Misse and Centurion at Dardo Galletto Studios

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.”

Both 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

Boston Ballet
David H. Koch Theatre
June 25, 2014
Photos courtesy of Boston Ballet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

In 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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

Our Second Season
May 17, 2014
The Sheen Center
All photos by Kelsey H Campbell
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.

In 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.

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.

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

Dance Theatre of Harlem
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
April 23, 2014
Program A
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.”
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 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.
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.
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 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

Morales Dance presents
For You
An Evening of Traditional Modern Dance
The Ailey Citigroup Theater
April 18, 2014
All Photos by Rachel Neville
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.
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.

Tony 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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

The 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 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 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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Nai-Ni Chen in Rehearsal

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
Open Rehearsal at Red Bean Studio
Friday, March 21, 2014
photo by Joseph Wagner

On April 26 and 27, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will be presenting A Celebration of Live Music & Dance at the Salvatore Capezio Theatre at Peridance Center to mark their 25th Anniversary New York Season.  This week Ms. Chen hosted an informal open rehearsal at Red Bean Studio, where she talked about her work and took questions from her guests.  I love events like these because they go such a long way toward helping me, as an audience member, have a deeper appreciation of the work being presented.  Based upon this small sampling of dance, I can tell you in all confidence that this looks like it will be a fantastic concert.  Each dance will be performed to live musical accompaniment.

The company presented an excerpt from Ms. Chen’s Concrete Stream, to music by Kenji Bunch which will be performed live by The Ahn Trio.  Part of this work involves Ms. Chen taking on the challenge of creating a “true physical integration”, not only between the dance and the music, but also between the dancers and the musicians.  She made the deliberate decision to showcase the way that a cellist or violinist might move to bring expression to their music.  She imagined the musicians seated in different corners of the stage while a vessel of water sits at the center.  The dancers will flow like a stream around the musicians and the vessel.  This dance contains such a beautiful vocabulary of movement, describing all the sensations one would feel while watching water, or being immersed in it, or maybe even being water.  We see how a rush of water might affect a person’s balance, or how it might bring us back to our primitive origins, or how it might inspire us to prayer.  There are gorgeous trills on the piano which sound like lovely little droplets of water.  In one especially beautiful passage, the dancers roll softly over one another and across the floor on the diagonal, creating moving images of the stream itself.  Ms. Chen also dramatizes the more aggressive aspects of water in strong athletic passages.  There is wonderful chemistry among the dancers, beautiful counterpoint and partnering.

Whirlwind depicts the effects of an unseen outside force on a group or a landscape.  The energy moves the dancers, not only through the physical world, but also from one dimension or passage through to another.  As the dance opens, six dancers stand apart from one another on the diagonal, each facing the same direction.  There is a distant drone in the music that conjures the feeling of a faraway energy drawing nearer.  The dancers don’t leave their spots, yet they are drawn toward this energy or blown back by it.  They remind me of a country field of tall grass rippling on the wind and the dance seems to breathe on its own.  At times the movement is very slow and hypnotic, rising and falling and never stopping.  I saw this piece performed at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts last winter and its spirit has stayed with me all this time.  It was such a treat to see it again.

For their New York Season, the company will present the World Premiere of Not Alone, a work that Ms. Chen is still in the process of creating.  Improvisation from the dancers figured heavily into this piece.  They spoke with enthusiasm about their processes, including an exercise of improvisation in an art gallery, working out how to express through the body just how one approaches a wall and studies a painting.  Maybe it’s a function of my having spent a lot of time in the subway, watching how others behave when they’re in their own secret worlds, or how they treat those around them — but some of the groupings that I saw in this dance reminded me of formations of people that I’ve seen in the subway.  I found the staging and the movement of this dance to be really original, very compelling and full of surprises.  Each dancer seemed like a soloist with his or her own story to tell, even within the ensemble passages.  I’m looking forward to seeing this dance when it’s set and performed in concert.

Ms. Chen was so down to earth and forthcoming as she talked about her work.  I especially admired the ease with which she spoke about embracing the unpredictability that will come in the final days of rehearsal, especially concerning her decision to separate the players of the Ahn Trio on stage, and how this will work in terms of the musicians being able to hear one another.

Having seen this rehearsal, I’m reminded of how fond I am of this company.  Ms. Chen’s work so beautifully incorporates elements of the unseen world and the natural world in movement that is so imaginative.  Her dancers are like a dream — each one is a strong and intensely focused versatile individual in his or her own right, yet the chemistry among them is really something to see.

Tickets are on sale now for Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s 25th Anniversary New York Season – Saturday, April 26 at 800 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 300 p.m. at the Salvatore Capezio Theater – 126 East 13th Street – New York, New York – 800.650.0246

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Collaborations – Periapsis Music & Dance

Periapsis Music & Dance
February 14, 2014
Kumble Theatre
All photos by Rachel Neville

Periapsis Music & Dance bridges the gap between living composers and choreographers.  Artistic Director, composer and musician Jonathan Howard Katz collaborates with Artistic Director, choreographer and dancer Leigh Schanfein in creating original works.  Their second season demonstrated their unique mission by having music played live on the stage as part of the  dance performances.  For this season, they also invited guest choreographers and composers.

The program opened with a Periapsis piece titled Marionettefadendurcheinanderwalzer set to original music by Jonathan Howard Katz.  The dancers move like marionettes, rising up on pointe and performing lovely phrases before turning limp and robotic, sinking on knocked knees, or collapsing to the floor.  The gorgeous music veers back and forth from dreamy abstract atmospheres to pretty lyrical melodies.  From this very first piece, all I could think about was how wonderful and special it was to have original music played live on stage and how well it worked with the contemporary ballet performance.

Ursula Verduzco presented the Benjamin Briones Ballet in the world premiere of Pushing Mud.  For this piece, the piano is stationed at the back of the stage in one corner, while a cellist and violinist play in the opposite corner.  This makes the diagonal across the stage a strong element in the composition of the dance — all exits and entrances and much of the traveling seemed to move along that route.  Ms. Verduzco dances the role of an outsider, one excluded from the group, either by her choice or theirs.  She falls into place when the company fills the stage, but the dance describes  her character as never quite managing to coalesce with the others.  Her movement is sultry and dramatic with flamenco elements in the rolling gestures of her hands and wrists and the regal carriage of her chest and head.  Her port de bras are luxurious and beautifully expressive.  A strong actress, she can also conjure expressions of grief and frustration, both on her face and through her movement.  The group travels together, sometimes at very close quarters, while she observes from the sidelines.  There is a moody and somber feel to the music, perfectly complemented by the drama of the dance.  I especially loved the sweep of the closing phrases of this piece.

unguarded also received its world premiere.  The dance is choreographed by Tucker Davis, and performed by him and Denise Miller to live percussion played on stage by Sarah Mullins.  The flirtation between the dancers is quirky, cute and very artistically done.  I appreciated the cleverness with which the dance tied in to the music; a cymbal crash sounds to punctuate a humorous phrase of choreography or the movement explodes as the drums rumble.   Ms. Miller and Mr Davis are full of personality.  They don’t shy away when it comes to taking risks, and they make wonderful partners.  The dance never seems to be taking itself seriously and yet it’s performed in such a strong and distinctive artistic voice.

The Unfinished Pattern is choreographed by Leigh Schanfein and performed by Periapsis. In the opening sequence, one dancer stands in a spotlight while another stands in shadows.  The two perform their movement in unison, but the lighting creates two distinctly different atmospheres.  Schanfein’s choreography is gorgeous and lush — a ronde de jamb on the floor suddenly turns inward with a bent knee, and it feels as if the story being told has just taken an abrupt turn.  The dance has a lovely rolling feeling against the percussive phrases in the music.  There is lovely detail in unexpected places, using the shoulders, the wrists and the hands.  The larger company is exciting to watch too.  I was impressed by their technique, their artistry, and the heart with which they dance.

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Da’ Von Doane was named as one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch.  His contemporary ballet Behind the Veil received its world premiere.  The dance weaves through classical and contemporary movement, flowing with earthiness and elegance.  A trio of bare chested men are muscular and sometimes aggressive, moving seamlessly through powerful explosive movement into slow controlled adagio phrases.  They accompany Raven Barkley, who dances with great strength and power.

Lut Ave Dontralus comes out of The Julliard School.  Three vocalists take up different stations around the stage as they sing.  Joseph Davis and Cleo Person, both dressed in white, perform a high energy modern duet which weaves around the vocalists.  The dance is edgy, full of quick and sometimes aggressive movement, which changes direction rapidly.  Ruth Howard’s choreography beautifully complements the details of the original composition created by Zachary Green.

The program closed with Laid Upon the Children, based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, specifically the party scene and the crypt scene.  This piece is another collaboration between the artistic directors of Periapsis.  Mr. Katz talked about Ms. Schanfein’s wanting to present swing dance in the party scene, and his taking on the challenge to compose a swing section, even though he wasn’t used to composing jazz.

The first section, Too Like the Lightning includes staccato movement with flexed feet and hands.  Couples travel the floor in unaccustomed ways.  They weave through well recognized ballet phrases then move in new directions, sometimes in parody of the stiff court dances that we sometimes see in classical ballet.  The swing section is great fun, and the dancers seemed to enjoy performing it as much as the audience enjoyed watching it.  It is in this scene where Romeo and Juliet first see each other across the crowded room.

The crypt scene, Grace for grace, is heartbreaking and beautifully performed by Tucker Davis.  A strong actor, Mr. Davis lets us feel his grief without any great displays of histrionics.  He dances with the lifeless body of his Juliet (Hannah Weber), dragging her, crawling under her, trying to get her to embrace him, doing everything he can think of in futile hope of animating her.  A very emotional and sad piece, well acted and danced, especially at the very end.

I love the mission that Periapsis Music & Dance has undertaken, to bring living composers together with choreographers and dancers.  It is carried out beautifully by the company’s very capable ADs.  Though they are a young company, they appear to have assembled a good sized repertoire in the two years that they’ve been working together.  I found the choreography and dancing to be very compelling and the music to be magnificent.  I look forward to seeing where they take things from here.

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