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Letter from New York, 5-2: From Petersburg to PoMo
A Ballet Gold Standard and Mettlesome Postmodern Baser Metals
By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr
NEW YORK -- The legendary company from St. Petersburg danced a three-week season at City Center, where the stage could barely contain its lavish classical productions (reviewed here). But for the program (April 15-17) which featured the ballets of William Forsythe, the stage size was just right, and the repertoire choices showed a nice balance of his work.
In the April 16 performance, "Steptext" (1985), which deconstructs theatrical convention -- house lights out, stage lights up, dance to the music -- begins while the house lights are still on with a male dancer (Alexander Sergeev) onstage in a wide second position, doing a stretchy, lunging phrase. A second man (Mikhail Lobukhin) enters, as the house dims, and repeats the phrase. A snatch of Bach's Chaconne from his Partita No. 2 in D minor blasts on. During the course of the piece, the lights black out at random moments, the front curtain even descends and rises again midway through.
Tall, rail-thin Ekaterina Kondaurova in a neon red unitard wags her arms in intricate semaphore, downstage left. The men pass her between them, tilting her at rakish angles, flipping her into shockingly splayed extensions. These Forsythe ballets are all about physicality, and here, the Kirov dancers' hyper flexibility and technical prowess adds drama to the motion, rather than obscuring the expressive intention, as it sometimes does in the 19th century ballets.
"Approximate Sonata" (1996), the most modernist piece, paired with "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" (1996), a dazzling exercise in classical allegro step making comprises the second portion of the evening. In "Sonata" -- a series of five duets for four couples -- Andrey Ivanov begins a long solo by walking towards us, grimacing and talking to himself in Russian. Finally, Elena Sheshina joins him for a brief duet passage. In the fifth duet, the recapitulation of the A theme, the same couple returns, but this time they start as a couple before Sheshina launches into her long solo that ends the dance. In between, Ryu Ji Yeon and Sergey Popov, Yana Selina and Alexey Nedviga, and Kondaurova and Maxim Zyuzin pair up. The women sport black leotards over bare legs, except for Yeon, who wears chartreuse pants; the men wear plum shirts and blue pants. The score is by Forsythe's frequent composing collaborator Thom Willems and features a breathy female singer.
In the edifyingly titled "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" three women and two men embellish the sunny finale of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major with a cascade of allegro jumps and turns. Stephen Galloway's stylish costumes dress the women in flexible discs that parody traditional tutus. "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" (1987), perhaps his best-known ballet closed the evening to Willems's pounding, piercing score. The ballet for six women and three men presents the lexicon of Forsythe's sliding splits, compound turns, and contortionist extensions in an array of duets and group rallies. After the exhilarating kinetic barrage, it concludes with a flashy duet and simultaneous upstage solo that implies we've seen just a slice of a continuum that continues after the curtain has fallen. If only we could keep watching!
Stephen Petronio Company
What makes Stephen Petrionio's dances so appealing, especially to New York audiences -- apart from his savvy choices of high-fashion costume designers, trendy musical scores, and sensational lighting by Ken Tabachnick -- is his distinctive slash-and-rush movement vocabulary, unmistakable in a vast sea of generic postmodern choreography. Limbs slice the air like blades, legs propel dancers through space in bouncy sautés and contorted arabesques, torsos wring and flex as they go along for the high-speed ride. The dancing is as subtle as it is vigorous and as rigorous as it is relentless.
For his latest return to the Joyce Theater (April 1-6), Petronio -- who is no longer performing -- presented two premieres that showed his ability to turn his distinctive style to different expressive ends. In "Beauty and the Brut," Benjamin Cho's skin-baring outfits -- Native American-inspired bone vests, shawls, and sarongs -- along with Tabachnick's sun-drenched light evoke a beach where opposites attract, like willowy Shila Tirabassi and compact, muscular Jonathan Jaffe or tall, spiky-haired Julian De Leon and ebony spitfire, shaved-headed Davalois Fearson. Original music by the hot musical duo Fischerspooner (Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner) incorporates fragmented text that adds emotional inferences to the dancing.
The other premiere, "This is the Story of a Girl in a World," is a suite of five short dances, set to recordings of the sweet vibrato of Antony Hegarty's singing, alone and together with Lou Reed's surly growl, and with composer-of-the-moment Nico Muhly. The dance blurs gender lines in a dynamic solo for Fearson wearing a deconstructed men's suit (costumes by Tony Cohen) and dancing to "For Today I am a Boy" -- a transsexual lament -- and a trio, set to "Candy Says," featuring De Leon and two women, all wearing identical shifts. Amanda Wells does a ravishing solo in silence that captures female power with a sensuous, sinewy, fluidly articulated, nonstop spill of motion, lit sculpturally from above. And in a funny duet Elena Demyanenko and Michael Badger in brief bikini and Speedo, respectively, pose, chat, grin, and pinch their own nipples.
The finale uses Petronio's familiar compositional devices, such as the line-up that disintegrates in various provocative ways. But here, he employs it with more sophistication than in the past. The limb-flinging counterpoint phrases create a density of movement that seems like more than just his eight miraculous dancers.
Also on the program was a reprise of "Bloom" from 2006, using original music by Rufus Wainwright, sung by him recorded and the Young People's Chorus of New York City live, conducted sensitively by Elizabeth Nunez.
Israeli-American choreographer and beloved New York ballet teacher Zvi Gotheiner invents the most wonderfully infectious steps, reminiscent of the joyous folk dancing of his heritage, and sprinkles them liberally throughout his dances. The latest outing for his 11-dancer troupe at the Ailey Citigroup Theater (April 23-26) showed two premieres -- one a solo for his long-time dancer Elisa King -- and the reprise of a 2007 dance that provided the usual delights of (and frustrations with) Gotheiner's work.
In "Personals," the dancers represent contemporary singles, looking for love in all the wrong places. Todd Allen pumps and primps like a Chelsea gym rat; Jocelyn Lorenz is the coyly shy "good girl," Ying-Ying Shiau, a ready, steady career girl; Allison Clancy wriggles and prances like a party doll; lanky Jimmy Everett is a sporty young exec; and Kyle Lang, in shorts as maybe a yoga instructor, shows off his great legs.
The dancers sit in the first row of the audience when not onstage, so they're us, rushing on to parade and pose, flirt and pout in triumph and dejection. Nobody really gets lucky, although Rommel Salveron gets to grope Kuan Hui Chew in a long, tangled duet. Salveron and the women line up, fidget and grin, and then move one space down in a speed-dating scene.
Some of the characters are more specifically drawn than others, and some of their interactions advance the "plot," but typically, Gotheiner's episodes lose focus, and he retains a lot of what feels like filler. The strong editing hand of a dramaturge could trim the fat and tighten "Personals" into a more concise, more gripping dance.
Elisa King has been with Gotheiner for years and still dances with quicksilver attack, but in her solo, "Sleeves," the movement is truncated by the green dressing gown she's wearing. The relentlessly fast-paced movement also leaves us no breathing space to take it in. When, after just three minutes, King pauses and starts to remove her robe, it seems the dance is ready to develop, but it's over, leaving us in mid-breath, puzzled, wanting more.
What's appealing about Gotheiner's 2007 "Gertrud" -- a tribute to Gertrud Kraus, his first dance teacher -- is the bouncy, kinetic group dances, the projections of Kraus's dance drawings and diagrams, and a snatch of a demented performance by her troupe on film that closes the piece. Everett and Lang do a funny imitation of the apparently stylish, sociable, didactic Kraus. But the repetitious sections in which dancers speak her words, instructing others what to do simply stall the dance and leave you wanting less.
Leine & Roebana
The Dutch company named for its founders (Andrea) Leine and (Harijono) Roebana brought "Sporen" ("Traces") to Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church (April 25-26) as part of a U.S. tour. The physically taxing choreography challenges the four female and three male dancers with its go-for-broke vehemence, odd coordination, and stretchy, contorted shapes. The physicality is undeniably engaging; we empathize with the dancers' intense effort and concentration, as they hurtle through space and stop short, lurch and slide in stocking feet, shoot their limbs like death rays into space, and undulate their torsos, as if their spines were sine waves. The choreographers know how to get the most from their talented group.
A textured, coarse wool panel, hanging at the altar end of the architecturally handsome colonial sanctuary, catches the light (designer not credited) in fascinating ways, transforming the space from intimate to grand, sunny to mysterious. A rich musical collage that ranges from Henry Purcell and William Byrd to Pierre Boulez to John Zorn and Hammerhead provides wildly varied aural textures. Changes of costume mark separate sections, but all the clothes are in muted colors -- blue, gray, beige, black, and white -- and simple, unadorned styles. Long, white dresses, slit up the back give the women an austere, monastic look; the men, too, wear skirts in one section. Full-cut trousers, shifts over slacks, sleeveless T-shirts and trousers change looks without specifying character or period.
The choreographic couple invents their vocabulary by coming up with tasks for the dancers to solve. Text or music can also inspire movement. But finally, it is all purely abstract. Choreographic devices like starting a new passage with the final move of the previous one or rotating unison pairs among three or four dancers or juxtaposing simultaneous, unrelated duets, underline Leine and Roebana's skillful choreographic manipulation. But patching together excerpts from various dances created between 1994 and 2003 to make "Sporen" makes the energy of the piece feel repetitious; all the sections have a similar dynamic profile, and the relentless high energy -- whether moving fast or slow -- leaves us kinetically sated without being emotionally satisfied.