Some Dance (and a little related music)

As I eased back into my blogging saddle, after an untimely absence, I once again typed six grafs and then had them diabolically disappear off the screen, gone forever. I don't want to take this as a message from God, but the signs seem clear.

Anyhow, here's some recent non-balletic New York dance in which the highlight was ballet. Trisha Brown's nicely assembled program at the Brooklykn Academy of Music's Opera House included the American premiere of her "O zlozony/O composite" (2004). This was commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet and owes its Polish title to a compelling young (or so it sounded) female precorded voice intoning Polish texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay (translated) and Czeslaw Milosz. What the words meant, I know not, and the program was no help. But it sounded very cool, especially in conjunction with one of Laurie Anderson's best electronic scores, urgent and deceptively calm and devoid of her own presence and mannerisms. Jennifer Tipton's lighting was typically evocative, though for some reason I can't remember what Vija Celmins's set design looked like, no doubt a function of minimalist understatement (his) and a failing brain (mine).

What made the dance so vividly memorable were the three Paris etoiles who had performed the premiere five years ago: Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris and Nicolas Le Riche. Some complained that Brown's pure academic ballet vocabulary was rudimentatry. I found it classic, a wonderful blend of ballet tradition, sculptural form and the simple purity so characteristic of Brown's lifelong work. That Brown could tone down the inherent balleticisms of even these precisely trained ballet dancers was in itself some kind of triumph.

The program was nicely assembled because it celebrated that very lifelong work. It began with "Planes" (1968), one of Brown's wall-climbing, roof-descending pieces from 40 years ago, ingenious and sneaky-strange. Then there was her classic "Glacial Decoy" (1979), with five women methodically cavorting and twisting in front of a four-panel shifting display of photographs of workaday life by Robert Rauschenberg.

And finally something brand new, a piece called "L'Amour au theatre" consisting of eight dancers from her own company (as opposed to the ballet dancers) in dance excerpts from Rameau's opera "Hippolyte et Aricie." To my taste, the dancing and choreography lacked the pointed brilliance of "O zlozony," but the real test will come next year, when it will form part of an evening-long Rameau program. Perhaps then these dances will fit into a more convincing whole. But already, their blend of unadulterated Brownish choreographic calm and 18th-century formality was intriguing.

I am tempted to stop, for fear of another diasppearing screen, but I forge forward: A few days later (I saw Brown on April 29, and this was May 5) came a gala in support of Cafe La MaMa's dance program and honoring Harvey Lichtenstein, the longtime leader of BAM and creator of its modern incarnation, and Deborah Jowitt, the beloved Village Voice dance critic and chronicler of dance in general and downtown dance in particular for some 40 years. (This is where the somewhat different first version of this screed was swallowed into the electronic aether.)

Lichtenstein and Jowitt are both more than worthy of being honored, and the overt tributes to them were well done. Unfortunately video excerpts from Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown were subverted by a malfunctioning projector. But the overall program, in the presence of the now wheelchair-bound Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, was the real honor.

The evening offered Nicky Paraiso as host and contributions from Potri Ranka Manis and Molissa Fenley and Gus Solomons Jr. (a stiff but fierce and heroic and perhaps Duncan-esque solo to Chopin) and two members from Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble and a version of a Ronald K. Brown hip-hop-inspired dance by earnest students from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

For me, the several highlights were a winsome, multilayered commentary on ballet and commedia dell'arte by Douglas Dunn in a solo from his recently revived, quarter-century-old "Pulcinella" (another Paris Opera Ballet commission); a typically fluid and sensuous duet from Vicky Schick and Jodi Melnick (of whom I am rapidly becoming a fan), with a cameo from Diane Madden of the Brown troupe; and Doug Elkins's hilarious solo from his "Fraulein Maria" to "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." "Fraulein Maria" is an affectionate camp homage to that musical and by now a holiday favorite in New York second only in popularity to Mark Morris's "Hard Nut."

Most unusual, though, was a solo called "The Sphere" (1997) by Maureen Fleming, along with 12 young women from Brown University, RISD and the Seoul Institute of the Arts, all set to Philip Glass's hypnotic "Music in Changing Parts." Fleming, whom I had not previousy encountered, is an American butoh dancer. But unlike most Japanese butoh, which to me looks like people crawling dazed from a nuclear explosion, Fleming celerates eroticism.

She performed nude or nearly so on a round platform accented by Christopher Odo's side lightring and slowly contorting herself in amazing ways (those arching back bends!). The 12 younger women, dressed modestly in flesh-colored leotards, lay on their backs in mandala-like wheel-spokes, three women per spoke, and engaged mostly in sexual pelvis thrusting. It sounds almost pornographic, but it was really more meditative and sculptural. Critics have complained that if you've seen one Fleming dance, you've seen 'em all, and maybe so. But this one was pretty striking, and I, for one, would be curious to see her again. Her web site shows dancers with fascinating wings and branch-like hand extensions. I wonder what that looks like on stage?

Finally, a word on Stephen Petronio's 25th-anniversary program at the Joyce Theater, a world premiere called "I Drink the Air Before Me." Petronio's choreographic style, at least here, consists of a steady level of high energy, with dancers rushing from the wings, jumping, twisting, and rushing off again. (There was some ancillary shtick as a prelude involving Pretonio himself as a ye olde sea captain or pirate, costume by Cindy Sherman, with cutesy nautical trimmings.)

I went in part for Petronio but even more for the commissioned, hour-plus-long score by Nico Muhly, a composer whose work I like to follow. This consisted of a chamber group on a platform at the rear, audience right, and Muhly himself at a grand piano lower left, playing and cueing. At the beginning and end there was a children's choir with hand bells.

The instrumental score was interesting as a departure fror Muhly's usually more lyrical, consonant style. The writing was ingenious and troubled, maybe a warmup for more ambitious orchestral scores. What made it work was the way Muhly had absorbed Petronio's nervous, insistent choreography and echoed and extended it in his music. Well worth the watch and, even more, the listen.

May 9, 2009 1:40 PM |


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