WOMEN / CREATE!: A Festival of Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

June 14, 2019
Katarzyna Skarpetowska: Akwarium
Karole Armitage: You Took a Part of Me (excerpt)
Jacqulyn Buglisi: Moss Anthology: Variation #5
Helen Simoneau: Moonlight Parade

Jerry Hochman

A year ago I attended a program of dances created by women choreographers, part of an annual series inaugurated six years earlier intended to demonstrate the participating choreographers’ accomplishments, and to encourage the development of others.

Buglisi Dance Theatre
in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s
“Moss Anthology: Variation #5”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Within the past few years, artistic contributions by women choreographers have become less of a rarity. Indeed, a glimpse at recent, and upcoming, schedules by the city’s two major ballet companies illustrates that this is the case even in the overwhelmingly male-dominated area of ballet choreography. Nevertheless, recognition and encouragement remain a necessity.

This year’s edition of “WOMEN / CREATE!” at New York Live Arts featured dances created by seven women choreographers spread over seven performances, with a different program at each performance. On the evening I attended, the program featured dances choreographed by Katarzina Skarpetowska (performed by the Richmond Ballet), Karole Armitage, Jacqulyn Buglisi, and Helen Simoneau (each danced by members of the choreographer’s own company: respectively, Armitage Gone! Dance, Buglisi Dance Theatre, and Helen Simoneau Danse).

Richmond Ballet
in Katarzina Skarpetowska’s “Akwarium”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Skarpetowska, a Polish native who has been based in New York since she was 15, has a sterling dance background and reputation among those with knowledge, but is largely unknown by the average dancegoer. After graduating with a BFA in Dance from Juilliard, she joined Parsons Dance, where she danced for seven years, and since then, before focusing on free-lance choreography, performed with many different companies, including appearing as a guest artist with Buglisi Dance Theater. The many pieces she’s choreographed for companies world-wide include two that I’ve previously seen: Almah, which she created for Parsons Dance, and a solo, Zjawa, created for Buglisi Dance Theater. I thought the first was enjoyable but not fully successful, but that Zjawa was memorable: a Graham-like piece that was narrowly focused and intensely passionate.

For this program, Skarpetowska’s branches out into less familiar territory: ballet. While not unusual choreographically, Akwarium, which was commissioned by Richmond Ballet and which had its premiere in May, 2018, is a pleasant, promising effort by this still emerging choreographer – even more noteworthy because, as Skarpetowska later advised the audience during an interlude between dances, this was her first ballet.

Richmond Ballet
in Katarzina Skarpetowska’s “Akwarium”
Photo by Steven Pisano

As the title appears to indicate (there are no program notes), Akwarium is a play on an aquarium. That’s a sufficiently limiting premise within which to craft a focused, but not overly confining abstract dance, and Skarpetowska and her creative colleagues, as well as the Richmond Ballet dancers who performed the piece, delivered the essential ambiance. The twelve dancers are costumed in varying shades of blue, aqua, and green (designed by Fritz Masten), and the fluorescent light bars that are affixed to a scrim upstage right (designed by MK Stewart) appear strange – until one remembers that aquariums are usually illuminated by fluorescent lighting. And placing these light bars off-center provides the illusion of a larger underwater space than had they been centered. And the score – an amalgam of music by J.S. Bach and Robert Henke – sounded vaguely muted, and provided an appropriately varied tempo.

Although the dancers are supposed to bring to mind aquarium life, Skarpetowska keeps these images limited, focusing instead on the patterns that the underwater life naturally provide (“schools” of dancers), and the encounters between the diverse occupants of the space that may or may not be random. If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the movement of aquarium life, Akwarium rekindles memories without having the dancers simply imitate tropical (or salt-water) fish. And in this environment, there are no fighting fish –while there are occasional indications of disruption or unwelcome interaction, overall everyone gets along swimmingly. And the Richmond Ballet dancers (who are not identified with sufficient specificity in the program) performed nicely – Akwarium doesn’t push them beyond their limits, and they come across as an engaging group. I found the low-key ending somewhat disappointing: it doesn’t really end so much as slows down, but then, aquarium fish, real ones, go to sleep at night.

Megumi Eda
and Christian Laverde-Koenig
in Karole Armitage’s
“You Took a Part of Me”
Photo by Steven Pisano

You Took a Part of Me premiered this past April (whether in preview or not is not clear) at the Japan Society and will be presented in full at NYLA in October: what Armitage presented here was an excerpt. As I’ve indicated previously, I dislike excerpts, and hesitate to review something that’s a small part of a larger whole (unless it’s meant to be standalone), but I found this excerpt to be unusually absorbing.

According to the program note, the dance is inspired by a 15th Century Noh play, Nonomiya, that “explores erotic entanglement, unresolved attachments, and the search for harmony that are hallmarks of traditional Japanese Ghost Noh Theater.” That play is itself inspired by a character from an 11th Century Japanese novel.

(l-r) Sierra French and Megumi Eda
in Karole Armitage’s
“You Took a Part of Me”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Also known as “The Shrine in the Field,” the story of Nonomiya, as I’ve been able to decipher, is a complex, ritualized, and highly stylized portrait of the relationship between a woman, her “living ghost,” the woman’s former lover, and a monk that she, her daughter, and her ghost meet at the same shrine where she met her lover, which she revisits annually on the day of their first meeting.

Megumi Eda
and Christian Laverde-Koenig
in Karole Armitage’s
“You Took a Part of Me”
Photo by Steven Pisano

I can’t discern much from the excerpt presented, except the distinctive and relatively daring style. The four characters – The Ghost, portrayed by Megumi Eda;  Her Double, by Sierra French; Her Lover, by Christian Laverde-Koenig; and Koken (who may be the Monk), by Alonzo Guzman – interact erotically and with a considerable sense of ritual, control, and tension. I’ll comment further if I have an opportunity to see the complete piece.

Buglisi Dance Theatre
in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s
“Moss Anthology: Variation #5”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Buglisi’s Moss Anthology: Variation #5 is part of a series of pieces she has created over the past two years dedicated to preserving the environment. Inspired by the writings of a Potawatomi botanist, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, through her dance and a sequence of projected images Buglisi traces the evolution of a forest (and expands the visuals to include Earth as a whole) – and specifically the moss that grows within it, which she describes in a program note as being the coral reefs of the forest – from pristine and flourishing to degraded and dying and then to being reborn.

Buglisi Dance Theatre
in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s
“Moss Anthology: Variation #5”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The dance, which is divided into segments that parallel the projected images of the forest. Is well-crafted and superbly executed by the nine company dancers (including two apprentices), and, between the extraordinarily lovely costumes by A. Christina Giannini, the projections by Wendall K. Harrington and Yana Birykova, Jack Mehler’s lighting design, and Buglisi’s choreography, it’s a gorgeous piece of work. But I saw little distinctive about it beyond its physical beauty (which, admittedly, is no small accomplishment). That the Buglisi Dance Theatre dancers were celebrating or mourning the environmental situation in a Graham-like but lyrical style is clear, but who they’re supposed to be isn’t: Native Americans? Forest sylphs? Moss? All of the above? And what may have been distinctive was overwhelmed by the projected nature images. More significantly, I’ve seen dances like this before – maybe not about moss specifically, but certainly relating to the ruining of our environment by overuse, climate change, and an overall lack of concern, backed by projected images. But this presentation was labelled a “preview,” with no indication of a formal premiere, so I anticipate that modifications to it may be made, and accordingly I will not comment on it further.

Savannah Spratt and Frankie Peterson
in Helen Simoneau’s “Moonlight Parade”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The program closed with a 2014 Simoneau piece, Moonlight Parade, performed by her company, Helen Simoneau Danse. Although she’s been choreographing for many years and her pieces have been performed at venues in the U.S. and world-wide, this was my first exposure to her work and her ten year old Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based company.

Commissioned by the North Carolina School of the Arts for its Fall 2014 Dance Concert (Simoneau, who hails from Quebec, is a UNCSA graduate), Moonlight Parade is a showcase for Simoneau’s physically powerful and eclectic style of movement. Taking place in “moonlight” (translated – a relatively dimly lit atmosphere where dancers gather), the dance begins with percussive sounds and staccato movement that gradually, in segments that feature the five company dancers or subsets of the larger group, evolves to more expansive percussive sounds and accompanying movement. [The music, which was created for this piece, is by Michael Wall and Andy Hasenpflug.] There’s a Dionysian-revelry sense to the piece that I found intriguing, especially with one male dancer (Frankie Peterson) among four women (Teigha Bailey, Catie Leasca, Emily Lopez, and Savannah Spratt) and the powerful, frenzied but weighty movement that at times seems to pound into the ground together with the pounding musical beat that’s not uncommon in contemporary dance (as is the absence of any seeming purpose behind the hard-driving choreography beyond visualizing abstract power. While all the dancers were strong performers, Spratt, who I saw perform only a few weeks ago with The Limon Company, stood out for her relatively distinctive lyricism.

Helen Simoneau Danse
in Helen Simoneau’s “Moonlight Parade”
Photo by Steven Pisano

It may be that there are multiple incarnations of Moonlight Parade. I’ve seen photos that show scenes with more than five participating dancers, and other indications the piece was performed by only two dancers. And in the program, the dance is described as having been created in 2015 in NYC, rather than in 2014 in North Carolina. So I’m not sure whether what was presented here was the original, a substantial (and standalone) excerpt or adaptation from it, or something related but altogether different. Regardless, Moonlight Parade as presented here succeeds in creating and communicating the ambiance that Simoneau wanted in a competent and coherent way, and I’ll look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

Regrettably, I was not able to see the dances by other women choreographers that comprised the full WOMEN / CREATE! program: The Theory of Color, a world premiere performed by Jennifer Muller/The Works; Snap Crackle Pop, by Carolyn Dorfman Dance; and an excerpt from Unapologetic Body, a work in progress, by the Francesca Harper Project. I suspect, however, that WOMEN / CREATE! will continue as an annual event at NYLA next year, and that pieces by these and other established or emerging women choreographers will on the program.