact. First, she begins at the end, with Evita already dead and worshipped by the descamisados. [“Worship is as appropriate a word as “venerated” or “iconic.” As another commentator has recognized (again, referenced and footnoted in Wikipedia), in many homes a picture of Evita is on the wall next to that of the Virgin of Guadelupe.]
From there, Ochoa introduces the character of Young Evita. With this character, or the memory of her, by Evita’s side at all times, Ochoa then retraces Eva Perón’s life from the beginning, tracing her turbulent rise until her sudden death.
But this doesn’t tell the half of what makes Doña Perón as effective as it is. Enhanced by Ash’s lighting and set (and the minimally but skillfully used and almost inconspicuous projection area), every scene is dramatic and powerful. Indeed, one possible criticism I can make of any aspect of this piece is its continuing tension, which never ebbs. That’s true, but it’s a consequence of a presentation style that accurately reflects Evita’s overall impact. And Ochoa does moderate it as much as reasonably possible; there are scenes of dancing that, although forceful because of the power of Veiga’s stage personality (and of course Ochoa’s choreography) that act as limitations and contrasts to the dance’s overall intensity. Where appropriate, for example, the piece includes forms of classical social dance (waltz, tango) in contrast to the “street dance” (akin to African step dancing imported to South America as well as elsewhere) that is displayed by the descamisados. And even where the music is overwhelmingly percussive, it’s not an exhibition or a ritualistic exercise: it’s adoring and unapologetically fanatical, but it’s also varied in intensity and in stage patterning. Indeed, the inception from, and increasingly inescapable sound of, the descamisados coming together as a force in the dance’s closing scene is so perfectly modulated in Salem’s score and Ochoa’s choreography that the audience can sense the ground trembling like an approaching political earthquake.
A second valid criticism may appear to be its relatively dismissive treatment of its leading male character, Juan Perón. That’s true – he’s certainly second-fiddle to Evita at all times, and his emotional and choreographic vocabulary (except, to an extent, in their mutually passionate pas de deux) is far more restrained than for Evita. However, this is appropriate here because, after all, Evita is the dance’s focus – and from what I’ve been able to determine Juan Perón was certainly intense, but far less expressive about it than his wife. Accordingly, Juan Perón’s intensity, as communicated by Bloom, is internal; Evita’s intensity, as communicated by Veiga, is both internal and external. And to further make her point, Ochoa and her colleagues inject what appear to be (I saw no reference to them in the program) brief excerpts from Evita’s recorded addresses to her nation that echo the images that concurrently are being displayed on stage.
But even if Ochoa, as a feminist, plays up the female and plays down the male lead roles, that’s as refreshing here as it was in one ballet that came to mind as I watched Doña Perón evolve.
In several ways, Ochoa’s piece resembles Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre – of course in its visualization of a young version of the protagonist, but also seeing the descamisados as a corollary to Marston’s “D-Men” (which I also saw as “Fate” figures). But in the end, both examples quickly evaporate. What the two dances do have in common is a focus on the female character rather than the male, and an overall emotional sensitivity (more difficult to see in Ochoa’s piece than in Marston’s, but it’s there) and sense of atmospheric drama (emphasized more in Ochoa’s piece than Marston’s) that many, if not most, dances created by male choreographers lack. [Note that I have not previously seen Ochoa’s other evening length piece, her 2012 A Streetcar Named Desire, which now is on my bucket list.] While so many male choreographers create action-figure super-heroes (and super-villains), Marston, Ochoa here, and other female choreographers create, or reflect, spiritual and / or emotional super-heroes.
Doña Perón also shares a commonality, to a limited extent, with a variety of pieces created by certain European-based choreographers who, to my eye, utilize lighting or melodrama as ends in themselves, and which not only direct an audience’s attention to those qualities, but which at times overpower, or at a minimum distract from, the dance itself. While in Doña Perón these qualities are more obvious, perhaps, than in other pieces, their use supplements, and are inextricably connected to, the piece itself. Two examples are a drop-down set of small tubes of light that draws attention to a particular event in the dance narrative that requires emphasis; and the image of Evita in death that opens and closes the ballet, which some may argue resembles a stylized crucifixion, but which is simply a visual recognition of the spiritual qualities that Evita inspired in the Argentines who idolized her. It’s also the only point in which Eric’s huge all-white costume for Evita appears to drive the scene rather than just reflect it (the exception I mentioned at the outset). But although it looks excessively theatrical, it’s absolutely consistent, if not essential, to the significance of that scene, and to the knowledge that, whether or not Argentina cries for her, the truth is that Eva Perón never left.
I’ve gone at length about Doña Perón because it contains so much excellence within its parameters. But I must add one more comment, which I also referenced at the outset of this review. Every one of the Ballet Hispánico dancers deserves recognition. Here they were an extraordinarily cohesive group, and as driven and committed as the descamisados they represented – as well as doubling effectively in less volatile roles (e.g., Evita’s parents, dance hall patrons, the military, and the upper echelon of Argentine society). I can’t expand this more than I already have by naming all fourteen of them (plus young dancer Basu), but their contribution is an undeniable component of the dance’s success, as is the intense Juan Perón that Bloom provided, together with his effortless partnering. And simply put, if there were an Oscar for dance performances, Veiga’s dramatic, powerful, and multi-dimensional Eva Perón would win it.
The next time that Doña Perón returns to this area, make a point to see it. It’s dance theater at its best, and its unforgettable.