Serenades, plainspoken and otherwise, from Balanchine & Millepied

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New York City Ballet’s Ask la Cour with, left to right, Rebecca Krohn, Jenifer Ringer, and Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Harris Green

NEW YORK — City Ballet broke with several traditions by beginning its new season with four weeks of early fall performances (September 14 – October 10). The traditional opening-night gala was delayed until the middle of the fourth week so seats that first evening could go for the special introductory prices of $50 and $25. Repertory included such novelties as the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s recent “Plainspoken” on October 7 and revivals of Peter Martins’s rarely performed “Grazioso” (2007) and “The Magic Flute” (1982). Also out of the ordinary was an aggressive merchandising campaign built around a posh 9-by-12-inch booklet filled with studio portraits of principal dancers which was available for the taking in the theater lobby. Photographer Henry Leutwyler filmed everyone in casual poses and garb a la People Magazine. Most of the men are sporting the scraggly beards the guys insist upon growing between seasons. Daniel Ulbricht, however, is not only clean shaven, but the one dancer whom Leutwyler captured performing an actual step: a soaring 180-degree split leap, with ballerinas Teresa Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin and Sara Mearns seated on the floor behind him. (Yes, seated.) Letters to the editor and postings online promptly deplored the devastation such informality wreaked upon the dancers’ images as golden, gifted beings, so unlike us folks out front. Frankly the only dancers’ images that matter to me are those they create onstage.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on November 3, 2010, including lots more photos, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider  and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Through June 30 it’s pay as much as you can subscriptions. (Minimum $12.)

The Buzz: Philistines at the temple — The unbearable lightness of Alastair Macaulay

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on December 6, 2010. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a yearly subscriber. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check. Through June 30, it’s pay as much as you can subscriptions. (Minimum $12.)

In a feeble attempt to counter his being called out by myself and others over his latest cat-calling masquerading as criticism, in which he snipped that New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle, seen in “The Nutcracker,” must be eating too many sugar-plums, Alastair Macaulay has now made it clearer than ever how unqualified he is to be a critic. How long is his shameless employer the New York Times going to continue embarrassing itself and denigrating the high arts of dance and criticism by setting loose this unqualified intellectual feather-weight on a major high art?

In a response to my and others’ criticism published in Saturday’s Times, Macaulay’s attempt to justify his picking on performers for what he considers to be their excess pounds actually backfires, instead revealing his own lack of substance as a critic and total lack of understanding of what art is all about.

“Go to any gallery and you see how painters and sculptors for centuries have made fat an issue,” Macaulay writes. “The nudes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Renoir show women with curves that are no longer part of any fashionable idea of beauty. Venus or Diana had a belly like that? I love most of them myself, but I have friends who object. Either way, all of us acknowledge that weight plays a part in our response.” What you mean ‘Us,’ white man?

Not content to confine his philistine perspective to one art, Macaulay is now angling to become the Times’s resident village idiot on the visual arts (which is not to insult the village idiot, who would be expected to be less judgmental). This statement has got to be the most idiotic I’ve ever read from the mouth of an alleged critic. It’s almost hard to know which idiocy to start with.

The ‘issue’ for Renoir was not ‘fat,’ but how to use nature (chiefly light), matter (his painting tools), his own technical prowess and aesthetic perspective, and his human subjects to make a work of art. And a critic is not “all of us.” His or her role is to evaluate the work of art — how, and how well, the artist uses the tools of his trade to capture the subject, be it on a canvas or on a stage, how effective the work is as art – and to respond to it, tapping on a range of his own individual intellectual, aesthetic, poetic, and sensory resources.

“Some… have argued that the body in ballet is ‘irrelevant,’ Macaulay goes on. “Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career…. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.” No Alastair: If you can’t tell the difference between appearance and art, between surface sheen and technical virtuosity, do not choose criticism as a career. And the problem with you is not that you are too severe, but that you are so superficial. The only legitimate weight problem here is the featherweight quality of your pen and your intelligence.

 

Hot off the boards….

josephine barbican 3Aki Tsujita in Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point.” Foteini Christofilopoulou photograph courtesy the Barbican.

LONDON — The muffled, thudding beat of Tim Hecker’s ambient sound score reverberates through our bodies — it’s like the noise you might hear waiting outside a cool nightclub. The dazzling bank of lights rotates towards the audience, blinding us before diminishing and plunging both stage and auditorium into darkness. Smoke fills the stage and laser lights shine down on it from above to create giant cones of mist. This is the hypnotically dramatic opening to Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point,” seen at the Barbican on May 26. A male dancer emerges from the claustrophobic gloom upstage and walks meditatively into one of the cones, fluidly progressing through a series of sculptural poses, working within the confines of the translucent edges. He leaves as two women emerge and take up position in the other two cones. In slow motion they sink to the ground then rise up again, turning, then repeat these motions, their mouths gaping open like gargoyles from an ancient civilization. Their physical language mixes Butoh, contemporary and Eastern ritualistic dance. It’s strong and grounded.

British choreographer and visual artist Johnston works with perception-altering visual and aural effects in “Zero Point,” which takes its name from Quantum Physics’s notion of ‘trapped’ space. Video projections, motion sensing digital technology, and trancey music transform the stage into another galaxy while lighting effects unzip the darkened stage into geometric sections for the dancers to perform in. Even time seems to be momentarily suspended.

“Zero Point” is a work that has been inspired by Johnston’s residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi, Japan. His cast of nine Japanese dancers who collectively draw from a range of disciplines including ballet, contemporary, Butoh, and Qigong are alumni of Tokyo’s New National Ballet, Sankai Juku, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and the Forsythe Company. The mixture of styles is performed with a contemplative quality and presence that is inspired by Buddhism and sacred Japanese ceremonial spaces. Movement flows in repeated cycles, with frozen poses pausing the tempo and the performers embodying a theatrical neutrality and modesty. Energy is contained and protracted through their bodies. There’s a welcome stillness and an aura of calm about them but also a lack of humanity. Sitting in the auditorium, I feel distanced from the performers and yearn for a fuller immersive experience.

Loose narratives of re-birth are played out through duets between Yatsutake Shimaji and ballerina Hana Sakai. He carries her onstage then makes her come to life, his hands hovering over her body, commanding her actions as if she’s his puppet. She ascends from the floor and extends to her full height on pointe, before gliding towards him as if under his spell. In their partnering Sakai and Shimaji create imaginative tableaux, but the use of balletic lines, while visually striking in the fractured light, lacks the earthy connection that is seen in the shapes of the contemporary and Butoh dancers. The demanding, ambitious Western associations of ballet jar awkwardly with the selfless Eastern spiritualism of the work as a whole. This balletic duet is also annoyingly patriarchal and while the other women move as equals to the men, with their freer expressions, Sakai does not, restrained by both her partner and her discipline.

While “Zero Point” is a reflective and inventive work which can easily seduce, choreographic ideas feel somewhat undercooked.

Museum dance from a Gauguin muse

gauguin chicago smallAmong the work on view for the exhibition Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist, opening June 25 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it continues through September 10, is (above) the artist’s oil painting “Te nave nave fenua” (Delightful Land), circa 1892. Musée de Grenoble, bequest of Agutte-Sembat, 1923. Copyright Musée de Grenoble and courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

The DI, Year 1: Tantra Tarantula? Pilobolus’s Misogynist Spidey Sense

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods

(First published on June 17, 2000. Today’s re-post of the complete article is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet, Freespace Dance, and Slippery Rock University Dance.)

DURHAM, NC — It’s not the first time that spiders have wound up in a dance. The tarantella, that literal Italian dance craze of the 15th century, originated from a belief that its moves cured the venomous bite of the tarantula. Nineteenth-century heartthrob Lola Montez achieved notoriety through her signature “Spider Dance,” while Leo Staats’s “The Spider’s Feast” won Parisian hearts in 1913.

But “Tantra Aranea,” Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken’s erotically charged new duet for Pilobolus Dance Theater, uses the mating behaviors of orb-weaving spiders as the unlikely lens for revisioning elements of Hindu spiritual practice and Japanese mythology.

Stay with us here. In this new American Dance Festival commission, which premiered in North Carolina on Thursday night at Page Auditorium, Pilobolus once again looks to the natural realm for insights on the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in that: Over the centuries, agenda-laden readings of the natural world have been used to justify a number of curious institutions.

But it is telling — and disappointing — that where the original Hindu chroniclers of Shiva and Shakti’s greatest hits envisioned transcendence through sexual union in the Kama Sutra, Barnett and Wolken’s arachnophilic take on that text ultimately finds one thing: the very high price of satisfaction.

That is, if you’re a guy.

“Tantra Aranea” invokes that tired canard, the monstrous feminine, in a world where men can’t trust women or sexuality. Why? Because maneaters only decloset after orgasm.

How useful. And how very original.

The result negates the Indian sacred text, in what at points seems an unintentional exploration of male erotophobia.

Though both Angelina Avallone’s costume for dancer Josie Coyoc and the initial moments of Anwar Brahim’s guitar accompaniment seem almost Castillian, the physical dialects here soon place matters in the sub-continent.

The gracefully beckoning hand gestures in Matt Kent’s initial entreaties to Coyoc seem directly taken from sacred Indian paintings of the idealized god and lover, Krishna. The resulting love-play of the two is tantric and sexually frank; a vivid, libidinous, steamy celebration of heterosexual pursuit, capture and imaginative physical recombinations.

But the briefest of fates awaits the male after sexual union in the spider world. Here it’s not Shakti the consort who mates with the love god — it’s Kali, the destroyer, who is rarely met without cost.

Kent and Coyoc arouse us, first with playfulness and then with passion, as Barnett and Wolken give the pleasures of the flesh their full moment in arresting choreography.

But Nirvana’s price is steep in this natural — but less than perfect — world. And the endgame of “Tantra Aranea” leaves entirely open the question of its worth — along with the choreographers’ attitudes towards women.

We’ll warrant that the recombination of Hindu myth with amateur arachnology is novel enough. But the end result here — soft-core porn, tastefully served, with a misogynous twist — is really anything but.

Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. He has previously written for Backstage, InTheater, and CitySearch.com.

Taking it higher: Dance Ed

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