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All Premiere


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#16 Helene

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Posted 04 November 2012 - 11:31 PM

Last night, sandik pointed out a case in the lobby that had costumes designs and swatches for the program, but also, in the far left corner facing outside, the hand-written letter that Mark Morris sent to Kent Stowell and Francia Russell asking them to consider him as a choreographer for a special summer performance. (I didn't write down the name, and I'm not able to come up with the right terms to search for it online.) At the bottom is a "subtitle," which said that after he was told that he wouldn't have live music, he had an AM station played over the recording of the Beethoven score, or as the card said, his mini-tribute to John Cage. I wish I had been there.

#17 sandik

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 04:42 PM

I'm afraid that my comments are quite long -- I'll try to break them into a couple sections, and your can skip the whole thing if you want to. I had very little space in the paper this time around, and so wanted to get some things sorted out in writing...

Peter Boal has continually mentioned that he doesn’t really give choreographers much guidance when they come to make a new work on PNB, so that he doesn’t have an idea about what kind of work the company will end up performing when the process is complete. Despite this seeming toss of the dice, the four works in this All-Premiere program fill some pretty standard categories for a mixed-repertory show. There are the accessible opening works, the twisty middle work and the send-them-home-humming-the-score closer.

Andrew Bartee and Margaret Mullin have collaborated in the past, but they worked separately this time, and the results were very distinct. Bartee continues to explore movement outside the standard compass points of ballet in “arms that work” – his dancers spend much of their time upside down and inside out. I wouldn’t find this piece out of the ordinary in any contemporary dance event I go to (indeed Bartee has been collaborating with a couple of other modern dancers in the Seattle community to great effect) but I think it was a stretch (no pun intended) for audiences last weekend. Eavesdropping in the lobby I think most people were holding on to the relationships in the work, especially the male/female duet in the opening, rather than discussing the movement quality. This could be a function of the theater – I was lucky enough to see this dance in rehearsals a couple of times, and I was impressed with the amount of small detail that Bartee was crafting. The movement often works as a sequence of impulses through the body, but the initiations were frequently small and fast – if you weren’t seeing them close-up, you would likely miss them. The view from further away is of a more generalized surging rather than a constellation of particular initiations – the image I keep coming back to is of Jessika Anspach, twisting and shifting in a long, long sequence that takes her across the stage. Occasionally one of the other dancers would run into her as they sped off in another direction, and the contact would knock her off her path, but she would find her way back, almost blindly – it was more a matter of the environment than of personal choice. Between the off-center alignment and the slowly evolving shapes, she reminded me of a beautiful seaweed, floating in the tide.

Bartee got a wonderful commitment from his cast – he used a mix of experienced principals and newly-hired dancers, and they all brought their best efforts to bear on the challenge. It was particularly sweet to see dancers like Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta pounce on these challenges, revealing more of their already considerable skill sets. But it was also great to see newer additions to the company (Angelica Generosa comes to mind) work as an equal partner in a dance so much about group dynamics. And Anspach, who is often cast in a “friend” position, made a very strong impression in a complex role.

In “Lost in Light,” Mullin set herself a difficult task, and put her best effort into it. Using Antony Tudor as a model is a huge challenge – his ability to create characters, suggest narratives and find emotion in the most restricted of academic techniques is legendary, but was very, very hard won – that kind of mastery takes a long time to develop. While I was incredibly gratified that she was working with these ideas, and that she was very straightforward in acknowledging Tudor as an influence, I think she only got part of the way on that path. She’s made a ballet – there’s no fudging any of the edges on that topic, and she’s managed to imbue the material with an emotional quality. What she hasn’t really done, is give us some kind of insight into the community she’s created here. She’s got the makings of that specificity already, but she didn’t really frame them well enough for us to follow that development. One example – in the opening tableau of the work her main couple (Laura Gilbreath and Seth Orza the first weekend) are facing each other, with the woman’s back to the audience. She has her arms behind her, and her hands in a very specific, diamond shape, almost like she’s hiding something from her partner. Her hands release the shape on the first note of the music, and she breathes into an arabesque that seems to animate the rest of the group. Again, I got to see this in rehearsal, but the moment was so fleeting, and the initial light cue so dim, that I think most of the audience had no idea it happened. Through the rest of the work, Mullin used port de bras in other, possibly significant ways, with men often catching their partners’ arms from behind – this felt like it could mean something, something specific, but wasn’t developed thoroughly enough, or just framed well enough, for us to catch what she was doing. One of the dangers in writing about dance is reading more into the work than the choreographer or the performers intend – human beings want things to make sense, and we’ll make sense of them if they don’t already do it.

“Lost in Light” is full of partnering, and Mullin keeps her dancers very busy. Some of the doubles work is quite difficult, but in rehearsal the word I heard most often from the choreographer was “easy” (as in ‘soft,’ not ‘simple’!) She’s obviously working towards a kind of fleet lyricism, and she gets a wonderful performance from her cast. Like Bartee, some of the most distinctive and innovative work she’s doing here is small scale – in Mullin’s case, a lot of it has to do with reversals of footwork (forward and then backwards, right and then left) and a specific use of 5th position, either as an accent in the middle of a phrase, or as a pivot point for one of those back and forth sequences. It’s very gratifying to see these experiments with the actual vocabulary of ballet – in the long run, this kind of research will serve her really well, if she wants to continue in this direction. There were many lovely performances here, especially Kylee Kitchens in several duet moments with Jerome Tisserand, and Brittany Reid in a solo section after her duet with Benjamin Griffiths. There’s a moment of stillness after Griffiths leaves that punctuates the beginning – their duet was quite bright, and then you can see Reid soften as she begins to move again. She’s really found a great lyrical thread here.

I think that Alastair Macaulay really put his finger on something specific in his review when he talked about both of these works (which open the program) and their relationship to their scores. Neither Mullin nor Bartee are using music with a strong narrative or other kind of structural spine which would give an developmental arc to their works – the onus is on the movement itself to make a coherent artwork. This is not an impossibility – the repertory has many examples of works that are performed to relatively undifferentiated scores, or to silence for that matter, but it is a distinct difference. Both choreographers have made a wealth of interesting and challenging movement, but their structural skills don’t seem to be as developed here as their kinetic ones. This makes perfect sense considering their own histories – dancers frequently enter choreography through making movement – but now they need to turn their attention to the beginnings, middles and ends of structure, to making dances.

#18 sandik

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 04:52 PM

Kiyon Gaines started in much the same place that Bartee and Mullin do, but he’s further along on that developmental continuum. “Sum Stravinsky” is probably the best work he’s done thus far, or at least the best I’ve yet seen. He’s said that he was intimidated by Stravinsky at the beginning of the project (Boal broke his own hands-off pattern for this commission, and told Gaines he should use something from that composer), and his concern is absolutely understandable. Stravinsky’s place in dance history is big and vivid – the fact that PNB has a considerable collection of Balanchine works to Stravinsky scores only makes that harder. In the end, I think Gaines just decided to make the best ballet he could, and not worry if it seemed derivative or out of balance with its score – if so, that was exactly the right path to take. It’s almost impossible to watch a dance using a Stravinsky score without thinking about the penumbra, but Gaines has done excellent work with this new ballet, whatever the meta-picture might be. While he doesn’t really show us any new directions, he manipulates familiar territory very deftly.

He’s got three sections, each featuring a different couple, and two of them leading small ensembles. He’s working with the neo-classical ballet vocabulary that Balanchine crafted from his academic training – the shifting hips and pared-down transitions that seemed so radical in the middle of the last century are received knowledge at the beginning of this one – we don’t blink at the speed or the extension, but just follow the main impulse through the work. Gaines takes all this material and does two tailoring jobs with it – creating specific movement that makes his cast shine, and putting it all into a framework that lets us see each person demonstrate those gifts. Each section of the ballet has internal coherence, as well as a connection to the larger work – this is no small accomplishment. The first and last movements are danced with great brio, with themes being traded back and forth between the leaders and their ensembles. The middle section begins with an extended solo for the woman with some daring off-center action – her partner doesn’t appear until it seems that she’s almost finished, and is bouree-ing off-stage backwards, with her arm extended behind her – he takes her hand from the wings, and she shifts direction, leading him onstage and into the duet part of the pas de deux. There are other, equally nice moments throughout the piece both in movement development and in group logistics (what I think of as the traffic cop part of choreography) – Gaines is in enough control of his basic material that he can finesse other details.

During the first weekend, Gaines almost had three separate casts of principal dancers – the word is that “everyone wants to dance for Kiyon.” Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta stood out in their turn at the first section, as did Kaori Nakamura and Benjamin Griffiths. Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz got two turns in the central duet, and made good use of their extra time – they really were in control of their affects. Lesley Rausch and Bakthurel Bold played things very cool as the leaders of the third movement, but Seth Orza and Laura Gilbreath just snapped in the parts. They gave a lovely, conventional performance as the main couple in “Lost in Light,” but for the Stravinsky they turned everything up, finding great rhythmic details in the material.

For many people, the new work by Mark Morris was the focal point of the program, which is perfectly understandable. Morris has reputation to spare, as a choreographer and as a character, and he put all of that to use during his time at PNB. Like Balanchine, he finds the core of his work in his musical choices, and Hindemith’s “Kammermusik No. 3” has an interesting combination of driving rhythmic phrases and more spare, mysterious sequences. I saw this work three times during the opening weekend, and although I saw more with each viewing, I think there’s much more going on that I was able to discern at first. I often feel that Morris’s choreography links up with some of the monumental works from early modern dance – it’s a cousin to Martha Graham or Isadora Duncan with their heightened emotions and rejection of embellishment. In this world a simple step can be a manifesto, and Morris often seems to use the simplest of steps, to make heartfelt, exposed moments on stage. He distills complicated material and then uses it like building blocks to make big effects. In “Kammermusik No. 3” he’s using ballet vocabulary as the source code, manipulating it with post-modern structural tools, so that it looks like he’s made a folk dance with steps from the Gail Grant dictionary. Unlike “Square Dance,” and other ballets that match classical technique with vernacular traditions, he doesn’t fill simple structures with virtuoso material – the actual steps in “Kammermusik No. 3” are relatively simple. The trick is to perform the steps plain, like a Quaker would. In several cases Morris has designed sequences that are almost like classroom etudes, combinations that require a high level of strength or clarity or control – like school figures in ice skating, they are impressive because they are pure, and the dancer that can perform them clearly without fudging or pushing has accomplished something quite beautiful.

As he often does, Morris opens “Kammermusik No. 3” with material that he will expand on throughout the work, performed in this case as a solo (Carrie Imler or Kylee Kitchens in the first weekend) that acts almost like an inventory – there are some mysterious, semaphore-like gestures, some specific steps and transitions (a sequence with tendus en avant pivoting on the standing leg as if the dancer is indicates a series of compass points). The rest of the ensemble arrives and the first half of the ballet develops these themes (the theme and variation form seems really clear in “Kammermusik No. 3”, in part because the score resembles “The Four Temperaments” – we hear what feel like quotes from the opening section of that work and we think we see kinetic references as well) But after the second section of the score, there’s a paradigm shift. The black scrim that had been just a border above a vibrant fuchsia background lowers almost to the floor, with the score darkening as well. What was a stage full of cascading trios, running on to jump or swing in center stage and rushing out to make room for the next group, has cleared away. A single figure enters for a contemplative solo with eccentric timing and exposed technique, all performed in silence. Morris is notorious for his fidelity to the composer – he does not make musical alterations lightly -- and so this deviation from Hindemith’s score is a significant one. This solo for a man (Jonathan Porretta or I think James Moore when I saw it) doesn’t really introduce new material so much as it recapitulates what has happened thus far. I think there may be a connection to the opening female solo, but I’m not sure about that.

The dancing that follows this solo is similar to the material in the first half, but the world has changed. At random moments during the established material dancers collapse unexpectedly, or appear to limp briefly only to “recover” and move on. At one point, Mullin climbs up a pair of men onto their shoulders, balances momentarily and then falls into a third man’s arms. He lowers her to the ground carefully, but not with much concern, and the dance continues to the end, with these disquieting moments of danger (injury? vulnerability?) interspersed. It’s as if he’s showing us another world, synchronous with our own, but damaged in some way. It leaves us unsettled, and perhaps that was his goal.

#19 Helene

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Posted 25 January 2013 - 11:38 AM

Grand Rapids Ballet will perform Andrew Bartee's "Arms That Work" from 21-24 March on a program that opens with Arpino's "Light Rain" and closes with "The Four Temperaments."

#20 sandik

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Posted 25 January 2013 - 12:38 PM

Grand Rapids Ballet will perform Andrew Bartee's "Arms That Work" from 21-24 March on a program that opens with Arpino's "Light Rain" and closes with "The Four Temperaments."


The grant that funded Bartee's work has an interesting feature that requires the dance be staged on an additional ensemble -- an effort to give new works life beyond their initial performances, and to encourage more cooperation between companies. I was wondering where it would go after its premiere here.


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