Dance, thematically if perhaps spuriously linked

Look at anything long enough and patterns, even if they're patterns extraneously superimposed by the veins in your eyeballs, will begin to appear. I have made it a self-imposed party trick the past two springs to give 45-minute talks to the American Friends of the Salzburg Easter Festival wherein I take every piece of music to be played at the festival and knit them into a grand pattern, as if Simon Rattle and his cohorts had planned it all along as some diabolically didactic exercise. It's been fun for me, and it seems to work OK for the Friends.

Recenlty I've been to a bunch of dance in New York, which I do with some regularity even though I am maybe better known as a music critic and have been retired as chief dance critic of the NY Times for two and a half years. I won't pretend that all the dance can be linked togther into one grand pattern (though maybe so; see below!). But there were certainly some piquant subsets.

On May 12 Martha Graham's "Clytemnestra" had the New York premiere of its recent revival, and for me it was a disappointment. It wouldn't have been had I remembered that most Graham after, say, the mid-50's fell short of her great early work. "Clytemnestra" is one of her Greek tragedy extravaganzas, a full-evening epic. It was first seen in 1958, with Graham in the title role, and was in the company repertory long after that, even after Graham had stopped dancing. In new costumes (by Halston) it was nipped and tucked and filmed for television in 1975. The present revival stars Fang-yi Sheu in a welcome return to the company, and was seen in Asia (and Europe?) and Washington last year before this New York revival at the Skirball Center.

For me, it just looked dated, often risibly so. The original costumes (reportedly better than Halston's but still...), the awful music (by Halin El-Dabh) and above all the mannered choroeography all called more attention to themselves than to the tragedy. Even Sheu, the best present-day Graham dancer, failed to hold one's attention, even though she looked good and indulged in all the proper contortions and contractions and agonized, imploring gestures. A long night.

Seeing "Clytemnestra" came in the midst of my reading of a new biography of Yuriko by Emiko Tokunaga. Yuriko was a leading Graham dancer, teacher and coach, and danced Iphigenia in the original "Clytemnestra.".The book may not be a writerly masterpiece, but Yuriko's is a great story, starting with internment camps in World War II and continuing through her long and fascinating dance career.

Seeing Graham reminded me of Balanchine. The two were often held up as antipodes in the 40's and 50's, and it's hard not to be reminded of Balanchine during a NewYork City Ballet season. Recently Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post wrote an essay suggesting that the genius and the dominance of Balanchine have by now stunted ballet in this country, shutting off all manner of theatricality and modern-dance hybrids in favor of Balanchine's stripped down classicism and, worse, epigones who weakly emulate it. Kaufman didn't mention the critical coterie that devotes itself to analyzing Balanchine's genius in minute detail and assessing anyone who tries to dance his work and dismissing most any other choreography. Sure, the article was was meant to be provocative; nobody doubts Balanchine's achievement. But for me it was successfully provocative, and salutary.

Which segues seamlessly (LOVE those patterns!) to the City Ballet's spring gala on May 13. This had the advantage, in addition to the requisite Balanchine, of offering the two premieres scheduled for this season, otherwise only available on different programs. Those reviews I have seen mostly admired Otto Bubenicek's "Toccata" but devoted much of their space to praising Balanchine, in particular his "Theme and Variations" as danced by Megan Fairchield, who struck me as bland, and Joaquin De Luz, who was terrific.

I found the Bubenicek dry and tedious, though it might have worked better in a more intimate space. But I was impressed by Benjamin Millepied's "Quasi una Fantasia," which some others dismissed, to three of the four movements of a haunting score by Henryk Gorecki (good music does augment the dance experience, both the creation and the reception, which Balanchine knew better than anybody).

I have found the Millepied ballets I've seen so far derivative, mostly of Balanchine. This was different: Two principal couples (Rebecca Krohn and Sebastien Marcovici and Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, all fabulous) with 16 more dancers, some of whom emerged from the pack into couples themselves. What was impressive, aside from the to me emotionally compelling placerment of the principal couples against the mass, their frozen reaching out into the void, was the choreography for the corps and its placement on stage -- mostly bunched together into writhing masses, with tendril-like hands and feet recalling too easily the choreographer's last name, all lit dimly but evocatively by Mark Stanley. It was a moving piece, and it suggested not only welcome growth by Millepied but the ways Balanchine's idiom can be extended without violence to his aesthetic.

That evolution can and must, I think, be in the direction of more overt theatricality. I think Kaufman thinks that, too. Dance that is about as theatrical as it can get came (for me) on May 15 (the entire run was May 12-16) at Dance Theatre Workshop, in the form of "The Golden Legend" by Christopher Williams.

Williams dances regularly around town, and also works as a puppet-maker and manipulator for Basil Twist. His current obsession is martyred saints from the early Christian Church, with churchy music to match. Three years ago at Peformance Space 122 he gave us "Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins," vignettes of the usually gruesome ends of a clutch of female martyrs. Since then he as been working on the male side of the ledger, and the result was "The Golden Legend."

In this Williams had so much to say -- ranging from devotion to camp irony to sexual titillation to cuteness to disgust, sometimes all at once -- that he went on way too long (three hours and 15 minutes with one short intermission).There was an opening processional and a closing recessional. In between came dances for 17 separate saints, with attendant helpers, demons and accompanying singers and instrumentalists. Altogether 39 peformers took the curtain call, 40 if you count Williams.

In both the female and the male evenings, Williams subjected his saints to odd costuming (bondage was big with the women) and considerable suffering. The costumes at DTW were delicious, with a special affection for lambs' ears (agnus dei; get it?). After a while, though, the formal structure -- vignette after vignette -- grew predictable, and maybe the actual dance movement wasn't quite as compelling as the theatricality (though it could be pretty interesting as enlivened by Williams's special assortment of performers).

Williams likes to enlist luminaries of downtown dance for his pieces, dancers and ex-dancers and even critics (Elizabeth Zimmer in "Ursula"). For "The Golden Legend" he had David Parker and John Kelly and Jonah Bokaer and Chris Elam and Gus Solomons Jr. and David Neumann and many more. This isn't just a gimmick. These people are successful because they project vivid personalites, and Williams gave them every chance to do just that. The puppets (birds, lambs, a lion, etc., etc.) were adorable and eerie. With a little more money (though this surely cost Williams and DTW every penny they had) for some kind of proper set to decorate the big ;empty stage, it would have been even better. Were I still a festival director, I would throw a big commission at Williams and let him run amok.

I was a festival director once, at LIncoln Center in the 90's, and just recently the center celebrated its 50th anniversary, dated from the first shovel of earth turned by Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. Lincoln Center was partly an urban renewal project to clean up tenement slums infested by youth gangs. Which are in turn celebrated, if that's the verb, in Broadway's current revival of "West Side Story" from 1956, by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins (later the moon to Balanchine's sun at City Ballet), Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. The revival is basically very good, highlighting the brilliance of Bernstein's subtly sophisticated, winningly popular music (but what a pity to make the last 10 minutes mostly a spoken drama with modest cinematic underscoring when it could have been the climax to true music theater) and Robbins's choreography. Laurents's directs for the most part very well, but to sing "I Feel Pretty" entirely in Spanish is to castrate Sondheim's wonderful English lyrics.

At the same time as the anniversary Lincoln Center had two versions of "Romeo and Juliet," speaking of "West Side Story": Peter Martins's darkly violent one at City Ballet, which I saw when it was new and didn't feel compelled to see again, and, in its Great Performers series, Mark Morris's modern-dance version at the Rose Theater. I also saw this when it was new, last summer at Bard College, and had mixed feelings: the folkish group scenes worked well enough, but the newly discovered "happy ending" original Prokofiev score sounded disappointing and the big love scenes looked underchoreographed.

On May 17 I just loved it. Why? Morris says there were very few alterations to the choreography, though he added that having danced the piece over the last year everyone felt surer about it. Some of the string complement had been thinned, bringing all the music into better balance. The conductor this time was Stefan Asbury, who really shaped the music lyrically and dramatically and hence supported and inspired the dancers in a way that the elephant-footed Leon Botstein had failed to do at Bard. Last, I had deliberately arranged to see the other princpal couple. Instead of the touching and balletically airy Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura, this time I saw David Leventhal and Rita Donahue. For me, the emotion and tender erotic/romantic attraction of the young lovers worked better this time, and thereby enlivened Morris's choreography for the big scenes. It was a lovely afternoon, as dancerly inventive and theatrically telling as one could hope for. It gave me hope for the post-Balanchine future.

May 25, 2009 5:17 PM | | Comments (1)


I think that the Rose Theater serves Morris's ROMEO AND JULIET better than Bard's cavernous theater did. Being up close to Vinson and Okamura amplified their punky, diffident romance, and they were better down here, too.....


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