Italian International Dance Festival

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Italian International Dance Festival
October 24, 2014
Julia Richman Theater
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The Italian International Dance Festival presented an abbraccio dell’arte (embrace of art) featuring dance companies from Italy and New York which are directed by Italian artists. The festival’s Artistic Director Antonio Fini and Creative Director and host Tabata Caldironi presented a delightful program of folk dances, contemporary ballet, jazz and musical theater.
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Tarantella, opened with an intense solo danced by Fini, who also choreographed the piece. His tambourine rattles with passion and urgency as he sinks to his knees and arches his back. The program notes tell us that according to Southern Italian legend, the bite of a spider or the bite of love could kill a person. To rid yourself of the poison, you have to “dance, dance, dance and dance”. The tenth grade students of Talent Unlimited High School join Fini for a festive folk dance. Their hair is down and they are barefoot, dressed in swirling white skirts. The girls are fresh faced and smiling, the very image of young love. It was delightful to see the many ways that each one brought her own unique expression to the choreography. They seemed to tell so many different stories. Wonderful!
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Fini returned in Dancing with Noa, a very moving pas de deux danced with Noa Guy, a woman of sixty who’d been partially paralyzed in a car accident. The piece employs creative movement in shifts of weight, floor work, gorgeous lifts and turns, and swooping falls. The dance captures what is universal in movement — it can still be so expressive, even when it comes in an unfamiliar or unpredictable fashion. The closing moments are especially dramatic — Ms. Guy is stock still, being held upside down by Fini, her long white hair fanned on the floor as her feet point toward the heavens.
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Michael Mao choreographed Song of Helena for students and dancers of Staten Island Ballet. It’s a lyrical contemporary piece, set to Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, telling the story of a young woman in Poland incarcerated by the Gestapo during World War II. On the wall of her cell, she wrote a note to her mother telling her that that the Immaculate Queen of Heaven supported her, and that her mother needn’t cry. The dancers wear long white dresses. At times they seem like angels weaving through formations and encircling one central character. Or maybe they are fellow inmates collectively resigned to their fate. The ballet movement is haunting and lovely with expressive port de bras and luxurious unfolding extensions. The closing moments remind me of Balanchine’s Serenade. Instead of one girl arching toward heaven, the dancers rest on the floor as one walks into the distance, toward her fate.
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Antonio Fini wowed the audience with Gym-Me, a comic look at the antics of gym rats. Dressed in workout clothes down to the sweatband around his forehead, he trains fanatically, stretching, planking, doing crunches. He flexes and runs laps and makes a huge display of how hard he’s working. Then comes the posing, down to kissing his own biceps. Very entertaining.
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It was a thrill to see none other than Edward Villella appearing on stage to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. His list of accomplishments is dazzling, from his career as principal dancer with New York City Ballet, to Artistic Director of Eglevsky Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet, to his founding of Miami City Ballet. At 78 he remains fit, handsome and charming. He received a standing ovation as Mr. Fini and Ms. Caldironi presented his award.
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SLK Ballet performed Amaciza (Italian for ‘friendship’), choreographed by Sara Knight, to music by Inti-Illimani. It’s a jubilant ballet with a folk flavor, danced with hair down and bare feet. The dancers kick up their whirling white skirts and perform festive turns with their hands reaching skyward. This dance has a wonderfully joyous atmosphere and the dancers were just lovely.
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Dancer Alessandra Corona has something so special — you feel it from the first moments that she steps on to the stage. Antonio Fini partnered her in a romantic pas de deux from Dinner With Friends, Ms. Corona’s new production, which will open in Rome in November. She is riveting as her back arches and she ascends into a high lift. There is something girlish and innocent in her movement, along with a strong expression of passion. It was a pleasure to be introduced to her work. She was recipient of the Extraordinary Dancer Award from the festival.
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Jazz great Luigi was honored in Jazz Tango, performed in smooth style by Dianna Folio and Joey Doucette. Ms. Folio’s Homage to Luigi featured three electrifying young men. The dance begins by chronicling the exercises of the jazz class. As it opens up, we see travelling floor work that evolves into some iconic phrases from great old Hollywood films. The boys perform spectacular silent leaps. Their technique is so clean and they move with great flair.
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The evening closed with a musical theater performance — excerpts from a show that is about to open in Italy called La Sposa in Blu (The Blue Bride.) The show stars famous Italian drag queen Platinette, who comes home to find that her home has been burglarized. It was tough to follow the story, given that the entire production is in Italian, but the performance of the songs was quite rousing and Samantha Fantauzzi was especially captivating in the role of the neighbor. Platinette is a wonderful comic who later opened her arms, looked toward the sky and expressed gratitude to Joan Rivers.
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Bravo to Mr. Fini and Ms. Caldironi for bringing this evening of Italian culture to New York City. Mr. Fini’s Alto Jonio Dance is offering a Summer Intensive in Italy in 2015. Visit the festival’s web page for further information.


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Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq

682_mrb_tanny_Kino_Lorber_Inc2_capAfternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq
Written, Directed and Produced by Nancy Buirski

From the opening moments of this film, which include grainy old footage of Tanaquil LeClercq and Jacques D’Amboise performing Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, it’s clear to see what made Tanny so special.  Her presence is arresting.  At one moment she is majestic, aloof, and almost other worldly.  In the next she wears an understated flirtatious expression as her leg turns in and out.  In the promenade we see why Robbins referred to her quality of movement as resembling that of an animal.  “A young colt soon to become a graceful thoroughbred.”  Promenades tend to be so focused and controlled, but in this one LeClercq seems to let go and move with abandon, as if she’s being blown on the wind, placing all trust in D’Amboise to keep her upright.

Through a series of wonderful old photos and stories told by George Balanchine’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, and ballerina Patricia McBride, we are drawn into the 1950s incarnation of New York City Ballet and its official studio, The School of American Ballet. Young Tanaquil LeClercq is introduced to us through the eyes of Mr. B, who finds her in the halls of SAB standing alone with her arms crossed after having been kicked out of her class.

Balanchine is described by Ms. Horgan, as always pursuing the next “one”.  In some of his most popular pas de deux, we can see a man searching for a woman.  Some have speculated that this narrative was autobiographical.  For awhile, Tanny was “the one”.  Balanchine started out by giving her small roles, eventually going on to choreograph iconic ballets around her.

“Dancers were usually short and quick, stocky and fast,” D’Amboise tells us.  But Tanny was tall and elongated, with a strong stage presence.  As Balanchine’s muse, she inspired him to take his dances in new directions to suit her movement and her body type.

It is so eerie to learn of the roles that Tanny danced that could have been seen as omens of her coming illness.  When she was still a student at SAB, Balanchine was asked to choreograph a ballet for a March of Dimes fund raiser.  He created a “grim pas de deux” in which he played the part of polio.  Tanny was cast in the role of its victim.  In Symphony in C, she famously fell backward into her partner’s arms.  Robbins said that he cried when he first saw her do this.  In Balanchine’s La Valse, she is dressed in white, then claimed by a figure dressed in black who transforms everything to black, from the stage to her costume, as the company swirls around her.

There is footage from Christmas 1956 of LeClercq and D’Amboise being interviewed for television after having performed the Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker.  They spoke about the company’s upcoming tenth anniversary and their winter tour of Europe.  It was at this point that the polio vaccine was being administered to the dancers of NYCB — there are even still photos showing the dancers standing in line waiting to receive it.  Tanny had been standing in that line, but at the last moment she decided against taking it, fearing it would make her miserable on the flight to Europe.

That decision sealed her fate.  On the European tour, without warning, she fell ill and was diagnosed with polio, which paralyzed her legs and one arm.

The film does a great job of depicting what life was like for those in treatment for polio. We are shown footage of hospitals with a row of iron lung machines, into which the ailing are placed.  We feel Tanny’s suffering and depression as we hear passages from heartbreaking letters that she exchanged with Robbins after the company returned to New York City, while she and Balanchine stayed behind in Stockholm.  The camera shows us her first letter, which looks as if it had been written by a five year old.  She could barely hold a pen.

When it became clear that the doctors could not cure her paralysis, Balanchine took it upon himself to attempt to do it.  He got involved with prayer groups and spiritual healers.  He trained her in Pilates type of exercises.  He would even hold her up and place her feet on top of his as he walked, hoping to trick her muscles into remembering how to do it.  In the following year, Balanchine choreographed Agon, and Arthur Mitchell points out that in the pas de deux, the man is placing the ballerina into different positions.  He felt that this was what Balanchine was doing with Tanny.

It took awhile before she could return to New York City, and it took longer than that before she’d go back to the ballet.  Mitchell invited her to teach at Dance Theatre of Harlem.  He described her as being able to “zoom” around the studio in her wheel chair in order to give corrections.  Virginia Johnson and Lydia Abarca were among her protegees.

In coming to terms with her condition and finding this new role for herself, Tanny was able to say that it’s possible that her polio had been a gift.  She went on to coach ballerinas in roles that she had danced.  As she found her way, it seems that those around her were able to come to terms with what had happened to her.  It’s most impressive that she was able to remain independent after she and Balanchine divorced.  Her doctors had told Balanchine that she wouldn’t live to see the age of forty, but she made it almost to eighty.

At the end of the film, D’Amboise deals with a subject that was rarely talked about in public in his generation.  Even a full ballet career is short in the context of an entire life.  Sooner or later, every dancer has to come to terms with leaving the stage and choosing a new path.  For Tanny, it happened way too soon, and in such a cruel fashion.  But hers wound up being a great story of resilience and the triumph of the spirit.


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Little Dancer – Guggenheim Works and Process

Little Dancer
Works and Process at The Guggenheim
October 5, 2014

poster2_smInspired by the obscure ballerina who posed for the famed Edgar Degas sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the new musical Little Dancer follows model Marie Van Goethem as she struggles in the Paris Opera Ballet circa 1880. For Works and Process, excerpts were performed by four-time Tony Award–winner Boyd Gaines, three-time Tony Award–nominee Rebecca Luker, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck. Costume designer William Ivey Long moderated a discussion with director and choreographer Susan Stroman, book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.
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The conversation traveled a fascinating path through the lesser known details of art history, the circumstances of life in and around the Paris Opera Ballet, and the work that was involved in the eight years that it took to bring this production from the germ of an idea to a full blown musical which will be opening at the Kennedy Center at the end of this month. Much of Marie’s life remains a mystery. Little Dancer is presented not as an adaptation of her story, but as an imagining of what it might have been based on what little is known about her.
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We were given some insight into the life of artist Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of the ballet. He painted movement, fabric and texture, sometimes focusing on the dancers’ exhaustion and the boredom of rehearsals. A curmudgeon who never married or had any notable affairs with women, he found his eyesight beginning to fail him in mid life and that might have prompted him to create sculpture. In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, he presented Marie as a three dimensional being and he captured the details of her spirit that suggest a wider story.
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We learn that this sculpture was not well received in its day. It is a mixed media creation, something uncommon in its time, with a cloth costume, a real hair ribbon and real hair. Some thought that it was an image of a prostitute. The public was outraged. Degas received terrible reviews for it, and though he referred to it as his “daughter” he put it away and it was never seen again until after his death.
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The panelists agreed, and I’ve seen it myself, that girls love the statue. Young ballet students will instinctively strike a fourth position when they first see it.
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What we do know about Marie is that she was born into poverty. Her mother was a laundress and a drinker and her father was out of the picture. She had an older sister who didn’t make it into the ballet and eventually became a prostitute. Her younger sister became a ballet dancer of some note and then a respected teacher. As for Marie herself, she became a petite rat in the ballet and was eventually given a small featured role. But then she was fired and there was no further record of her life.
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In the number In Between, Degas (played by Boyd Gaines) first notices Marie (played by Tiler Peck) at an audition. The lyrics of this song so beautifully capture Marie’s attitude and circumstances — “the injured eye, the awkward stance, the transformation when she starts to dance” and “the rebellious little head toss”. Degas’ excitement at finding her is palpable in Mr. Gaines’ performance. We can feel how much this means to him, and we can anticipate the significance of what is about to come from their collaboration. And as for Tiler Peck, she can do it all. She disappears into the role of Marie and she sails through the choreography with the innocent spirit of a fourteen year old.
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Among the characters who populated Degas’ ballet paintings, there was a violinist accompanying the class. In Little Dancer we meet a young violinist named Christian (played by Kyle Harris). Stephen Flaherty talked about how this character was inspired by the musicians whom he’d met throughout his years of working in the theatre. Mr. Harris is endearing and mischievous as he flirts with Marie in Musicians, Dancers and Fools. Mr. Flaherty described Christian as being street smart and fast on his feet — not a conservatory guy. He sees himself in Marie — “Someone who dances to her own unmistakable beat.” Mr. Flaherty also spoke about his use of syncopation in the music performed by the younger cast members to showcase their youth and exuberance.
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Woven together with the behind-the-scenes stories of the lives of Degas and Marie, were the fascinating glimpses into how the story of Little Dancer came together. Ms. Ahrens and Ms. Stroman talked about their decision to add an older version of Marie (played by Rebecca Luker) to the story. She turns out to be a strong and powerful presence, because when she is on stage, not only do we see Marie experiencing her own life, but we can also see her older self reflecting on it.
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Ms. Stroman described Marie as having a bit of the Artful Dodger in her — she wasn’t beyond picking “a pocket or two”. In The Little Hole In The Wall Older Marie looks on as young Marie displays her trinkets for her little sister Charlotte (played by Sophia Anne Caruso) — trinkets that probably came her way either in an illegal fashion, or courtesy of an abonné, one of the black suited top hatted men who lurked on the periphery of some of Degas paintings. Abonnées were wealthy patrons of the ballet who sometimes paid the mothers for the company of the petite rats. In this number, Marie and her sister hide their treasures from their mother, and they dream of their futures as stars of the ballet. “That’s how we’ll get free!” The performance of this song packed such an emotional wallop. Ms. Peck and Ms. Caruso so beautifully portray the excitement and the innocence of young girls who are dazzled by their dreams. It’s the presence of Older Marie among them who deepens the emotions conjured in this song. In Ms. Luker’s performance, we sense that even with the hard knocks that Marie would have experienced with age, she still would have looked back on her life with no regrets.
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This emotion is intensified in Ms. Luker’s performance of Looking Back at Myself, in which Marie recalls working on the small role that she was given in the ballet. This song contains exquisite lyrics about the passion and determination that have to temper the fear and struggle experienced by those who choose this path. In a lovely closing moment, Ms. Luker raises her arms to a high fifth for just a split second before she assumes the stance of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
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This scaled down performance on the bare stage, combined with the stories told by the show’s creators, left me with a desperate longing to see the fully fleshed out musical. I hope that it makes it to Broadway soon.
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Little Dancer will be performed at the Kennedy Center in the Eisenhower Theater beginning on October 25, 2014.


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Misse and Centurion at Dardo Galletto Studios

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Gabriel Misse & Analia Centurion
Teaching Seminar at Dardo Galletto Studios
August 12, 2014

To lay my credentials on the table up front: I am not a tango dancer, nor did I have any prior experience or knowledge of tango before attending this seminar. I felt it was important to say this because Gabriel Misse ended this event by cautioning people not to go online and write about tango if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

So instead of writing about tango, I’ve chosen to write about my introduction to tango, and how I received it from two artists who revere its existence, its history, and its code. This event was graciously hosted by Karina Ramos of Dardo Galletto Studios in Manhattan, and facilitated by the charming Maria Quintanilla, who deftly translated for the dancers. The atmosphere was so lively and informal, and the conversation so heated and passionate, that the exchange of words lapsed casually back and forth between English and Spanish.

Gabriel Misse is the kind of artist and teacher you dream of. He can be stern and serious in one moment, pained by the disrespect that he feels is currently being shown to the tango of early 20th century Argentina. He’s animated and humorous in the next, challenging the audience with thought provoking questions about tango or taking to his feet to demonstrate a point he is making. His movement is pure elegance, even if he’s only standing still and holding his partner before the figure begins. Even as he and Analia Centurion were seated at the table fielding questions, their appearance was every bit as sophisticated as their movement is on the dance floor. In discussing tango, Mr. Misse speaks with reverence, and he would like to see the world maintain the same degree of reverence toward this art. We can see that this is something that he’s held as being sacred from the time he was a boy.

When asked who their tango idols were, Mr. Misse answered with an authority which would become the theme of the evening’s conversation. He voiced his respect for the artists and milongueros who took care of the tango and protected it, passing it down through the generations without selling out. He is not happy with the way that tango is currently being marketed in the United States and he voiced frustration that many younger audiences do not appreciate tango as it was in Argentina from 1917 through the 1950s, or disrespect it outright.

Both he and Analia Centurion named the work of Pupi Castelo as a great influence on their dancing. They showed grainy old videos of Pupi dancing with Graciela Gonzalez, while pointing out the small details that made their tango so beautiful.

Mr. Misse explained that tango is lead with the man’s arm, not with his chest. With Ms. Centurion, he demonstrated how the movement of his elbow leads one of her legs and his hand leads the other. He is troubled by the fact that today, in New York City, this technique is not being taught. Today teachers instruct the man to lead with his chest and the embrace sometimes breaks open so that a pose could be struck. “It’s the easy and lazy way that new people come to tango. If you learn to lead with the chest, within two weeks you’re dancing, but you’re doing it wrong.”

IMG_7421IEPerf21_7Both Mr. Misse and Ms. Centurion knew from an early age that their lives would be devoted to tango. He was seven when his love of tango began. At age eighteen he went to the milongueros themselves to learn tango. (He has a strict interpretation of the word ‘milonguero’ — he holds tango dancers to an extremely high standard and they have to earn the title. He claims that there are maybe five or six true milongueros left in the world today.) Ms. Centurion started studying ballet at age six, eventually attending milongas and learning tango there. She chose to leave school — she had often been absent because she was always dancing.

Both artists stressed the commitment and the holistic approach that they bring to tango. Their practice of tango is not something that they crank up each day when they come to the studio. Rather, it is their lifestyle. It’s in the blood and it’s part of them from the moment that they wake up each day. “Everything that life throws at you — you bring it to the tango.” As Ms. Centurion said, “You start getting in and then you can’t get out. You wake up thinking about what you’re going to wear.” Mr. Misse would spend eight hours per day working on his technique. He’d walk back and forth to better understand how the body moves. His feet are silent on the floor as he demonstrates figures. “Tango becomes part of your house. Not just at a milonga.”

Mr. Misse also stressed the importance of listening to the best orchestras, citing the music of Carlos di Sarli and Mariano Mores as among the best. He played several different recordings and described the importance of the voices and instruments over the beat. He feels that the devoted tango dancer should learn Spanish and understand the lyrics of the tango songs in order to properly dance to them. They must also understand and respect Argentine culture.

As Mr. Misse tells it, tango began around 1917, created in Argentina with influence from Napoletanos who had emigrated from Italy. It began as a dance of the people, danced in the streets. In the 1930s, it moved indoors to salons with smooth wood floors, and this gave the dancers the ability to turn and lead with the arm. Carlos Alberto Estevez, better known by the nickname Petroleo, had been a construction worker in Argentina. He was influenced by the motion of the pulley and he is credited with inventing the figures in which the woman revolves around her partner as he turns. A milonguero who didn’t perform on stage, Petroleo is credited as an important figure in tango in the 1940s.

Mr. Misse is not impressed with today’s world championships in tango. Too often the judges are competition organizers, singers, sports stars or inexperienced tango “experts”. Not milongueros. Both he and Ms. Centurion bristled at the idea that a competitor would arrive dressed in jeans and carrying their costumes. “You don’t change your clothes to dance the tango. You are always like this.”


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Boston Ballet at Lincoln Center

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Boston Ballet
David H. Koch Theatre
June 25, 2014
Photos courtesy of Boston Ballet
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The ballet fan living in New York City is a privileged person. We have two of the world’s finest companies presenting works on an ongoing basis each autumn, winter and spring. Many of the elite international companies have seasons here too, and the smaller theatres are full of young artists trying out new works. So it’s easy for New York City fans to become jaded, assuming that we’ve seen it all.
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It’s been more than thirty years since Boston Ballet performed in New York City. In recent years, I’ve read about their dancers here and there, but I knew very little about the company. So I came to the theatre on opening night of their New York City season without much in the way of expectations.
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But from the opening moments of William Forsythe’s Second Detail, I was presented with a company of artists who were as strong in their technique and as full of personality and swagger as any that I’ve ever seen. They are confident and in command of their instruments, dancing with the type of authority and precision that seemed nearly magical. To say that it was breathtaking would be an understatement.
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Second Detail is a stunning piece with great musicality and intricacies. The stage is brightly lit, the dancers are dressed in light colored cool gray leotards and the Thom Willems music can be rhythmic and noisy. The movement is fast paced and pulsing with high energy. Though the piece received its world premiere in 1991 and has become a staple in the repertory of National Ballet of Canada, it is new to New York City and it remains fresh and exciting. It represents an ideal of what ballet can look like in the 21st Century without severing its connection to its origins. Pace and directions change rapidly — quick footwork is followed by slow sensual melting movement. Classical port des bras transform into swooning or playful movement of the arms. Funky swivels of the hips, flirty jazz embellishments and everyday body language fuse seamlessly with the excitement of the ballet movement. Forsythe highlights the grace notes and small details of the music with original movement that just made me sigh at its beauty. There are brilliant accents and sharp poses emphasizing the long notes of the music as well as the rests.
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As for the dancers, I did not want to take my eyes off of them for a split second, especially given that the counterpoint to this piece is nothing short of dazzling. I found myself wanting to watch each section individually and then to see how it came together as a whole.

Mikko_PressImages2014.inddIn contrast, Jose Martinez’s Resonance is a somber romantic piece full of yearning. Lia Cirio backs out on to the darkened stage as if she’s hiding in a dark alley. She is wearing a navy blue dress and as she lifts her arms, she seems to be haunted. She is joined by six women who are wearing only navy blue camisole leotards, their movement expansive and searching, capped with achingly slow single pirouettes. A narrative seems to emerge — are the women facets of Ms. Cirio’s character or do they represent echoes of her past or her most raw emotions?
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The panels along the back of the stage move and keep transforming the space, sometimes revealing pianist Freda Locker who is playing the Liszt accompaniment live. (Alex Foaksman, stationed to the left of the stage, also provides live accompaniment on piano.) Lasha Khozashvili appears, performing slow high leaps that seem to hang in the air, and a complex series of turns which keep changing direction. He too is joined by six men whose leotards echo the gray in his costume, which might have been a uniform of some sort. As the dance unfolds, the ensemble takes on the costumes while Ms. Cirio and Mr. Khozashvili dance in leotards. At one point we are even shown the backs of the moving panels that make up the set, stripping away the artifice of the stagecraft involved, similar to the way in which the main characters shed their costumes. Dusty Buttons and Alejandro Virelles perform a more light hearted pas de deux marked by beautiful swooping lifts. Throughout the dance, it is in the soulful adagio movement that the dancers demonstrate beautiful artistry, almost as if they are slowing down time to show you every detail of the motion and emotion.
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It seems kind of ironic to be writing a review of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, the first dance that I’ve ever seen which is about art criticism. It’s a theatrical piece in which the dancers cast off their pointe shoes and are joined by a live orchestra, including an onstage string quartet playing selections by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler. The voice of a disembodied narrator sounds from the dark stage as the dancers, crouched on their knees, accompany the musicians with loud rhythmic breathing, slaps to the body, clapping, or pounding on the white square platforms beneath each one of them. Heads are covered with caps that resemble do rags and bodies are covered in nude colored leotards and baggy black capris. The dancers pose briefly to ham it up by flashing a smile at the audience. The fiddle playing becomes wild and passionate and the dancers whoop and chant while pounding the accompanying rhythm.
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The dance is pure entertainment and fun to watch. The boxes tilt on angles or stand up like walls as the dancing revolves around them. The unpredictable movement is athletic, exploding with energy. A series of quick duets are featured under spotlights while the rest of the stage remains dark. The dancers move with wild abandon, jumping, falling, torsos undulating, arms swinging.
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Halfway through the piece, the narrator recites a review of all we’ve seen up until that moment. It is pure parody, overwrought with adjectives, symbolism and intellectualism, which had me laughing nearly to the point of tears.
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I left the theatre feeling as if I’d just seen remarkable dancing performed by a world class company whose technique, energy, artistry and versatility did what Diaghilev is reputed to have once demanded of Cocteau: It astounded me.


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MorDance’s Second Season at Sheen Center

RV2A5811_7 MorDance
Our Second Season
May 17, 2014
The Sheen Center
All photos by Kelsey H Campbell
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MorDance is a young company of accomplished ballet dancers in the process of developing their unique voice. Their contemporary dances stay close to classical ballet roots. At Sheen Center, they presented their second season with a program of three pieces, each choreographed by Artistic Director Morgan C. McEwen.

RV2A5845_7In the opening moments of Ingress, three women press their outstretched hands against their partners’ chests as they enter the stage. Traces of that forceful image and the angles it creates are echoed throughout the dance, reaching a lovely resolution when the men fall back against the same outstretched hands, only this time, it’s as if for support. The dance is abstract without much communication between partners — they rarely meet each other’s gaze, at times moving as one larger entity rather than a set of partners. Motifs appear that remind me of floor combinations from the classical ballet class, before they veer off into compelling phrases of original movement. The women move in releve on straight legs, their focus on their feet, their straight arms circling in an exaggerated fashion as if keeping their balance, and it seems to echo the tentative steps that a young ballet student might take in her first pointe classes. At times the dancers are rooted to the floor in first position, their upper bodies briefly bobbing left and right, almost like a doll’s. In another phrase, the woman stand still while presenting classical port des bras, or a series of jetes from a petite allegro. Each phrase contains its own unique contemporary twist. At times, the dance looked a little crowded, which had more to do with the size of the stage of the Sheen Center than the choreography itself. I’d love to see these dances open up on a larger stage.

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Static Space is an athletic duet danced by Ms. McEwen and Jace Coronado. Both dancers are compelling — Coronado for his earthiness and McEwen for the apparent ease with which she combines robust power with ballerina grace and unpredictable patterns.

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For me, Jeu de Temps was the highlight of the evening. As the title suggests, McEwen plays with rhythmic phrases throughout. Shifts in weight and unexpected footwork patterns create hip accents of movement against the percussive accompaniment. The women dance in floor length skirts, and in one passage the dance takes on a MOMIX kind of turn as the skirts are lifted high over the women’s heads, allowing us to see them move only from the waist down as the skirt billows above, almost like the petals of a flower. I really enjoyed the way that Ms. McEwen showcased the individuality of each dancer. Their personalities emerge through the movement and this made the dance so engaging. We could feel a palpable reaction in the audience. Also especially lovely were the women’s sections, during which they moved together at close quarters in a sisterly fashion.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem at Rose Theater

Pas de Dix, Photo by University of Utah Marketing & Communications_7_capDance Theatre of Harlem
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
April 23, 2014
Program A
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Dance Theatre of Harlem made its comeback in 2013, ending a nine year hiatus brought on by financial difficulties. Since then, they have toured twenty-six cities at home and abroad. Their 2014 season at the Rose Theatre showcased a company of diverse dancers and demonstrated “how ballet can express the human spirit.”
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The Pas de Dix from Raymonda, choreographed by Marius Petipa and staged by Frederic Franklin was, as Artistic Director Virginia Johnson said, “a celebration of pure classicism.” On the bare stage, stripped of elaborate sets, the dance maintains its courtliness. The dancers are such a pleasure to watch. Each soloist brings such a beautiful quality of movement and unique personality to her variation. They carry off the petite allegro passages with precision and their limbs unfurl so beautifully in the slower phrases. Each dancer really stood out as an individual with his or her own endearing qualities, even in the sections which employed larger groups. I especially liked the part in which the women line up on stage with their partners in a row behind them. Arm in arm, they developpe forward, then the working leg passes back into penche. The unison movement is so lovely, and they perform it without that sameness that can sometimes make ballet seem a little too sterile. Chyrstyn Fentroy is especially breathtaking in the Seventh Variation. Her bourees seem to float above the floor and the liquid movement of her arms is mesmerizing, especially in one sequence in which she moves backward on the diagonal. Francis Lawrence’s bravura turn sequence drew huge applause.

past-carry-forward Davon Doane and Ashley Murphy, Photo by Rachel Neville_7_cappast-carry-forward is an original piece choreographed by Tanya Widerman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis. It tells the story of early 20th century African American migration from the agrarian south to the cities of the north. It opens with the sounds of birds chirping as a couple enters carrying suitcases, dressed in clothing worn in rural towns. They’re waiting for the train that’s going to take them on their journey. Their hesitation and trepidation is expressed sweetly in their movement. In the last moments before their journey begins, they both sink into splits and stay there, as if to symbolize the roots that they’ve put down on this land that they’re about to leave. We hear the sound of an arriving train, a motif that’s used throughout the dance.
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As the story of their city lives unfold, the piece moves through a series of exciting styles of dance to the accompaniment of jazz and swing. At first, there seems to be a jubilant tone — the women laugh together and four couples seem to have great fun letting loose, as if in a dance hall. The migrants take to the excitement of city life. But the celebration quiets in a heartbreaking manner when the suitcases are open and the men exchange their city attire for the uniforms of the segregated armed forces. Men and women part company. I especially loved the passage in which the men dance together. It’s got a muscular and athletic energy, alternately aggressive and compassionate. They march in formation, salute, and dramatize the movement of combat.
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A Pullman porter emerges, wearing a suit with white gloves, carrying another suitcase. As he works in a slow and methodical fashion, two show girls perform, waving batons, high stepping, flirting, upstaging each other and encouraging applause. There is a crackling sound to the accompaniment — kind of like the hiss on an old vinyl LP. At one point, the sound and the crackling stop completely and we hold our breath because the sudden silence is so dramatic. The narrative threads fall away and the piece continues as an abstract imagining of the ancestral imprints of all peoples, and what a world without racism would have been like, or would even be like today. I was deeply moved by the beauty of this piece.

Gloria #1, Photo by Matthew Murphy_7_capGloria was created specifically for the dancers of this new incarnation of DTH. Choreographed by Robert Garland, the piece includes young students of DTH School, and celebrates the spiritual legacy of Harlem. The dancers are clad in costumes in gorgeous shades of turquoise, teal and aqua green. The movement captures the big spirit of the music — formidable, awe inspiring and exciting. The choreography entwines ballet with phrases of swing and popular dance. Bourees are used to great effect, and the women sometimes seem to be ethereal spirits of another world. The dance employs beautiful classical formations. Da’von Doane and Ashley Murphy are extraordinary in Domine Deus, Rex Caelestis especially in the lifts and the final exit of this section. It was impossible to remain unmoved when, in the closing moments, the children line up downstage as the lights fade. The company faces the back and the children move upstage, arriving at the front of the lines, taking their place as the new generation of Harlem.


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Tony Morales – For You

DSC_8896_quiet_city_7Morales Dance presents
For You
An Evening of Traditional Modern Dance
The Ailey Citigroup Theater
April 18, 2014
All Photos by Rachel Neville
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Though they’ve been working together since 1997, Morales Dance is new to me. Yet from the opening moments of their concert, they had me captivated. They presented classic works and premieres, danced in a unique artistic voice, which took me through a gamut of emotions. There were several dances that, once ended, I found myself wishing that they could start from the beginning and be performed all over again.
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Quiet City, originally choreographed by Leni Wylliams, was danced by three couples to the Copeland piece of the same name. The movement is elegant, complementing the music so beautifully. Throughout the dance, there are passages in which the men strike poses that are sometimes static and unyielding, almost like trees, or like someone who has driven his lance to make a statement. The women, dressed in long floaty skirts, swirl around them. I loved the original movement, especially in the partnering, and I was so impressed by the Morales dancers, who move with an understated authority.

DSC_9081_pleased_jessica_black_7Tony Morales’ duet Pleased 2 Meet U showcased the talents and charms of dancers Jessica Black and Karina Lesko. I especially liked the call and response motifs, and the interaction between the two women. The dance could be light hearted and kind of balletic at times before it transitioned seamlessly into a more forceful modern style.
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Ablution is danced before projections of an image combining symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to a solemn and sometimes mournful accompaniment of JC Bach. Jerome Stigler performs this solo in ritualistic fashion. He is shirtless in a floor length robe, flexing and contracting, traveling and changing direction as if seeking communication (or communion?) with something ancient and sacred and elusive, or maybe even raising questions around faith. The closing moments of this dance are especially powerful.

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Morales’ Transitions, danced by Karina Lesko and Christopher Rudd, touched me deeply.  With her hair long and loose, Lesko seems like a spirit who hovers around Rudd as he stands still, his back to the audience. She seems weightless and ethereal, like a being from an unseen world, and there is a stunning mystical quality to her movement. Rudd pays little attention to her, and only seems to do so out of curiosity. She lays on her back and her feet move up his spine. She seems to beckon to him, not as a lover but as something that has gotten under his skin, like a muse, or like an idea that he needs to come to terms with. The Ravel music and the movement of the dance are both so lush. There is something incredibly beautiful and magical to this dance.

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Another emotion packed dance was Morales’ Amor Brutal dedicated to the memory of his father, whose music inspired the piece. It tells the story of a couple who are swept apart by destiny. The stage is dark, with mother and father (danced by Karina Lesko and Antonio Fini) sitting on stools under spotlights at opposite ends, their three children (danced by Jessica Black, Elaine Gutierrez and Cassandra Lewis) in the shadows in the center. Everyone is dressed in dark colors, except for the mother, who stands out in red. She does not look at her partner as she dances with him, until the moment when their dance is about to end. When she does finally look at him, he walks away. Passions flare to the sound of pounding piano chords, violence ensues and the couple go their separate ways. The break up throws each member of the family off balance and Morales creates beautiful still images of the mother and her daughters as she rallies their support. The girls lift her high, as if they see her in an exalted position, like an angel or even like Mary. There is a happy passage in which father charms his daughters into a dance, and predictably the children try to bring him back to their mother. The closing moments of this dance are heartbreaking, no matter how familiar they might be in so many families.

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Antonio Douthit-Boyd’s solo performance of Morales’ For You nearly drove me to tears. Set to Elton John’s classic Your Song, Douthit-Boyd expresses his love in gorgeous understated gestures. He could stand still, extend his arm and make a modest gesture with his hand, yet it is packed with meaning and affection. I am old enough to remember when this song was in the charts and I must have heard it over a thousand times. But Douthit-Boyd’s performance and Tony Morales’ choreography allowed me to experience it as if with new ears, and to enjoy it on a deeper emotional level.

DSC_0750_scenes_7The evening closed with Scenes, inspired by Jose Limon dancer Ruth Currier. In Ms. Currier’s obituary, Jennifer Dunning, writing for The New York Times, quoted Dance Magazine’s Doris Hering as saying that Ms. Currier possessed “angelic grace” and “a sound sense of phrasing”. This came through as Morales Dance, along with members of Ballet Forte, performed this breezy, lighthearted, joyful dance full of prances and jumps which to me seemed evocative of spring or rebirth. Though it sometimes used formal formations, the dance struck me as being earthy and plainspoken. I loved the sighing movement and the communal feeling in the opening section, which was also recalled in the last moments of the dance.


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Where Defects Are Virtues

And then I said, “Can I do the interview now, Don Pablo, because it’s getting late, and I have to go back to Santiago?” And he said, “What interview?” “Well, I came to interview you.” He said, “No way. I would never be interviewed by you. You are the worst journalist in this country. You lie all the time. You can never say the truth. You put yourself in the middle of everything. You can never be objective. And I’m sure that if you do not have a story, you’ll make it up. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?”

~ Isabel Allende on meeting with Pablo Neruda
from Democracy Now


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TAKE Dance at Galapagos Art Space

take_enTAKE Dance at Galapagos Art Space
Thursday, April 10, 2014

In the cabaret setting of Galapagos Art Space, TAKE Dance Company presented two world premieres, each one choreographed by a dancer from the company.

The dance made by Kile Hotchkiss titled I Only Recognize Your Face At Night has a dreamlike quality full of mystery.  In the opening passage, Gina Ianni is all restless energy, moving rapidly, changing direction, changing focus and traveling.  Her highly charged activity is interrupted briefly by lovely gestures, such as one in which she pauses and moves one leg forward, as if testing the water with her toes.  But even as she lays on her back, she cannot keep still.  Hotchkiss portrays her agitation with such imaginative phrases of movement.  Brynt Beitman joins her and the mood softens.  The two dance together to a stark accompaniment of sighing strings.  They don’t often face each other, though they seem to be reaching for each other in an other-worldly kind of way, like spirits passing in the night.  Beitman dances alone, sometimes pushing his head with his hand, sometimes with one foot moving the other, as if he is detached from his body and still working to manipulate it.  He uses a skating motion, and a series of taps across his chest.  I felt that the dance really captured the experience of dreaming, without ever resorting to being obviously romantic or menacing.

The feeling of dreams and spirits also seems to be present in Brynt Beitman’s Ode.  The piece opens with an ambient sound that could be digging in the earth.  Kile Hotchkiss bends backward, rubs his eyes, covers his forehead and then slumps.  When Kristen Arnold joins him, the dance becomes marked by lovely passages of rolling movement to a hypnotic accompaniment, as if a story is unfolding upon the waves of an ocean, or being propelled by an unseen energy.  The  partnering is exquisite.  In the quartet including Gina Ianni and John Eirich, there seemed to be an underlying current in which the movement of one dancer, usually Hotchkiss, influenced or propelled the others.  Ode contained beautiful and original movement and dancing, which was especially dramatized in some of the unison phrases.

somewhere_7_02Somewhere Familiar Melodies was even more fun than I remember when I first saw it on the tiny stage of Joe’s Pub last year.  A tribute to the pop music of Take Ueyama’s childhood in Japan, it’s athletic, artistic and full of high energy.  His choreography is tongue in cheek as his characters let loose, portraying various pop culture figures, such as cheerleaders, rock stars, martial arts masters and G-Men.  I love this piece from beginning to end and it was great to see it open up on the larger stage of Galapagos.  The entrances that were made from the audience took on a special quality as the dancers’ bodies were reflected in the pools which flank the main aisle of the floor at this venue.  And I’ve got to cite the dancers for their tremendous energy and artistry and the wide range of characters whom they portray.

I have a real soft spot for this company — they are one of my favorites.  I love the apparent ease with which Take tells the stories of life, from its most frivolous and humorous aspects to its most serious and heart breaking.  As I said good-bye to him and thanked him for the show, he told me that the dances created by Hotchkiss and Beitman inspired him in his own work.  It’s no small thing, the give and take between dancers and choreographers, and it was wonderful to see this company bring it to the stage.


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