The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 7, 2018
In his third year of directing and curating a series at the Kennedy Center called DEMO, Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and soon to be the president of The Juilliard School, may be hitting his stride. Or at least he seemed a little less frazzled and erratically chatty than normal, and the performance entitled DEMO: Now was a little less slapdash than most I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean that everything in this installment went smoothly (to the contrary, there was a moment when Woetzel, an affable emcee, candidly admitted that he was stalling when he noticed there was still musical equipment on the stage that would clearly be in the way of the dance scheduled to follow). It means that despite the cobbled together at the last minute nature of Woetzel’s DEMO productions, the program, overall, came across as both refreshingly spur of the moment and professional.
I also may have been more easily swayed toward satisfaction this time since the program was dominated by dancers and the hip string quartet Brooklyn Rider, along with talented drummer Savannah Harris. And, I confess I have an extreme weakness when it comes to Charles “Lil Buck” Riley. I love Lil Buck. I lived for 5 years in Memphis, Lil Buck’s hometown, and he has a special place in my heart. But even if we didn’t share that history, I’d love him because Lil Buck sure can dance. He takes me to new places all the time through his innovative dancing, inspired by jookin’, a street dance style born in Memphis that features intricate footwork. Lil Buck’s artistry excites me because it’s so different from what I typically see on a concert stage. He’s simply bursting with beauty and surprise.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that Lil Buck stole the show. When I watch him dance, I hold my breath, and I slide and spin with him. You can hear others in the audience gasp occasionally. His feet are so incredibly dextrous. Turned on their sides, his feet warp, and Lil Buck appears to walk perfectly comfortably on his ankle bones. He also balances on his toes like a dancer on pointe. He sinks to the ground, his legs contorted underneath him, and this melting squat looks not only natural, it’s as elegant as any grand plié in ballet. It defies logic, and it’s completely captivating.
In a solo called Orbit to music by Philip Glass, Lil Buck seems to carry an invisible globe. At points, his arms spread like the hands of a clock. It looks like a current travels through him. His intriguing movement is matched by the depth of feeling he imparts.
I enjoyed seeing Lil Buck dance with his cousin Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles. The pair are oddly exquisite together, gliding swiftly or mesmerizingly slowly across the stage, arms at times fluttering like hula dancers. Their dancing really does enhance the experience of listening to music.
I additionally enjoyed a feisty, flirty solo, Fandango, created by Alexei Ratmansky for Wendy Whelan, which was danced by New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Whelan perform it, but Mearns danced it well. She very musically skips, hops, and bounces like Tigger. She swooshes her skirt, swivels her hips, even taps a tambourine for a minute. She also engages the musicians, placing a hand on a shoulder, wrapping one in her fringed Spanish shawl, and clapping as they play. It’s lively and fun.
Caroline Shaw, the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, is a frequent guest of Woetzel, and I’m not generally a fan of her voice. She can sound off-key and gratingly childish when she sings. However, in a composition she’s working on presently, which will be used as music for a new ballet by Justin Peck, her vocals are the primary instrument, and I didn’t grimace at all. In fact, I quite liked it. Her voice, somehow electronically modified and mixed, echoes like a medieval chant, vowel sounds melding into a choir. I look forward to seeing Peck’s ballet to this music!
The contemporary dances didn’t particularly move me. Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener both danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Cunningham’s influence is present in their movement. Mitchell wears a silver sequined shirt under black overalls, while Riener wears a peacock blue jumpsuit and sports a “man bun.” The men cross paths in flying jumps, then crumple. Using elements of contact improvisation, when they join, a leg swings over the other’s hip, a foot launches off the other’s back, heads and chins lock and kiss.
Choreographer Pam Tanowitz’s two works on the program were more pleasing, but they didn’t ignite much passion in me, either. A brief solo created for Patricia Delgado, former principal dancer with the Miami City Ballet, is creative, but it somehow looks cold. Delgado’s thin spidery legs are delicate yet strong. Although precise, she moves slightly awkwardly, exaggeratedly off balance.
In a commissioned world premiere by Tanowitz, titled Blueprint, Delgado is joined by Jason Collins and Victor Lozano, both currently with Pam Tanowitz Dance. The trio dances to a score by Shaw. They wear sheer tops over white, and their costumes are spotted with blue blotches, like colored cows. It’s an abstract piece with tiny hops and scoots on one foot; a sequence of lined up, mistimed pliés; and dancers walking with their backs to the audience holding each other’s rear ends.
To close the program, Woetzel has the entire roster of performers collaborate. Lil Buck and Prime Tyme lead a joyous mashup jam. Although they threw this closing number together just prior to the performance, the enthusiasm and smiles of all of the artists, who genuinely seem to revel in working with each other, was intoxicating. Their happiness makes for a happy audience.