Wendy Whelan / Restless Creature
Works & Process at the Guggenheim
April 14, 2013
All photos by Nisian Hughes
New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, will be appearing at Jacob’s Pillow this summer to present Restless Creature, an evening of new works created for her by four different choreographers. At a Works & Process event at the Guggenheim, the audience was given the opportunity to hear Ms. Whelan and the four choreographers interviewed about the project. They also presented excerpts of two of the dances. Ella Baff, the Executive Director of Jacob’s Pillow, moderated.
Ms. Whelan sounded exuberant throughout the 90 minute presentation. The works that she’ll be performing at Jacob’s Pillow appear to be off the beaten path of classical and neo-classical ballet. Throughout the interview, Ms. Whelan spoke of the challenges as well as the liberation of moving into unchartered territory with these four artists.
The Works & Process event opened with a beautiful solo danced by Ms. Whelan and choreographed by Shen Wei. After dancing, she talked about seeing a performance of Wei’s work eight years earlier, and then having the opportunity to work with him when Peter Boal brought the two of them together. Ms. Whelan described Wei as being very clear in knowing what he wanted — she said that she loves to see that in an artist. The challenge of stepping out of the ballet world to work with him was huge, but she couldn’t get enough. Among the instruction that he gave her in performing his piece was the request “not to blink”.
There are long rests in the music accompanying the Wei piece. She described the solo as being a dialogue — the pianist “conversing” with the dancer. The dance is performed en pointe, something that Wei had to adjust to. This drew both dancer and choreographer out of their comfort zones. Wei kept asking her to do pointe work that couldn’t be done, but Ms. Whelan wished that it could be, so both artists focused on moving away from what was familiar. They worked together toward the end of creating original movement.
In choosing the choreographers for Restless Creature, she looked outside the neo-classical world of New York City Ballet. Kyle Abraham was the first choreographer with whom she chose to work. She met Brian Brooks at the Fire Island Dance Festival. She met Joshua Beamish in a ballet class. She chose Alejandro Cerrudo of Hubbard Street, as she’s a great fan of the company.
It was interesting to hear the enthusiasm with which she discussed the dancer-choreographer connection in the studio. She said that there are times when she enjoys this work even more than she enjoys the performance on stage. This is the part of the process that the audience never sees, so Ms. Whelan seemed especially happy that for Restless Creature, this connection that she experiences in the studio will move out on to the stage, as each choreographer will partner her in his piece.
She said that she is very comfortable in her role as dancer and isn’t interested in being the choreographer. She likes to be “the paintbrush” and “mix the paints”, but she doesn’t want to be the one who decides where to put the marks on the canvas.
Ms. Whelan and Joshua Beamish performed an excerpt from his piece. It’s markedly contemporary and very lovely, danced to a dramatic accompaniment which swells and gives way to quieter passages. There is surprising original movement in the upper body and some interesting counterpoint. I especially liked the small gestures of the hands and feet.
Choreographer Brian Brooks worked with Elizabeth Streb and is accustomed to extremes of movement. He said that his choreography embraces physics and momentum rather than fighting against it, as most ballet choreography does. He considers himself to be earthbound, whereas ballet tends to reach for the heavens. He felt that in his collaboration with Mr. Whelan, she begins to bring him skybound, while he draws her back down to earth. Ms. Whelan seemed very enthusiastic about performing his dance without shoes. Later in the program she exclaimed, “I can feel the floor! Taking the shoes off is like taking the bra off!” She seemed to find artistic liberation in bare feet.
Kyle Abraham got his start in rave and hip hop culture. He names Limon, Cunningham and Graham among his influences. He asked Ms. Whelan if his work was challenging for her. She laughed and told him that he could ease up on challenge part. Of all the collaborations, this one seemed the most interesting to me, and I hope that I get the opportunity to see the dance.
Alejandro Cerrudo said that he made a deliberate decision to steer away from specific influences like Ohad Naharin and Jiri Kylian, calling instead upon the accumulation of all of his experience. He admitted that before he met Ms. Whelan, he feared that she might be a diva, but he said that she made it easy for him to relax and focus on the work. Much of his dance is the result of the give and take between dancer and choreographer, unfolding minute by minute in the studio.
Of partnering, Ms. Whelan said that it’s different for each couple. A chemistry arises between the two, as a natural thing. Even in an abstract dance, over the years a story will evolve within it. It grows as a physical conversation.
The program closed with an excerpt from Brian Brooks’ work. Brooks is dressed in black against a black curtain, and at many points he seems to disappear into the darkness of the stage, even though he’s supporting Ms. Whelan’s weight so that she can appear to be defying gravity. The movement of the dance kept rolling and it seemed never to stop. I was taken by the originality and the quirky and clever voice of the work. Much in the way Brooks had described their process, the dance seemed at once to be ethereal and other worldly, yet earthy.
The full world premiere of Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature will take place in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, August 14-18, 2013. Tickets for the Pillow world premiere are on sale online at jacobspillow.org or at 413.243.0745.
April 26, 2013 No Comments
“Embracing limitation as a catalyst for creativity, we create all-inclusive, destination events that reflect a New York City landscape bustling with dance innovation.” That’s what it says on the banner of Dance Now’s web site. From the moment that we set foot inside Joe’s Pub, the limitation was looking us right in the eye. The stage was tiny — 9 feet by 11 feet, in a triangular shape. How on earth were the dancers going to travel?
The cabaret setting of the pub matched the atmosphere of TAKE Dance’s production of Somewhere Familiar Melodies, which received its world premiere. The evening consists of eleven vignettes, ten of which are danced to a Japanese pop song. In his company’s newsletter, Take wrote that while grieving the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, he found himself returning to the pop music that he listened to while growing up in Japan. This evening of dance is a celebration of that music.
The evening opened with Prayer a somber piece danced by Jill Echo to the music of Chopin. Smoke fills the stage as Echo, in a plain white dress, dances alone. Her movement is compact and solemn, appropriate for the small stage, and her focus is often cast downward.
But from there, a suite of high energy pop songs erupt and the dancers’ movement is daring and exuberant. .
Ouedan (also called Cheering Squad) is an entertaining piece. Its energy charged through the audience and made the people come alive with cheering. It was amazing to see the extent of movement considering the small size of the stage. From the beginning of the evening, we can see the strength and artistry of Take’s dancers, who handle complex transitions and changes in speed within the confines of that small stage as if it was effortless.
In Our Dance, performed by Gina Ianni and Kile Hotchkiss, there is focus on the expression of the upper body. The partnering is surprising and unpredictable. Kile Hotchkiss’s solo Cosmos incorporates martial arts movement and rapid pacing, high jumps and silent falls. Hotchkiss changes pace seamlessly. This is really impressive dancing. Marie Zvosec, with her rock star bearing, is wildly entertaining as she lets loose to the music of Madame M. John Eirich partners her with great attitude. The piece conjures the atmosphere of an old school rock concert.
Kristen Arnold, Brynt Beitman, and Kile Hotchkiss perform G-men masked in dark glasses and black costumes. They stand with authority, practiced in the art of intimidation. Again, the adept partnering and the clever lifts create such compelling movement that breaks through the limitations of the tiny stage. There is a sequence in which the dancers run in place, and it creates a burst of energy that seems as expansive as if they’d been traveling across a standard sized stage.
Rain seemed like a restaging of a passage of Take’s evening length work, Salaryman, adjusted for the tiny stage. A man dressed for business in a suit and tie carries an umbrella and offers to cover a young woman and shelter her from the rain. He doesn’t get a reaction from her until he’s about to give up, and then she suddenly acknowledges him. The dance is melancholy in its subtlety, performed with beautiful understated emotion by Gina Ianni and John Eirich.
The Men’s Trio showcases the type of physical behavior that Take always captures so well. The movement depicts the self consciousness of people who are torn between being upright and straitlaced, but who also heed the call to get down and let loose and fall under the spell of the energetic pop music. The characters shed their business jackets. They are awkward and reserved as they try to rock out. When one man finally loosens his hips and loses himself to the dance, another rolls his eyes in embarrassment. I loved the use of the small gestures in the hands and wrists, the body surrendering to the music even as the men sometimes held themselves straight, attempting to remain in a reserved posture. This dance was wonderfully amusing and it got a big rise out of the audience.
For Four Seasons, the dancers travel in a line through the aisles of the pub, their upper bodies telling the story in a canon of movement. There are expansive swaying arms, or the gesture of picking an apple in autumn, shivering in winter, sneezing in spring. At the end of an evening of dancing on the small stage, their passage through the room seems grand and especially lovely.
Kristen Arnold and Brynt Beitman delivered a stirring and emotion packed performance of The Last News. The dance opens with Beitman sitting at a table which takes up most of the small stage. The table becomes a vehicle for standoffs, changes in level, turns, shelter, and extremely daring jumps executed with highly synchronized and skilled partnering. Their execution of the challenging choreography is outstanding without sacrificing an emotional punch.
The evening ended with Blossom, which seemed to be an affirmation of the renewal of the seasons. This piece seemed to reflect on and recapitulate all the atmospheres from all the previous pieces of the evening, and the gamut of emotions from pathos to hilarity. It ended in beautiful form with a shower of cherry blossoms, appropriate for this time of year in New York City.
The concert was beautifully conceived and exquisitely danced. And yes, it absolutely did rise to the challenge and transcend the limitations of the tiny stage.
April 25, 2013 No Comments
Peridance Contemporary Dance Company
Sunday, March 10, 2013 – Matinee
Salvatore Capezio Theater
Peridance Contemporary Dance Company is a wonderful group of strong expressive multi-faceted dancers presenting powerful choreography in a unique voice.
In Igal Perry’s Conflicted Terrain, the choreography extends beyond the dancers to the live musicians who performed the stirring String Quartet No. 3 by Górecki. Each player in the quartet is perched on a platform which is moved to different stations throughout the passages of the music and the dance. The piece opens with one of the dancers seated in one of the musician’s chairs, before a music stand. To me this seemed like a beautiful metaphor for how deeply and intimately a dancer or a choreographer can become with a piece of music and the performance of it — as if there’s no real demarcation where the music ends and the dance begins.
In the opening moments of the dance, a woman slowly shifts her weight from one foot to the other, releasing the working leg to a high second. As she finally holds the extension, her partner enters and bumps into the extended leg. This motif and a series of other phrases reprise throughout the dance. There are moments of the dance that flow so smoothly, with lovely and complex partnering, and passages in which the couples move in unison. All the while, the undertow of conflict seems to be present as the musicians are rearranged on the stage and distance opens between the couples. At times they are pulling so far from each other that they are only being kept upright by their partner’s hold on them. This was a beautiful performance of an imaginative dance.
I’d never before seen Ohad Naharin’s Mabul, an excerpt of which was performed on this program by Joanne DeFelice and Christopher Bloom. The clever choreography seemed to revolve around issues of trust and even redemption. Bloom is folded in upon himself, his arms outstretched, his hands clasped as if he’s pleading. DeFelice backs away from him. When she allows him close to her, he bangs his head against her chest, as if violence is rising from what could have been a tender moment. The tension seems to be resolved when DeFelice is mounted on Bloom’s shoulders as if they are one being, their arms moving in unison.
Infinity, also by Igal Perry, received its world premiere. Set to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, it’s an atmospheric piece full of expansive movement in which every gesture seemed to contain its own little world — a story of its own. The women’s bodies are unfurled, their chests are open, arms apart and lengthened, legs long and extended in splits or opening up in sweeping grand rondes. The formations travel the expanse of the entire floor. There’s a strong timelessly classical feel behind the contemporary movement.
The performance closed with Dwight Rhoden’s Evermore, receiving its world premiere. It’s a theatrical piece set to songs sung by Nat King Cole which would have been right at home on a Broadway stage. The dancers breezed through the complex athletic movement that is a trademark of many Complexions’ pieces and the audience seemed eager to join in the fun. It was great to see the ease with which these contemporary dancers could transition into this Broadway style.
Peridance Contemporary Dance Company will be performing these works again the coming weekend.
March 12, 2013 No Comments
H.T. Chen & Dancers
A Tribute to Remy Charlip
Friday, March 1, 2013
Chen Dance Center
H.T. Chen & Dancers presented a combined celebration of the life and work of Remy Charlip, along with ceremonies for the Chinese New Year. The Chen Dance Center theater was made to take on the atmosphere of a Chinese Tea House, with servings of tea and cookies provided alongside the seats. Associate Director Dian Dong described the Tea House as a gathering center for the village, where people came to hear news, but also to socialize, drink tea, and enjoy art together. I was grateful for the background and context that Ms. Dong provided for the dances. Some of the stories behind them were every bit as interesting and beautiful as the dances themselves.
The evening opened with a Lantern Procession — based on a traditional procession intended to bring the villagers good luck in the New Year. Each dancer carried her own unique lantern and moved to music played on traditional Chinese instruments. There was a strong feeling of community in the dance, especially so when the dancers were joined by three elementary school children in traditional dress, who carried celestial images created by Remy Charlip.
This was followed by H.T. Chen’s 39 Chinese Attitudes, which springs from one of Remy Charlip’s “Airmail Dances”. Charlip explained, “”I started to do these figures on a page and then give them to dancers, to soloists and groups of dancers, and have them figure out how to get from one position to another – so they worked on the transitions and they thereby made the dance – it’s their dance and it is also my dance.”
For 39 Chinese Attitudes, set to music by Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, Chen worked with a combination of Chinese images and images of athletes. The dance focuses on three movements: jumps, falls and attitudes. It opens with a sweet little narrative, in which a dancer delights in the fortune she just received in her oversized cookie. She swoons with happiness and shows it off to the others. Throughout the dance Chen used the falls to show drama and emotion, but he also used them to great comic effect, sometimes as the dancers deliberately struggled with their balances in attitude. Other vignettes include an adorable pas de deux between a moonstruck woman and the man who hopes to win her affections — danced by Eva Chan and Juan Michael Porter II. She swoons from happiness and she gives her partner the classic “come closer” and “leave me alone” gestures. Their endearing struggle is represented in a lift in which the woman deliberately cannot hold herself up or find her balance.
The dance has a lovely ending in which the women have a comic one-ups-manship struggle over who has more or bigger fortune cookies, until one woman arrives with a tray overflowing with cookies. This prompts the dancers to serve the cookies and plum wine to the audience. I felt that this also helped maintain the strong sense of community that I felt from Chen’s dances. Not only was the company especially hospitable from the beginning to the end of the performance, in doing so they seemed to be acknowledging the importance of the relationship between the dancers and the audience.
David Vaughn delivered a beautiful reading of Charlip’s humourous Ten Imaginary Dances, in which scenarios were suggested for different dances in the hands of various companies. This was followed by a wonderful performance by Stephanie Chun and Marlon Feliz who danced Charlip’s Twelve Contra Dances. This piece really showcased the charm and elegance of Charlip’s work. Stripped of pretense and technical fireworks, the dance uses deceptively simple movement to create lovely formations. As with so much of Charlip’s work, it’s sweet without ever being cloying, and it’s humourous without ever going over the top. I felt that there was beautiful chemistry between the dancers, equal parts from the spirit of the choreography and the spirit of the dancers themselves.
As the evening closed, we were shown a fascinating collection of photos of a Chinese community among the cotton fields of Cleveland, Mississippi, which will be the inspiration for a new piece that H.T. Chen will be creating. The closing dance, Between Heaven and Earth culminated with the dancers performing under a shower of beautiful multi-colored confetti, used to great effect.
I thoroughly enjoyed this program and my visit to the Chen Dance Center in Chinatown. It was wonderful to have this glimpse into the culture and history of the Chinese, as well as to revisit Remy Charlip’s wonderful books, artwork and dances.
March 5, 2013 No Comments
I love the beauty of naked trees. But at the same time, I love that taste of spring in the air, when the weather turns slightly warmer and it feels so great to be outdoors. On Sunday it was warm enough to take off the scarf and the sweater beneath the winter coat. After visiting the library at Grand Army Plaza, I took a little stroll in Prospect Park. Looking forward to warmer days spent in rural lands.
March 3, 2013 No Comments
There’s something about the rhythm of windows in a brick facade
that has always delighted my eye.
Tags: Eastern Parkway
March 3, 2013 No Comments
At Lincoln Place
At Berkeley Place
March 3, 2013 No Comments
Year of the Serpent
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
Victoria Theater – New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts
Sunday, February 10, 2013
I’d been wanting to see the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company for years, but it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally made the trek out to Newark to see the company celebrate the Chinese New Year with their production Year of the Serpent. The program was a wonderful mix of traditional Chinese dancing, music and opera combined with a new contemporary piece, Whirlwind, which received its world premiere this year. The dancers moved seamlessly between the different dance styles. It was very generous and helpful of the company to have provided the audience with detailed descriptions of the history and inspiration for each dance, along with narratives about the peoples and customs of the different regions of China from where these dances come.
The performance opened with a piece called Double Lions Welcoming Spring which tells the story of trust built between young children and ferocious lions. The dance is intended as a prayer for peace and harmony in the coming year. Playful and often funny (such as when the lion forgets himself on stage and nibbles on his own foot, or throws in an extra cabriole before exiting the stage) the dance includes dazzling acrobatics and tumbling sequences. Each lion is played by two men who do an amazing job of making the beast’s back ripple in feline fashion, or making it rear back on its hind legs. The Chinese folk costumes and the design of the lion are so beautifully done.
In Song of the Water Lily, dancer Ying Shi embodies the beauty and purity of a young girl. She carries a fan ornamented with a lovely billowing scarf which resembles a flower petal. The lighting and music create the atmosphere of a lily pond, down to the sound of water droplets and bird songs spliced in with the traditional folk music. There is a wide sweep of movement, from luscious slow and controlled extensions and port des bras, to a rapid success of turns executed while spotting the floor. The dance is at once ornate and colorful as it is earthy and primal.
Another traditional piece, arranged by Ms. Chen, was the rousing Coin Stick Dance. Bamboo sticks filled with coins create a host of different rattling sounds as they are tapped against shoulders, hips and floor, or twirled like batons. The dance was presented as an ensemble piece, but had lovely partnering sections in which pairs of dancers tapped their sticks together. The piece was marked by pretty formations and nice footwork sequences.
One of the highlights for me was seeing Ms. Chen’s earthy modern piece, Whirlwind, inspired by her journey on the Silk Road. It opens with six dancers standing still on stage, very subtly swaying forward and backward on the breeze. In this section, and throughout the piece, Ms. Chen used groups moving in unison, save for one dancer. These formations seemed to embody the phenomenon of the whirlwind, which she described in the program as coming from different directions. In the opening section, the dancers’ mostly remain in their spots, but they execute beautiful adagio movement with the upper body and the plie, creating the atmospheres of a coming storm. As the dance builds, influences of various cultures can be appear. The energy of the wind can be felt in contractions and sighing movement. I loved the section danced by the men, locked onto one another’s arms in a circle and swaying together in a way that seemed ancient and ritualistic. Great original movement in this dance and beautiful artistic execution by the dancers.
Min Zhou shone in the traditional Peacock Dance from her charming staccato birdlike gestures, shuddering shoulders and expressive movement of the upper body, to her lovely transitions into slow and controlled adagio phrases. She held her arm above her head, her hand shaped like the head of a peacock, her floor length skirt draped to resemble its plumage.
The program closed with Chen’s traditional piece, Festival, a spectacle of cartwheels, barrel turns, colorful ribbons, and flags, complete with a dragon dance in which the dragon takes a spin around the audience. The piece was great fun and a fitting close to a beautiful program.
February 18, 2013 No Comments
Azul Dance Theatre / Yuki Hasegawa
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Salvatore Capezio Theater at Peridance Center
Azul Dance Theatre’s performance of Elements was marked by original movement in which beauty and artistic expression took priority over flash and tricks. Every detail of the choreography, costumes and staging had been beautifully considered. It’s not often that I find myself at the theatre, seeing a new company for the first time, and being so deeply effected by the high quality of their artistry. This company was a wonderful surprise and they surpassed my expectations.
The performance opened with Mugen, a dreamy atmospheric new piece based on folk and traditional Japanese dance, choreographed by Azul’s Artistic Director Yuki Hasegawa, set to music played on traditional Japanese instruments. The dancers wear beautiful kimonos, also created by Hasegawa. The piece is marked with wave-like movement in the arms and torso, often with the feet fixed to the floor in a deep lunge. After the moody and ritualistic first movement, there is inventive and humorous use of parasols in the jazzy second section. The Japanese instruments take on the strains of a 1960s beach tune, then Duke Ellington’s Caravan. The dancers hop, push and pull as if against gravity or the wind. They strike a series of wonderful poses, making great use of the props. In the closing section, a man is seated as if in prayer, his sword by his side. But as he is meditating, a pair of arms appear from behind him, and reach into his robe, removing what looks like a scroll or a map. The figure who took the paper, sneaks up behind another who is also in prayer position, and slides the paper into her kimono. I felt as if the figure embodied distraction, interfering with the processes of the two mediators, breaking their concentration, and maybe even appropriating an important or sacred piece of them. She does everything that she can in a struggle to dominate the man, even going so far as pulling his sword and holding it to his neck or his heart.
Kanako Yokata choreographed and danced in It’s not your fault. Entering the stage on a tether, she struggles to breathe and free herself. Once free, she struggles for balance before opening up into a lyrical adagio. An undertow seems to keep her close to the ground, where she winds up in the center of crocheted blanket. She pulls at the wool and it begins to unravel around her and the blanket tightens around her feet, as if she’s traded in one constraint for another.
Non-western motifs appear throughout Hasegawa’s Return to the River. The dancers enter the stage as if rolling like waves along the floor. The music is cut with the sounds of water sloshing. As the dance opens up, new influences appear. There is a Carribean feel to the way that the women rock their hips and jump. The dance builds with atmospheric lighting and a series of dramatic leaps as the dancers shriek. Their colorful harem pants and halters make especially beautiful costumes.
One of the stand out pieces of the program for me was Double Helix, choreographed and performed by twin sisters Hsiao-Ting Hsieh and Hsiao-Wei Hsieh, set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. There is an elegance and a clarity to this dance which allowed the expression of the movement to stand out. The sisters perform in a highly synchronized fashion, but this never comes at the expense of the heart and emotion evident in every small gesture. I could have watched this dance all evening long. It was performed with lovely live accompaniment on cello by Serafim Smigelskiy.
The program closed with Hasegawa’s Elements, a splendid theatrical piece. Before the dancing even began, I was taken by the beauty of the costumes, some in rusty autumn colors and others in the greens and turquoise of the sea or the woodlands. The first section pays tribute to water. Torsos and arms ripple and the movement resolves in lovely ensemble poses. Even when the dancers are just standing in place, their upper bodies are tremendously expressive. The wind enters the story, first as a lone figure dressed in white, then as a small group weaving in and out of the ensemble, sending the dancers to twirl and spiral and roll away. Soon the entire group is dressed in white and the dance opens up to an especially beautiful ensemble section with great partnering and counterpoint. Really well done. The drama builds with great use of bolts of fabric — one to symbolize the sun and others to symbolize the ocean. The dance ends in birth so that the entire cycle may begin again. The performance demonstrated a great love, respect and compassion for Mother Earth and her processes. I’m told that Ms. Hasegawa named her company Azul after the blue of ocean water.
Elements lasted an hour and a half without intermission. The time seemed to pass in a heartbeat and Azul Dance Theatre left me wanting even more. If you have the opportunity to see this company, don’t miss it.
February 12, 2013 No Comments
Just enough to make the street look pretty
Not enough to make much trouble
February 9, 2013 No Comments