Posted 19 November 2007 - 11:55 AM
I recently saw Scott/Powell's modern dance work, "Geography," at On The Boards, and immediately afterwards felt a familiar reaction -- great music, great lighting, great costumes (these by Mark Zappone, just gorgeous), some wonderful dancing, and the choreography, just okay -- but since then, the image of one of the dances, a section in which the tapestry dress was a second character, like a pas de deux for Mary Queen of Scots and her demons, keeps coming back, making me re-evaluate.
I can't say that a week after seeing the final performance of "Contemporary Classics," I feel a change of heart. So here goes:
In "Director's Notebook" in the "Contemporary Classics" program notes, Peter Boal wrote, "A first time viewer might guess that "Agon" was the most contemporary, edgiest, and most recently choreographed work on the program." It is almost shocking to think that it was 50 years ago that Balanchine and Stravinsky reached into the past de- and re-constructed music and dance forms in what was, by all accounts, a fulfilling collaboration, and, in the process, drew the line in the sand: where does classical ballet go from here? Balanchine continued along his creative path for another 25 years, choreographing neoclassical masterworks in many musical styles and influences, and pretty much left that question for others to ponder.
In constructing a program with "Agon," where does an Artistic Director go? "Apollo" is a programming favorite partner, often on an "All Balanchine" program; last year Paris Opera Ballet may have tried to answer the question by programming William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" with the two Balanchine works, along with a Trisha Brown piece. It's a tricky thing to choose current ballets to stand side-by-side with one of the great 20th century masterworks of any genre. Boal chose another route and coupled "Agon" with three modern dance works that were remarkable for their smoothness -- even were they were lines, like in the Tharp, there were no edges. What is curious is that none of them is among best work of each choreographer, or at least in the case of Marshall, her best dance work. ("Kiss" in my view, is another genre.) Once I realized this, I was still left to compare the others to the masterpiece's virtues, and the one in which neither a great work nor great music is absolutely necessary is the marriage of music and movement that exemplified the great Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration, and as we've seen from the best companies, the level of dancing and the dancers' commitment can well exceed the quality of the work.
In the last performance of the program, a mostly young cast triumphed in "Agon." In the first Pas de Trois, Lucien Postlewaite shaped the Sarabande in one logical piece, contrasting fluidity and precision in his response to the music. If I had one qualm about the casting, it was in pairing Maria Chapman and Sarah Orza in the Galliard. Chapman is a very balanced dancer, and when she moves, however softly or forcefully, it is of one piece. Orza is a very athletic dancer, very powerful in her legs and torso, but her arms seem like an afterthought: it's as if her feet need to take her there --now!-- but her arms need to catch up. While hers was a compelling performance on its own, I prefer the pairs in the pas de trois to be complementary, contest or no contest.
In the Bransle Simple, Kiyon Gaines and Jordan Pacitti were just that. Both have plush plies, are around the same height, and are muscular, and their energy and style was magnified by their similarities. Miranda Weese was lush and luscious in the Bransle Gay, teasing the rhythm out of every phrase.
Lesley Rausch and Karel Cruz danced the Pas de Deux. Rausch has many gifts, but what sets her apart from the other women in the company is the way she uses her upper body; her epaulment is shaded, proportionate, and open, and it is employed as often as her pointe shoes. Here was no exception: in one of the iconic roles of the Balanchine repertory, she used her upper body to give the role a whole-bodied fullness I had never seen before. An example of this is during the supported splits, where her torso was lifted from the waist, and spiraled up and around through her shoulders and neck. Cruz had an unfortunate stumble during these, from which he recovered quickly. Rausch and Cruz were well-suited in these roles, with long straight legs creating the clean and precise extensions and angular shapes for which the choreography calls.
Ironically, Agon, the only ballet on the program, is relatively grounded, with a few strategic lifts and a handful of high jumps, addressing gravity in ballet terms. The two middle works, Susan' Marshall's "Kiss" and David Parson's "Caught" used simple technology to defy gravity, to very different effect. "Kiss," is an aerial work, with the two dancers, in this performance Mara Vinson and James Moore, attached to ropes by harnesses at their legs and pelvis. One might guess that the airborne parts would be joyful and fulfilling, but to Arvo Part's extended, mournful phrases -- the score is "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" -- speed and flight were ambivalent and fleeting at best, and destructive at worst, as the two alternately reached for the other in vain or pushed each other away. James Moore swung suspended and broken from the waist, his feet skimming the floor, unable either to be grounded or reach Vinson. Only when the two were relatively still and earthbound, sometimes because their ropes were intertwined, were they rooted and connected.
Both the long arc of the swinging ropes and the ways in which they twisted and unfurled was a perfect visualization of Part's writing. I can think of no other physical response that has both the contrast of high and low within long, sustained brushes, in which a mere touch in passing can be a highlight. Even pairs figure skating, which has the continuous flow, is limited by gravity in the arc and timing of the highs. I suspect that because of its erotic, although not explicit, aspects that the piece either resonates and moves, or leaves the viewer cold. I'm firmly in the former camp, and Vinson and Moore were even more deeply intense than they were when they debuted this work a year and a half ago.
In "Caught" which followed, being airborne was to be free. The work opened with a bit of generic under-the-influence-of-Paul-Taylor movement under a shifting white spot. To me, it was neither recognizable as the same movement repeated in the second half, nor a compelling contrast to what followed. While the frozen images of a dancer in flight, aided by the hand-held strobe control that demanded split-second timing to be effective, were pulse-quickening, the piece was a one-trick pony, and it could have been performed to any number of pieces or silence; the music by Robert Fripp wasn't integral. Nonetheless, it was fun and expertly performed by Casey Herd. The reaction of the woman next to me the second the lights went up was a delighted, "Yummy candy!"
The program closed with Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," with its striking decor: a curtain of upstage fog from which the dancers emerged and into which they faded, lit with a wedge of light cutting through the fog (original lighting design was by Jennifer Tipton), and costumes by Norma Kamali, whose white-with-black-striped jumpsuits for the sneaker-clad "Stompers", highlighted with red socks, in what looked like designer prison garb. Set to a nine-movement score by Philip Glass, the Stompers, in row of twos and threes took the stage and performed attractive but relatively static movement phrases, occasionally punctuated, mostly by the fuschia-toe-shoe clad Kaori Nakamura, the lead "Boomer," who was superb in the role. The "Boomers" mostly followed suit; the patterns were so straight that a diagonal line was a feature and a simple circle with three dancers was a highlight. For movement after movement of medium-slow, medium-fast, medium-medium music, I waited and waited for some booming and maybe a little stomping, but from where I was sitting -- the back of Gallery Upper -- it was to no avail. The dancers kept swapping out pieces of clothing, wearing more and more red, but changing clothes did not change the character of the steps and phrases, which remained intricate and steady, and like many Glass scores, the development taking place in tiny increments. According to Peter Boal, the commissioned score was not completed in time, and Tharp choreographed the work to music by Mahalia Jackson, which gave the work its name. That is odd, because the choreography fit the Glass perfectly, and is nothing like what I would expect to Jackson, and this was its weakness: watching Tharp's response to the score it was a bit like watching knitting from a long distance.
What Tharp did not do, to her credit, was to set the modern people against the ballet people. The dancers embraced the work and were superb, and they looked like they enjoyed performing it. Jodie Thomas has a great affinity for Tharp's work and came alive as a "Boomer." It's an embarassment of riches to look on stage and see the young trio of Lucien Postlewaite, Benjamin Griffiths, and James Moore as "Boomers." Any opportunity to see what Carrie Imler will do with a role is one I'll take. When we're lucky, we see a dancer who so absorbs the style that he or she dances like a native speaker; in this work, it was Chalnessa Eames. If the past is any indication, the dancers will transform what they've done with this piece, particularly the loose upper body work, into the neo-classical works throughout the upcoming season.
It's a great time to be a ballet lover living out West.