Norte Maar: CounterPointe9
The Mark O’Donnell Theater at the Actors Fund Arts Center
Brooklyn, New York
March 11, 2022
Stroma: Sarah Yasmine Marazzi-Sassoon with Sophia Chizuco; Variations on Want: Charly Santagado with Barbara Weissberger; The House of the Spirits: Kathryn Roszak with Anna Sidana; Origin Forward: Erin Renee Young with Elizabeth Riley; Life of Kevin: Joan Liu with Traci Johnson; 2431da: JoVonna Parks with Noel Hennelly; rows and rows and numbered: Julia K. Gleich and Sharon Butler
The scope of choreographic and performance talent available to New York audiences never ceases to amaze me. A program I saw on Friday night, CounterPointe9, is a case in point. Or en pointe. And it’s yet another example of a statement I’ve frequently made: I don’t know what I don’t know.
In summary, although the pieces were not all of the same caliber, the overall level of expertise, originality, and entertainment value of the dances in this year’s incarnation of the CounterPointe series was quite extraordinary. Produced by the Brooklyn-based non-profit organization Norte Marr, which encourages and supports collaborations in the literary, visual, and performing arts, the CounterPointe series was co-founded 10 years ago by choreographer Julia K. Gleich. With last year’s program cancelled by Covid, this year was its 9th incarnation.
The series is focused on the presentation of new choreography for the pointe shoe in order to expand the ballet concert vocabulary, investigate new and historic territory, encourage discussion, and to create a forum for women to take artistic risks. Dances are required to be in pointe shoes.
Another major component of the series is pairing a choreographer with an artist (most often visual) so that the artist’s work appears in or provides inspiration for the piece. This isn’t particularly unusual – lots of dance pieces are inspired by art, or have artwork be an integral part of the presentation, but the clear integration of the two in this format, is distinctive. My understanding is that dances are selected by submission, and the choreographers and visual artists have roughly two months to get acquainted and begin and complete their respective dance and artwork.
And in case it isn’t already clear, all of the choreography was created by women, all the connected visual artwork was created by women, and nearly all of the dances were performed by women. All choreographers and dancers have considerable “under-the-radar” experience, but I was previously aware of none of them.
In total, CounterPointe9 presented seven dance / art combinations. And it opened with an unusual and thoroughly entertaining performance.
According to a biographical sketch prepared by Norte Maar, Sarah Yasmine Marazzi-Sassoon is a 21-year-old choreographer and currently a senior at Barnard College. She was raised in Paris and trained in ballet there since she was a child, thereafter training in San Francisco. Her choreographic experience is already extensive. Her contribution to this program was Stroma, which reportedly grew out of her interest in biology and evolution (she’s pursuing a self-designed major that combines Dance, Evolutionary Biology, and Literature).
Translated from the Greek, Stroma means the connective, functionally supportive framework of a biological cell, tissue, or organ; and is composed of cells that serve as a matrix in which the other cells are embedded. Stroma, the dance and visual artwork presentation, is that and more than.
The piece opens with the contribution of artist Sophia Chizuco. Arrayed on the stage floor before the actual dance begins are multi-colored small, light spherical shapes, perhaps intended to represent cells, which periodically glow in different colors. The group of six dancers initially present a brief introductory dance en pointe, and then disperse and retrieve the spheres, eventually moving them to different stage locations – as if the dancers themselves were moving “stroma.” The ethereal-looking costumes (uncredited) partly cover each dancer’s black leotard is partly by a two-sided cape or vest-like fabric with the density of a fairy’s wings, with swatches of threads on each side – one side with white threads, the other red. So if it weren’t already clear enough, the costuming results in what appears to be a gathering of string or yarn emerging from the dancers’ bodies ready to be knit into whatever framework is called for, making their function even more obvious, but in a sweetly understated way.
That’s a basic description of the dance, but Stroma is more than that basic description. The choreography looks more complex and intricate than it is, but it’s so engaging to watch that its relative simplicity is insignificant. Stroma is transportive: that is, it draws the audience in. The visual representation of the arrangement and rearrangement of internal body cells is presented in a way that suggests some gathering of celestial pixies placing stars in their proper positions. It’s an enchanting presentation, augmented both by the soothing, ethereal-sounding curated musical score (to unspecified music by Laurie Anderson, Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet, and the British music collective This Mortal Coil) and by its cast, a bevy of youthful and thoroughly competent young ballet dancers: Ali Block, Maria Blankemeyer, Willa Broderick, Maki Ishibashi, Samantha Sacks, and Sandy Zeng.
Stroma was an unexpectedly cheerful way to start the program, but the quality continued thereafter.
Variations on Want is choreographed by Charly Santagado, and includes artwork by Barbara Weissberger. As described in the program note, the piece is a visual translation of Santagado’s original poem (written in collaboration with Niko Popow) that explores impossible desires and the repercussions of pursuing them. The dance doesn’t come across in any way as lofty as that description would imply. Rather, it made the theme (the poem was not included in the program) visually manageable – which is far more difficult to do than it sounds.
Immeasurably aiding this was the dance’s integration of a piece of textile art created by Weissberger. It’s a blanket-like rectangular object initially draped over a prop hanger, which, to my ancient eyes appeared to be colored in irregularly-shaped black and gold splashes of color that invites one to wrap oneself in it and dream of being someone or somewhere different – which, in a nutshell, is what the dance subsequently shows.
But that mini-description doesn’t tell the half of it.
In addition to the draped textile, the stage is set with a bed and a standing lamp topped by a small shade that covers the light bulb. The piece is a solo, but it becomes more than just that – it’s a pas de deux between the solo dancer, a luminous young dancer named Hayley Clark, and the textile.
I don’t know whether it was created this way by Weissberger or was a post-creation modification, but the textile is punctured by several different-sized cut-out holes (think a typical Mexican poncho). Clark portrays a young ballerina playing dress-up (imagining the textile as different costumes that transport her to different places in her mind). She first approaches the textile curiously (like opening a treasure box containing unknown contents), then as I recall running her hands along it, then poking her hands (as well as other limbs) into it, and eventually removing the textile from its position and using it to power her imagination, or vice versa. As the piece evolves, Clark not only wraps herself in the textile, she drops it over her head inside-out (the textile, not her head), showing that the back of the fabric is a solid-color befitting a queen, whose regal pose she mimics, and then transforms it into a sort of cape and acts / dances more imaginary scenarios. Ultimately, as this appropriately brief dance ends, Clark drapes the textile over the shade and bulb of the nearby lamp, transforming that into both a human-like person and a metaphor.
Particularly refreshing, beyond Weissberger’s artwork and Santagarda’s use of it, and beyond Clark’s execution, is that Santagarda doesn’t play down to her subject. There’s nothing in Variations on Want to laugh at. Instead, the combined artistry simply makes the viewer smile. It’s a delightful little dance.
According to the Norte Maar biography, Santagado is a dancer, choreographer, writer, and curator dedicated to forging interdisciplinary connections across diverse artistic mediums. Originally from Orlando, Florida, and currently based in the New Jersey / New York area, she graduated from Rutgers University in 2017 with a major in philosophy and minors in dance, music, and creative writing. The following summer, she founded a nonprofit contemporary dance company with her sister Eriel called mignolo dance.
That last reference triggered one of my few remaining memory cells. It turns out that I’ve seen Santagado’s work before, via her and her sister’s company in an August, 2019 multi-company program. I responded quite favorably to their choreography then; I see now that that the inventiveness and craft I observed then is still evident. My only suggestion: the dance’s title implies that it’s something different, and far more serious, than it is. Consequently, if Variations on Want is presented in the future, perhaps the title can be modified to more clearly reflect what the audience will see.
The mood changed with the next piece.
Kathryn Roszak may not have already lived nine lives, but reading her biographic materials makes it seem that way. It seems that everything that could possibly be done with respect to the arts she’s already done, and listing it all would take more time and space than I can devote to it. Suffice it to say that she has bi-coastal ballet training, has performed in venues across the country, and in 1995 founded the San Francisco-based company Danse Lumière (known as Anima Mundi until 2006), where she is its Artistic Director. Her collaborations have spanned the world. On the side, she established the Bay Area’s Women Ballet Choreographers Residency.
Here Roszak collaborated with visual artist Anna Sidana to present a ballet based on the celebrated novel The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The dance isn’t a summation of the book. Rather, it’s intended to capture the spirit of it via condensed highlights. Understanding this requires some background information.
I’ve not read Allende’s book. But based on synopses that I’ve read, the book is an emotional tapestry relating the lives and events swirling around one extended family over a considerable period of time, told in the form of magic (or magical) realism – the addition of magical or fantasy elements into a realistic view of the world. Here, it’s clairvoyance, including the ability to predict, or influence, the future.
Roszak uses Sidana’s artwork (two paintings, each the size of a small oriental rug) to extend the visual imagery. Each of the paintings is filled with swirls of color, reflecting the swirling spirits who dance atop them.
To background guitar music that provides the piece with a gentle but undeniably South American / Spanish ambiance (“Flux” by Gyan Riley), Roszak weaves her own movement tapestry. But here things get a little dicey. What Roszak has attempted to do here is to strip the story down to its spiritual essence, with the story and the story’s characters being far less significant than the two women and their magical qualities that the dance portrays. Essentially, she’s distilling her extrapolation to its essence (a la Balanchine). I don’t know if that’s a fair summary, but it’s the best I can do.
In order to explain the changes Roszak has made, it might be appropriate to compare the characters in the novel with those in the dance – but considering the novel’s complexity, that’s a slippery slope. Suffice it to say that Roszak reduces her story to two primary characters (and another character briefly referenced but central to Roszak’s distillation): Clara, the central figure in, and spiritual heart of, Allende’s novel, who is the central figure in Roszak’s dance; and Férula, Clara’s husband’s sister who comes to live with them, not Clara’s sister as indicated in the program. But to a large extent that may be a distinction without a difference, as in both it’s the spiritual and physical connection between Clara and Férula that may be seen in large part as driving many of the events in the novel. The third character in the dance, Blanca in the novel, is Clara and her husband’s daughter, whom Clara raises. In the novel Blanca herself grows and marries and has a daughter, Alba. In effect, in the dance, Blanca and Alba are condensed as the same person. [An aside: the women in the “Clara” line all have names that essentially mean the same thing: white, or clear (as in clairvoyant), while Férula’s name means a rod or splint often used to keep bones from breaking or to mend broken bones together – or, arguably, to mend or direct the healing of broken spirits.]
So what Roszak does is to distill Clara and Férula’s relationship, and to provide a glimpse of the future as predicted by Férula. After an initial solo in which Clara is seen as almost overwhelmed by the spirits that are inhabitants of her mind (presumably the consequences of her ability to see the future and her tumultuous marriage – which she predicted), Férula enters the dance and, equally spiritual but with an addition power to direct, fortifies Clara and provides Clara with an image of the future – her daughter as somewhat of a free spirit.
Describing the choreography is not really doable, but one brief aspect of it is especially revealing. At one point, Férula grabs hold of Clara’s thigh while Clara is standing in arabesque en pointe, and, holding it firm as if it were broken, directs Clara by rotating her thigh, and necessarily thereby steering her movement in the direction Férula dictates (or foresees). I don’t know if Roszak was prompted to utilize this image by anything beyond the fact that it perfectly illustrates the point she’s trying to make, but that image is one of the many that are iconic to Balanchine, from Serenade. In this one brief moment, Roszak illuminates Balanchine.
Clara is danced by Maddie Sager, a young dancer from Missoula, Montana who currently (to the best of my deductive ability) is based in San Francisco. Sager carries the dance’s laboring oar, and is the vehicle for conveying Clara’s spirituality. It’s uncanny, but Sager’s portrayal is as sensitively delivered as it had to be, making her character appear not so much vacant as possessed by spirits she cannot control. As Férula, Hannah Woolfenden (also apparently California-based, and formerly with Mendocino Ballet) had to act more purposefully than Clara, but with a slightly pained nuance, which Woolfenden successfully did (as well has having the strength to rotate Clara and to keep her upright). And as Blanca, a film was projected showing Chloe Helimets (maybe at age 8 or 9), the daughter of San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Tiit Helimets, dancing around a room’s perimeter, the epitome of a free spirit.
The next piece on the program, Origin Forward, was choreographed by Eryn Renee Young in collaboration with artist Elizabeth Riley. No notes were provided, so I take the piece as I see it.
Two dancers manipulate three panels of rectangular painted plastic (or plastic-like material). The painted panels consist of irregularly structured strips of lines within geometric forms that have been applied to the plastic material. Each of the three panels appeared to me to be basically similar, but different enough in color and content to be distinguishable. The panels convey a sense of potent but non-specific energy, definitely urban (at times looking like cut and pasted subway or neighborhood street maps) which the accompanying score (unspecified music by Rafael Krux) amplifies. The artwork also includes an inherent sense of conflict – bands of “streets” cutting into each other, or moving in contrasting directions. Young’s dance condenses and visualizes all of this.
Young is the Founder, Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer of XAOC Contemporary Ballet, a New York-based company whose name implies explosive creation. According to the Norte Maar biological note, the company’s goal is to move ballet into the future while maintaining its ties to the classical form. Here, with company dancers Danielle Rutherford and Michelle Thompson Ulerich, Young has crafted a suite of brief dances that draws inspiration from Riley’s art.
The dancers move the panels to various positions around the stage area, then briefly dance, then reposition the panels and dance again, and the process continues (through, by my unofficial count, six brief dances), with each dance segment preceded by a darkened stage that allows the dancers to move without being seen, and suddenly materialize to the audience in new positions. The fact that the dances are intended to capture the energy of the panels is clearly indicated as the dancers repeatedly poke their heads through the flexible panels or emerge from behind them. At times the two women struggle, at times they complement each other, at times they rely more on weight shifting and balance than footwork, and at times they carry and transport each other (most often the shorter dancer, Thompson Ulerich, carrying Rutherford). Indeed, one of the dance’s most powerful images is at its beginning, where Thompson Ulerich, her back on the stage floor, balances Rutherford on her uplifted arms and uplifted lower legs.
Although the dance was well-executed, I had a difficult time connecting the actual movement with the art panels. And the dancers’ costumes (not credited) are striking and suggest some clear purpose beyond displaying one’s muscled bare back (Thompson Ulerich) that I couldn’t determine. Perhaps a second view might enable me to see the connections (other than the physical interaction with the artwork) that connects them.
On a different path entirely is Joan Liu’s Life of Kevin. I have no idea what the title is supposed to mean, but the dance is so cleverly, unaffectedly, endearingly, and hopelessly cute that I don’t care.
Essentially, Liu, abetted – actually, compelled – by artwork created by Traci Johnson, and to a score by Dee Yan-Key (“Allegretto Autunnale”), takes the viewer to what appears to be an underwater playground where the dancers play and otherwise interact with each other and with a variety of what appear to be stuffed animal sea creatures. [It could also have been venued in an ordinary playground, but that’d make it less interesting.] The sea life, or whatever these textile forms are, are a creation of rugsbykailuaa, which is a commercial outlet (one, or one of many) for Johnson’s work. So even though the forms look like stuffed sea life, they could be Johnson’s rugs formed in a particular way. Regardless, the objects and the choreography make it all look like great fun.
The dance begins with the dancers and the sea creatures in various locations around the stage. One, upstage center, carries what appears to be an undersea worm of sorts – with coloring like a tiger. After she is pictured maneuvering the creature (including, as I recall, wearing it like a fish stole), the focus shifts to a grouping of shells on the right (stage left) – which are coverings for the dance’s remaining four dancers. These coverings are soon revealed not to be shell shapes, but “rugs” aligned that way. Separated out after the dancers hiding under them emerge, they look a little like light, flexible and squeezable swimming pool noodles of various lengths that the dancers then form into a variety of shapes (or slide on their arms), and which the dancers and the fish worm interact with. At one point, as I recall, the fish worm was tossed from one dancer to another.
All that Life of Kevin tries to be is fun, which it undeniably is. And the dancers, all from Liu’s Axons Dance Theater, looked like they were having a great time. At this performance, they were Raquel Beauchamp, Lucia Elledge, Jessica Frazier, Marisa Pisano, and Emma K. Sniegowski. The piece’s only mystery to me is its title. I couldn’t find anything to explain it, except a series in a Sims universe video series. Maybe that’s the dance’s intended location – a virtual one, rather than an underwater one or adult kids in a playground. It’d work.
At first I thought that the next piece, choreographed and performed by JoVonna Parks, was in the same vein. It sort of is – but the fun, to the extent it can be seen that way, is superficial. More likely, underneath that façade, the dance can also be seen as a commentary about a person lost in an alien world – that is, an alien performance world.
Various objects created by collaborating artist Noel Hennelly are arrayed about the stage floor (three wooden constructions, and one framed sculpture of a snake). One of the wood structures appears to be a table-sized ladder, another looking like it was covered in round bell shapes (“bell” shapes relating to bells that one might press on to obtain service if the pertinent employee isn’t present). The lighting is in various shades of dim, at times looking quite dark.
Parks, a native of Philadelphia, is trained in ballet, and Horton and Graham technique, and graduated from the Ailey/Fordham BFA program with a degree in dance. She’s appeared with many dance companies, including Elisa Monte Dance from 2014-2019, and now is a freelance dancer who also teaches ballet, modern, and contemporary techniques in the New York area.
Parks first appears theater left, wearing dark glasses (perhaps the reason for the stage’s relative darkness), and slinks her way on the floor (with great apparent effort) eventually getting within climbing distance of the wooden objects. Parks hams it up for the audience a bit as she appears to look as if she has no idea where she is or what she’s doing because she’s blinded by her glasses (or by circumstances). At times certain sounds can be heard. [The sounds are supposed to be sounds of “rain stick and tapping on a porcelain jar.”]
Eventually, Parks pulls herself up on the wood structure that I initially thought was covered in bells, looking somewhat serpentine in the process (similar to the snake image opposite her). It then becomes clear that those round objects aren’t bells, but eyeglasses with their round lenses facing out. Still apparently hamming it up, Parks picks out one of the eyeglasses, takes off her dark glasses, puts the clear ones on, and feigns finally being able to see (the stage lighting lightens as well) – and to see clearly that she doesn’t belong where she is. Finally awoke, she takes off her pointe shoes (which were worn but not used to dance on), tosses them aside contemptibly, and walks (not crawls) off the stage.
I can’t see any way to interpret this piece other than as a condemnation of ballet. The title, 2431da (or maybe 243lda), which is not explained, may be a take on the typical dance class / rehearsal phrase demanded by a choreographer or teacher: “4321 do [it] again” or “321 let’s do [it] again”; and the dark glasses must be a metaphor for the blinding light cast by ballet, the highfalutin celebrity dance form, the sun star of dance, that blinds her to the “truth” – that she doesn’t belong there. Combined with the unexplained “rain” sounds, which in hindsight sounded like pointe shoes tapping a floor, and without any further guidance, that’s all I can come up with.
For what it was, Parks certainly executed it well – but it didn’t involve much (or any) dance, and it left a decidedly sour feeling, which I think was intentional.
The evening concluded with Julia K. Gleich’s rows and rows and numbered. This is a tough piece, because it distills a poem and artwork, both of which are themselves forms of distillation, into a further distilled series of movements. It’s a relatively large piece (six dancers), and as I recall it continuously occupies a wide swatch of the stage, with all the dancers involved at the same time.
Gleich is a Brooklyn-based choreographer and teacher who has worked in locations world-wide. As with Roszak, recounting Gleich’s accomplishments would be prohibitive. Suffice it to say that she has been making contemporary ballets for over 30 years, co-founded both Norte Maar and the Counterpointe series, and currently teaches at Peridance in New York City. In her spare time, she’s the founder and artistic director of Gleich Dances, which began in Wyoming in 1993 and moved two years later to New York City.
The program note indicates that the dance takes its title and inspiration from a poem by Frank O’Hara, an American writer, poet, curator, and art critic. The poem is titled “1951,” and is included in its entirety in the program. It’s comprised of sixteen stanzas of two lines each, with the lines bleeding into each other with distilled metaphors and arcane descriptions, including the words that form the title of Gleich’s dance. The poem is written as if it’s an intellectual puzzle that must be studied before it can be understood, but clearly, at least clearly to me, it reflects living alone in un urban environment in which the evening’s solitude allows (and maybe obligates) the person to recount the slings and arrows of city life – the fears, the hurts, the compromises made – and to recount them, orderly but jumbled in the mind, as somewhat triumphant and comfortable memories. Heavy stuff.
The artwork by Sharon Butler that accompanies the piece is what looks like a sheet on which Butler has painted a mass of dull-colored (grey and white) zones of neatly arranged lines, circles and rectangles, all put together in some sort of jumbled patchwork quilt arrangement – perhaps visualizing a map of memories as seen and recollected in the mind of one battling urban anomie.
From these sources Gleich has crafted a dance that visualizes some of the components of Butler’s art and of O’Hara’s poem. The dancers, also costumed in grey and white, are seen first arrayed on the stage floor, in darkness (as if, perhaps, they were in O’Hara’s dark loneliness). Gradually they rise, and try to walk, wobbling en pointe, intentionally, as if learning or relearning how to walk (or awakening from a night’s mental battle). Eventually, the group separates from the larger group into pairs sometimes reflecting a struggle, and regroup. The dancers are grouped together in linear, often row-like patterns, that change focus with changes in the score. It’s likely that the groupings don’t represent anything more (or less) than the zones in the artwork; the events and the memories that challenge them. By the time the piece ends, the dancers appear to have fortified themselves to conquer, or to be conquered by, or just to move on to, another urban day.
The curated score consists of unspecified music by celebrated Polish composer Krzyszlof Penderecki, words from an unidentified source spoken by French actor Yves Montand; a very brief excerpt from England’s Petula Clark’s song “Downtown”; and, to a greater extent, excerpts from “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers. The music selected is quite pertinent (except for Montand’s words, which I couldn’t understand but which, as delivered, sounds pertinent also), and expands the applicable universe internationally. The six dancers were Anna Antongiorni, Audrey Borst, Kara Chen, Duane Gosa, Margot Hartley, and Timothy Ward.
There was one additional piece that was only on view in the theater’s lobby. Regrettably, I didn’t see it as I left the theater. It was a video choreographed and danced by Tiffany Mangulabnan, a New York based dancer and choreographer, and filmed by Madge Reyes, another New York based dancer and choreographer, as well as a filmmaker. Both began their professional careers in their native Philippines. Perhaps there’ll be another opportunity to view this online, and add my observations of it to this review.
Based on the quality of this program, and if there’s a CounterPointe10, I expect to be there, and recommend it to readers. But be aware: the three presentations of CounterPointe9 over three days were all sold out. These days, evenings featuring ladies who launch are hot tickets.