Dancing With Glass
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

November 28, 2023
“Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”

Jerry Hochman

If you care about either music or dance, or just want to experience a wonderful program, make a beeline to the Joyce Theater and buy tickets, if any remain, for Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes.

This program, sponsored in part by the Van Cleef & Arpels Dance Reflections series, and conceived and produced by Pomegranate Arts, is not your usual dance program – or music concert, for that matter. It’s a hybrid. I don’t usually get this excited about a program – sometimes I have to struggle to think of anything positive to say – but this isn’t one of them. In every respect, it’s one of the finest programs I’ve seen in 2023.

The program is short – roughly an hour and twenty minutes – and consists of eleven brief but brilliant musical compositions by Philip Glass, who has been described as the most famous and most influential living American composer; equally brilliant musical execution by pianist Maki Namekawa; and equally brilliant choreography and performances to five of them. My only complaint: I wanted more of it.

Maki Namekawa in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

And the icing on the cake: following the final performance bows Glass himself appeared, to an extended standing ovation. Make that running time an hour and thirty minutes.

Each of the choreographed dances was quite extraordinary in its own right, and, where appropriate, clear examples of the choreographers’ style. I must emphasize that I found significant merit in each of them. But if I had to choose one “best” from among them, it would be Justin Peck’s choreography to Etude #6, performed by Patricia Delgado, followed closely by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber’s choreography for, and performance of, Etude #8. I’ll explain my reasoning below, but given the level of each choreographed piece, others may disagree based on equally valid reasoning of their own.

The Etudes consist of 20 brief piano compositions, divided on publication into two Books of 10 Etudes each, that Glass created between 1994 and 2012. According to a note from Glass in the program: “Taken together, the Complete Piano Etudes suggest a real trajectory that includes a broad range of music and technical ideas. It is almost like a self-portrait in a way, which I hadn’t originally intended, and yet, it was unavoidable.”

It’s difficult to assess this trajectory, since the Etudes used here are a subset of the total (eleven of the twenty) and were not performed in numerical order. That being said, since Etude #1 opened and Etude #20 ended the program, one could hear a measurable difference between the two: to me, a mellowing.

The program is structured such that the Etudes alternate between solo piano playing alone, and the solo piano accompanied by a dance choreographed to it. So the first program piece featured Namekawa playing Etude #1; Etude #13 followed (choreographed by Leonardo Sandoval and played by Noé Kains); then Etude #7, played by Namekawa (who would play each of the remaining Etudes); followed by Etude #8 (choreographed by Smith and Schraiber); then Etude #12; followed by Etude #11 (choreographed by Chanon Judson); proceeding to Etude #5; then Etude #6 (choreographed by Peck); followed by Etude #16; then Etude #18 (choreographed by Lucinda Childs); and wrapping up with Etude #20.

Namekawa is a world-renowned pianist who is particularly celebrated for her performances of Glass music. She recorded the world premiere recording of the complete Glass Piano Etudes in 2014, which one reviewer observed was better than Glass’s own rendition. Indeed, in 2019 Glass composed his first Piano Sonata for her, and, according to her program biography, she has toured on five continents with the Glass repertory, often accompanied by Glass himself. Her performance here (of ten of the eleven Etudes) was especially impressive; heard live, they’re far more complex than they might initially appear to the untrained ear.

Glass has been described as a “minimalist” and revolutionary composer, and early in his career he was. He describes himself in his Biography as a composer of “music with repetitive structures” (as quoted in Wikipedia).  According to another footnoted reference, in a 2008 publication Glass described himself as a “classicist”, pointing out he is trained in harmony and counterpoint and studied such composers as Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Nadia Boulanger. And skimming through his extensive biographical material, it’s clear that he evolved from what I consider to be strict minimalism to music that might be described as harmonic, even, at times, romantic.

Take my comments here with a grain of salt – I don’t pretend to be an expert in music, contemporary or otherwise. I had (and continue to have) difficulty with “minimalism” as I understand the term, and as I’ve heard the compositions – including some early Glass pieces. But that’s not what I heard in the Etudes that were played Tuesday night. I heard music with repetitive structures, but I also heard the harmony and counterpoint – even what I’d describe as a classical sensitivity (after all, what are Themes and Variations but repetitive structures). [Save your emails: I know there’s a difference.] But more than “mere” harmony and counterpoint, in the Etudes played (and I suspect the others as well) Glass often shifts point and counterpoint phrasing, intertwines them, and changes the primary structure from one to the other (and maybe back) in a curiously exciting and highly accessible manner. Most of all, although there were some examples of intense emphasis, with each repetition’s variation in tone or tempo, and with Namekawa’s sublime phrasing, I could hear and feel his music, literally, breathe.

(l-r) Lucas Santana, Orlando Hernandez, Ana Tomioshi
and Leonardo Sandoval
in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The dance side of the performance opened with Sandoval and four others: Ana Tomioshi, Orlando Hernandez, Lucas Santana, and Kains. [All are members of or affiliated with Sandoval’s company, cleverly titled “Music from the Sole.”]  Their piece began a capella, with all five on stage dancing what appeared to me to be very elementary tap. Shortly thereafter, Kains left the stage, moved offstage to the piano (located audience-left, on the orchestra level below the proscenium), and began to play the piano. Quite well.

The dance performance then resumed with the remaining four. At first, this too appeared to be relatively elementary, but quickly variations and variations on the variations were added that made their piece of the program quite fun to watch. There’s something about well-performed tap that makes it appear far less complex and far more spontaneous than it really is, and that invariably produces smiles and enthusiasm, particularly when the dancers display the same spirit. All here did (particularly Tomioshi, who projected not just smiles, but somewhat giddy happiness). And the sudden ending, which accompanies the sudden ending of the Etude, is a classic. [I won’t spoil it for those planning to attend; suffice it to say it involves floor work.]

Bobbi Jene Smith in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Smith and Schraiber’s dance to Etude #8 was a different matter entirely. No smiles here. This is your standard operating relationship dance, but one that takes the interaction to a considerably greater level of movement complexity, mimicking spontaneity but obviously the product of superb choreographic craftsmanship. This is not finesse (although that’s an essential component): this is a reality, albeit one compressed into repeated back and forth, in an out, changes of emotional and physical responses over a brief period of performance time.

The first time I saw Smith was in a 2017 documentary film directed by Elvira Lind relating to Smith’s experiences as a member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and thereafter. But as interesting and portentous (as to her) as that film was, it didn’t prepare me for the next time I saw her (with Schraiber and others) in Broken Theater, a theater/dance piece I saw this past April at the Ellen Stewart Theater at LA Mama ETC, which Smith conceived and directed. The choreography there (Smith’s, I’m sure with input from the other performers, including Schraiber), included visualizing relationships that appear to be established and then muddle and fall apart and then renew and then dissolve, lots of physicality, and non-stop action.

That would be a good description of what happens here – condensed and involving just the two of them rather than an ensemble. It has similar movement quality, and a quality of intensity that’s torrid and tempestuous, piercing and pungent, as each dancer’s limbs are all involved in the on and off and on again relationship. And Smith has an additional “limb” of sorts to add to the mix: her long blondish hair that flows and moves independently, like an additional limb, creating a depth of action that may not have been intended, but that enhances the complex imagery.

The greater significance here, however, far more than the quality and physicality of the relationship depicted, is the relationship between the action and Glass’s score. Some movement is to the dominant beat (whatever the dominant beat is at that particular point in time), but the choreography also echoes the harmonic melodies and the shifting patterns in the music, and allows whatever the dominant beat is to wash over the movement rather than force the movement to conform to barriers that others might see in the score. In the process, this produces something that for all its structure and obvious staged artificiality (well, maybe not so artificial – my understanding is that they’re married) looks amazingly authentic.

Chanon Judson
Photo by Jack Baran

Chanon Judson has been a performer with Urban Bush Women since 2001, and is currently its Co-Artistic Director. She brought a very different set of moving images to her choreography and performance to Etude #11.  In fact, in many ways it looks diametrically opposite to the two dances that preceded it.

Judson has an imposing stage presence. Although stage dimensions can be deceiving, she appears to be taller than average (whatever that is), and was here wearing a stunning blue dress (a relatively light shade of blue, not navy; I saw it as “electric” blue) designed by Josie Natori courtesy of Natori Company, as were the other costumes for the program’s dances. Notwithstanding this appearance, Judson here commands the stage by her movement quality alone.

Soon after her piece begins, one senses that Judson has her finger firmly planted in an electric socket. To each perceptible beat in the music, Judson moves something – some limb; her torso, her head. There were moments when her movement was adjusted to conform to calmer melodies and harmonies, including implementing floor work and shimmying, but the overall impression is of arms and legs, head and torso, acting at warp speed and independently of each other. Normally that seeming lack of apparent control would be a concern, even if it was prescribed in her choreography. But here these movement qualities were performed with an added level of – somehow – elegance. Maybe it was the dress, but the combination created a mesmerizing quality that I found interesting rather than off-putting. Hers was another superb performance.

Peck’s contribution to the program resembles other characteristic Peck dances that I’ve seen (and I think I’ve seen most) only by the fact that the solo dancer, Patricia Delgado, wears sneakers. Otherwise, it’s similar to nothing of his that I’d previously seen.

The piece is intense, but it’s also intensely personal, and the audience isn’t privy to whatever may have prompted the agonized struggle that Delgado displays on stage. Whatever it is, it’s all-consuming.

Patricia Delgado in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The dance begins with Delgado, a former Principal with Miami City Ballet, sitting on a chair mid-stage left as if imprisoned by it. She sits swaying with the harmonies and counterpoints in Glass’s music, increasingly and perceptively seething. Suddenly, she explodes off the chair, moves center stage, and seems to wrestle with whatever demons are tormenting her. This is as much an internal struggle as an external one, and much of what makes this piece as fine as it is is Delgado’s ability to emotionally burn with conviction; it’s not only Peck’s choreography. Eventually she returns to the chair still simmering, and, in the end, falls to the floor and then pulls the chair down on top of her – once again imprisoned by it.

Here, as with the Smith and Schraiber piece, what makes this dance as superb as it is is that Peck doesn’t allow himself to be bound by the dominant beats in Glass’s composition. Rather, the choreography and the music seem relatively independent from each other – as much as they’re also necessarily dependent on each other. The action and the drama are intertwined with the music, but they’re not the same thing even though Delgado displays heightened intensity with each musical crescendo.

Patricia Delgado in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

There’s a story here, but unlike, say, the solo with a rocking chair, Empty Place, that Samuel Pott, Artistic Director of Jersey City’s Nimbus Dance choreographed for former ABT Principal Sarah Lane and a rocking chair during the pandemic, where the viewer knows the situation and Lane slowly but surely breaks the viewer’s heart, here the situation is uncertain, and Peck and Delgado aren’t trying to break anyone’s heart. Perhaps hers is already broken; perhaps not. It’s the drama rather than the emotion. And, for a brief moment in stage time, it’s overwhelming.

The final dance was Lucinda Childs’s choreography to Etude No. 18, performed by Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry, each of whom is a former member of, or has danced with, Lucinda Childs Dance Company.

Childs’s career needs no elaboration from me. Her piece Dance, which I saw when it was revived at the Joyce several years ago, is a landmark in modern dance. She’s also previously collaborated with Glass – in that piece and many others.

There’s a minimalism to her style that finds a reliable partner in Glass’s work, and this dance is a fine example of her choreographic style and her melding of that choreography to the music, while at the same time being independent of it. And like Glass, her dances go beyond minimalism by their depth – even though one may consider her pieces to appear one dimensional.

Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry
in “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes”
Photo by Steven Pisano

This piece looks very much like my recollection of Dance (except there’s no parallel projection and it involved only a pair of dancers): plain white costumes, a limited choreographic palette. That being said, within this seemingly more limited choreographic space the dance allows for considerable variety, including a significant amount of partnering and measured lifts that are far lovelier, even balletic-looking, than anything I can recall from Dance. Credit Scranton and Gerry with the superb execution. But as well performed and choreographed as it is, in comparison to the other dances on the program it, it displayed far more finesse than excitement. And that’s not a criticism – that’s the nature of the beautifully etched choreography.

Childs’s piece leads neatly into the finesse of Etude #20, with which the program concluded.

“Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes” will be at the Joyce until December 10. But don’t wait until the last moment; this program is less a dance or concert than an unmissable Event.