City Center Dance Festival, Parts 3 and 4
New York City Center
New York, New York
April 6, 2022 – Martha Graham Dance Company: Chronicle, Canticle for Innocent Comedians (world premiere), CAVE (world premiere)
April 8, 2022 – Dance Theatre of Harlem: Higher Ground (world premiere), Passage, Balamouk (extended version)
The second pair of companies in City Center’s recently-concluded four-company Dance Festival included Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) and Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Performances by the Festival’s first two companies, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Ballet Hispánico, were previously reviewed.
These final two programs took off from where the first two programs left off, beginning with a spectacular performance, continuing with a few very interesting world and New York premieres, and concluding with another excellent piece choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Martha Graham Dance Company
The opening piece of MGDC’s first Festival program was a Graham masterpiece, Chronicle. I’ve seen it before – at City Center actually – but as impressive as that prior presentation was, this one surpassed it. And as fine as the entire cast here was, the performance by its lead dancer, Leslie Andrea Williams, overshadowed everything and everyone else.
Chronicle was created in 1936, after Graham had rejected an invitation from Hitler to perform in Nazi Germany. The piece is Graham’s clarion call against Germany’s growing fascism, and it’s a dark, stark, and angry warning of the inevitable calamities to come. The women-only dance is divided into sections: in the first, “Spectre-1914,” the unnamed central character sees the future; the second, “Steps in the Streets,” is a vision of what will happen as a consequence of the foretold apocalypse; and the final segment, “Prelude to Action,” is a call to arms to fight against the coming fury. The lead character is the dance’s visual focal point, with the female corps, divided into groups, moving powerfully but generally in tandem with every other participant in the group.
For a dance that often looks relatively one-dimensional with seemingly little in the way of movement change, Chronicle is filled with depth and visual variety. The measured frenzy of the corps women (even with their generally stoic demeanors and their semi-rigid positions as they navigate the stage), contrasted with the calamitous foreshadowing of doom and highly dynamic movement of its lead character, are mesmerizing.
Given Graham’s choreographic history, it’s obvious, at least to me, that this dance’s surface subject, barely camouflaging Graham’s real target (looming Nazi fascism), is presented somewhat like a story out of Greek mythology. Seeing the corps moving basically as one generalized series of forms is reminiscent of many theatrical versions I’ve seen of Euripedes’s “The Trojan Women” (most memorably the celebrated Andre Serban / Elizabeth Swados version at Greenwich Village’s La Mama ETC theater in 1974 – the one that included the very young Diane Lane), and the stridency and overwhelming urgency of its lead character immediately brings to mind the seer/prophetess of doom Cassandra – except, unlike usual incarnations of the myth, here the leader is, apparently, believed.
When I previously saw Chronicle, the dance’s lead was suitably animated in her body movement, but to my recollection relatively stoic facially (like the other “Trojan Women”). But Williams’s performance was dramatic in every way (coming perilously close to being melodramatic without quite crossing the line) – certainly in her dancing posture and movement, but also with eyes, her silent vocalization, and her doom-riddled face – augmented by the magnificent costume that mutates from black to blood red as her introductory solo progresses. Although there was little emotional variety to her portrayal, there wasn’t supposed to be: unlike the monumental portrayal by Dandara Veiga of Eva Perón in Ochoas’s Doña Perón for Ballet Hispánico, this “Cassandra” character is a uniform emotional and physical force. Nevertheless, even without emotional variety, Williams’s portrayal is indelible.
Williams was not alone. She dances the opening section’s solo, but in the second two sections is joined by phalanxes of women, each segment with its own featured dancers. In this performance, the second segment’s featured dancer was Marzia Memoli, a compelling presence with power and vulnerability of her own (though her role did not require the melodrama inherent in the lead role), and in the third, Memoli and Yin Ying joined Williams in leading the call to arms. The remaining dancers, each of whom executed flawlessly, were So Young An, Laurel Dalley Smith, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, Devin Loh, Anne O’Donnell, Kate Reyes, Aoi Sato, and particularly Anne Souder.
One final comment – I may be the only one, but I don’t see Chronicle as an anti-war piece. Rather, I see it as an anti-consequences-of-war piece. That may be the other side of the same coin, but the emphasis here is on self-defense and defeating the enemy, and of course on stopping fascism, rather than stopping all war. For that, Aristophanes (Lysistrata) may have had a better idea.
I “discovered” choreographer Sonya Tayeh in one of City Center’s Fall for Dance programs in 2018, and was sufficiently impressed to designate her piece, Reclamation Map, as one of my Tops in New York Dance for that year. The following year, Tayeh proved that what I saw in my first exposure to her work wasn’t an accidental success: her Unveiling made my list for 2019.
Thereafter, Tayeh became a hot choreographic commodity – or at least a more visible one. Among other work, she became the project manager / chief choreographer of a new staging of Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians (“Canticle”), a piece that Graham choreographed in 1952 that had since been nearly completely lost.
MGDC Artistic Director Janet Eilber (who I remember vividly as a Graham company dancer) conceived the idea of a new Canticle inspired by her memory of Graham’s work, and recruited Tayeh to oversee the production and to choreograph key portions of it.
My understanding is that each segment in the dance’s original incarnation was given a name derived from natural objects, elements, or life events: that aspect of it, at least, has been repeated here. I didn’t think that all the choreography in this reimagining represented was at the same high level, and some segments appeared to have little to do with the segment’s title. Nevertheless, the piece includes many performances and choreographed segments to admire – and particularly Tayeh’s overall quarterbacking.
Canticle is divided into eight segments: Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars, and Death/Rebirth. Tayeh was assigned the general introduction and closing choreography, the opening and closing segments, and the transition choreography that ties everything together. She pulled off the assignment miraculously well.
Tayeh’s introduction, involving all the dancers, segued neatly into her choreography for the first segment – which, coupled with Lorenzo Pagano’s performance, did indeed give life to a sun-like presence greeting the day and its challenges. The second segment, choreographed by Alleyne Dance didn’t leave much of an impression one way or the other choreographically (aside from displaying contentiousness between its two dancers (Lloyd Knight and Richard Villaverde), but its power is undeniable. Much of that has to do with Knight. Appearing also in the galvanizing fourth segment with Alessio Crognale (choreographed by Juliano Nunez, whose work continues to impress), Knight dominated both segments. With Michael Trusnovec having retired from PTDC, Knight now may well be the most powerful male presence in dance.
In between “Earth” and “Water” was “Wind,” choreographed by Sir Robert Cohan, in which Laurel Dalley Smith gracefully buffeted the stage. Like the choreography for “Earth,” I don’t recall Yin Yue’s choreography for the fifth segment as displaying anything specifically related to “Fire,” but her choreography for its five dancers (Memoli, Souder, Williams, Jacob Larsen, and Pagano) was presented well.
The final three segments were beautifully choreographed by Graham, Taylor, and Tayeh respectively, and each was given exquisitely executed performances, by So Young An and Jacob Larsen (“Moon”), Crognale and Memoli (“Stars”), and Larsen (“Death / Rebirth”).
As noted above, Tayeh deserves considerable credit not only for her choreography, but for successfully making all the disparate elements of Canticle come together. Nothing I’ve seen of her work looks the same as another, and nothing I’ve seen of her work is less than top-flight.
The program concluded with the world premiere of Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE.
Shechter is an Israeli-born dancer and choreographer who, after a stint with Batsheva Dance Company, moved to London in 2002 (where he is now based), and subsequently founded his own company, Hofesh Shechter Dance. On the way, among other accolades, he won a Tony Award for his choreography for the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Shechter may be the dance-world’s current “it” choreographer. In addition to creating pieces for his own company, he’s choreographed for companies around the world. His appearance with MGDC was engineered by Daniil Simkin, who is credited with co-producing CAVE.
I’ve not previously seen any of Shechter’s dances. Consequently, although I’ve gleaned that his choreography for CAVE is fairly typical, I can’t say how it fits in with Schechter’s body of work. Regardless, at least based on CAVE, one either loves it or intensely dislikes it. I fall into the latter group, but I recognize that the City Center audience appeared to be uniformly rapturous. Maybe it’s an age thing – or maybe I simply prefer a piece that does more than visually displaying its dancers utilizing every ounce of energy they have for no apparent purpose beyond visually displaying its dancers utilizing every ounce of energy they have.
Unlike many other similar dances, however, CAVE does have a meaning – thematically broad that meaning may be. By its title alone, and also by some of its movement quality – as well as by virtue of a light source emanating from above the stage, Cave is about a group of people, or a tribe, or a horde of dancers, stuck in a cave, and their worship of (or simply fascination with) the light that penetrates it. And it is coherent – it may look like a mess, but it’s an organized mess.
Beyond that, CAVE is all Shechter’s movement dynamics.
Essentially, the dancers jump up and down and up and down and up and down some more …. (you get the idea), most often with their arms and hands raised toward that somewhat deified light source. There are minor variations – moments that highlight one or more dancers (usually surrounded by others) or that leave one or another alone on stage, but they’re rare. I suspect for these variations the dancers in focus were given the opportunity to make up their own ten or fifteen seconds of choreography, and then rejoin the group – which would explain the occasional disconnect between such examples and the bulk of the piece.
As for Simkin, he was just another one of the dancers, not particularly singled out in any way. I didn’t even notice him until he’d been jumping around on stage for several minutes.
I have no doubt that CAVE is actually choreographed, as opposed to being some collective improvisation. It’s too uniform in its lack of uniformity to have been otherwise. The music (predominantly by Shechter) is ceaselessly percussive, although the volume rises and falls and the tempo periodically changes in the course of the piece. Most significantly, CAVE successfully transmits the sense of primitive energy and group consciousness that is obviously Shechter’s intent. And I must admit that it’s ending (which I won’t spoil) is surprising and reasonably clever – and provides a bit of welcome self-effacement to the piece.
All this having been said, take away the tribal primitive sense and the worshipped light source, and except for being venued in a cave, CAVE is really nothing new. What CAVE most resembles, to me, is a rock concert (with the “light source” being the equivalent of the front man) – including, as a teenager I used to know described it a school generation or so ago, a “rave”: a dance party at a club-like venue (e.g., a high school gym temporarily converted into a dance / performance space) typically featuring DJ’s (“disc jockeys” is so … sixties) playing electronic dance music (definitely not sixties), where parents didn’t want their children to go but, of course, they went anyway. And strangely or not, such “raves” originated in the U.K.
Beyond that all I could think of as I listened to Shechter’s music is that all this, and the energy galvanized as a result, has been around far longer than Shechter’s choreographic ascendance or the defined time period of a “rave.” As I left City Center, the music in my head wasn’t Shechter’s, it was Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips (Parts 1 and 2) from 1963, which as I recall (it’s been awhile) made its listeners similarly percolate. Indeed, in its own way CAVE was at least as much, if not more, Stevie Wonder-ish than the Stevie Wonder piece that opened the next company’s program.
How’s that for a segue?
Dance Theatre of Harlem
DTH presented three dances in Friday evening’s program. The first, Higher Ground, choreographed by the company’s Resident Choreographer, Robert Garland, to selected Stevie Wonder songs, premiered in January 2022 in Detroit, but much of it has been simmering since prior to the pandemic.
In a program note, Garland writes that “Higher Ground represents a Sankofa-esque reflection on our current times.” Not familiar with the word, I looked it up. “Sankofa,” in the Twi language of Ghana means “to retrieve” (literally “go back and get”) and also refers to the symbol often represented by a bird with its head turned backwards while its feet face forward, carrying an egg in its mouth. Sankofa is also associated with a proverb that translates as “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
Although that word is Afro-centric, the notion of going back and relearning what one has forgotten is not exclusively African. Indeed, a dance choreographed to a revered artist’s classic songs, of which there are many, necessarily revisits them, and consequently fits that description by definition. [A side note: “Sankofa” is not defined in the program note, leading one to believe that familiarity with the word and its meaning is presumed. This may also indicate that Higher Ground is itself targeted to a specific audience. Consequently, even though it has a universal visual sense, Higher Ground may not appear the same, or at least not as complete, to those who are not members of that targeted audience.]
Higher Ground, however, isn’t simply a collection of choreographed Stevie Wonder songs. Here Garland has curated the songs to emphasize one aspect of Wonder’s music. Specifically, examples of songs that contain a theme of African-American focused social consciousness and a call to action (all from the period after Wonder gained creative control over his recordings). The difficulty I have with Higher Ground is not that it’s so focused, but that to my eye this general theme isn’t matched by the choreography. That is: what I saw was dance that commendably grows in depth and entertainment significance as the piece progresses, and I heard an interesting if not fully representative set of Stevie Wonder songs, but I saw little that, to me, clearly linked the two.
The opening segment, to “Look Around” (from the 1971 album “Where I’m Coming From”) is filled with lyrics that encapsulate the meaning of Sankofa, as well as any other phrase that suggests the same thing, but to my eye the choreography to it, executed by six company dancers, says nothing of the sort. It was, at best, lackluster. The second segment, to You Haven’t Done Nothin’ (a brilliant funk 1974 single (taken from Wonder’s album “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”) that ridicules politicians and their empty promises, similarly fails choreographically to match the argumentative tone of the song.
Things begin to pick up from there, slowly, as Garland introduces considerably more variety into the movement package for each song. “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” (from the same 1974 album), a gentler and introspective song compared to the one that preceded it, includes a beautifully executed sequence of ballet movement as well as an introspective duet and sequence of solos. “Village Ghetto Land” (1976, from Wonder’s “Songs In the Key of Life” album), which followed, also provides a fine exhibition of ballet by the company dancers. But if Garland here was setting up a contrast between ballet and more vernacular forms of movement to mirror the contrast between a privileged life and ghetto life (a contrast that Wonder so skillfully makes), which I think is what he was trying to do, it didn’t work with the edge that Wonder gives it. Instead – and except for a piercing scream at the segment’s end – it came across with a far more measured bite – like satire.
The ballet concluded with “Saturn” (also from “Songs in the Key of Life”), followed by the title piece. Saturn continues the measured tempo of most of the previous songs, but here Garland injects the choreography with more energy – culminating in the exuberant final piece that celebrates the hopeful and eventual move to a “higher ground.”
Although I didn’t find Higher Ground to be as fully realized as it might have been, this doesn’t hold for the company’s dancers, who performed Garland’s piece commendably. The dancers included Alexandra Hutchinson, Daphne Lee, Amanda Smith, Micah Bullard, Kouadio Davis, and Anthony Santos (who in this program seemed to be everywhere at once, and danced brilliantly whenever he did).
When I read the program notes for Claudia Schreier’s Passage – that it was commissioned in part by the “2019 Commemoration” (the 400th anniversary of “a series of pivotal events in America’s history – including the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans”), I foresaw a dance about forced emigration, the cruelty of slavery, and loss of hope. What I found, however, was something that included all these themes, but that was told in a way I’d never before seen.
I may be wrong about the thrust of Schreier’s piece, but I saw it not so much as a lament or comment on brutality, and certainly not as an angry visual diatribe, but as a thing of beauty. Instead of the pain of what’s left behind, Schreier presents the joy of what was lost – making the pain of its loss all the more evident, and even more emotionally horrific.
Throughout Passage are visual themes of waves of dancers sprawling across the stage. At first I thought the “waves” represented the waves on which ships carrying African slaves crossed the Atlantic. And maybe they do. But I didn’t see pain here – what I saw was somewhat of a celebratory tone, and certainly visually gorgeous images, peppered with separately visualized indicia of loss. It became evident, at least to me, that these images were intended to show the way the life lost had been, either in fact or in the memory of those taken away. This conclusion was bolstered by the dance’s ending – the images fade into the distance, and a man left alone is pictured reaching out toward the treasured society that he’d known.
Led by Santos and Derek Brockington (apparently as slaves who’d been transported), the cast of twelve dancers did marvelous work. The score by Jessie Montgomery (presumably composed for this piece), played live by musicians led by conductor David LaMarche, varied in mood and perfectly supported Schreier’s choreography. And kudos also to Nicole Pearce’s lighting design, which, though relatively unobtrusive, individually enhanced each scene in the piece. Although I would have appreciated more choreographic variety, that’s not really the point here. The anguish of a blissful life remembered, and the tragedy of its loss is – and Schreier conveys this exceptionally well.
The evening concluded with Ochoa’s Balamouk. I’d previously seen Balamouk at a Fall for Dance program in 2018, and was thoroughly impressed by its originality and the celebratory tone that captured the Klezmer music played by a group called The Klezmatics. Not only was it unexpected (Klezmer music? Really?), but it was also very good. I described it then as the best new DTH dance that I’d seen in many years.
This presentation was an “expanded” version of what had been presented previously, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow the year following its FFD introduction. The program doesn’t indicate what had been added in the expanded version, and I couldn’t glean it from what I’d heard (perhaps it was the final vocalization, which I don’t recall hearing initially, but I’m not sure). And although the piece overall looked somewhat less focused than what I recall seeing previously, in its expanded version Balamouk (which is Romanian for “house of the insane”) is as surprising, celebratory, and fun as its prior incarnation and still showcases the individual and group talents of the company’s ten participating dancers. It sent the audience home happy even if many, or most, knew little about the music’s genesis and the parts of the world in which it originated – much of which is now is a battleground.
All in all, City Center’s Dance Festival was a consistent success, and will be difficult to match in what will hopefully be future annual incarnations.