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New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- After a temporary blip in my bludgeoning, er, burgeoning French theatrical career Friday night -- Sam Bernhardt, c'est moi -- I was glad to be back in the cultural thick of things Saturday, finding myself sitting next to Meredith Monk at Judson Church on Washington Square for the afternoon's Gathering in Tribute to Jill Johnston, a real gathering of the tribes, and School of American Ballet legend Suki Schorer Saturday night for an impeccable "Dances at a Gathering." Add a Lower East Side interlude at the Woodward Gallery on Eldridge Street, where artist Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk not only made the scene but made her own frames, and there was once more reason to believe that New York is still a many-splendored art capital, with a rich past and cause to be confident in its future.

The gathering for Jill, whose Jill Johnston Letter we have been elated to be able to syndicate on the Dance Insider since 2005, was the best type of memorial, one that, while certainly providing space for mourning and tears, also captured a life -- in this case, better than most obituaries of Jill have done. Highlights for me included the Baroness Helene Kennedy, an Irish member of the House of Lords and an attorney for Julian Assange, who recounted the day Jill telephoned her to inform her she'd been selected to revenge the Americans against the British (translation, help Jill establish the paternity of her absentee Brit father Cyril Johnston, who helped introduce the carillon to North America, and the quest for whom marked the last decades of Jill's professional life; the young man who recalled Jill and spouse Ingrid Nyeboe as Charles Street neighbors, and how Jill would often call him on an observation he might make with, "What exactly do you mean by that?"; performances by Pauline Ontiveros and Randy Weinstein and, on screen, a ripped Steve Paxton in his own "Goldberg Variations"; and the lanky MC Geoff Hendricks playing John Cage's "4'33," the first time this piece -- a few notes on carillon played here on the G&J Carillon from Riverside Church, intermingled with silence -- made sense to me, providing in effect several minutes of reflection in between three or four bell tolls. (Ask not for whom the bell rings out clear and true, it rings for Jill.) On a more personal note, Jill's granddaughter Amanda spoke on screen from London about the traits she's inherited from her grandmother, and Ingrid concluded the afternoon with projected slides of Jill, her, other family and an abundance of storybook Valentine's and birthday cards, demonstrating that in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take.

"Girl with a Black Mask in a Red Room," 2005. Acrylic on canvas in handmade metal frame. By and ©Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk, courtesy Woodward Gallery, New York.

I had some time before the ballet, so before heading uptown I stocked up on fromage at East Village Cheese (3rd between 9th and 10th, and the best prices this side of the Atlantic), Manhattan makings at Astor Place Liquors on Lafayette (I am here), and bok choi and black bean sauce on Grand Street in Chinatown, before returning to art by entering the Woodward Gallery around the corner at 133 Eldridge, just up the street from Vanessa's Dumplings. In fact, at first I thought maybe I got the address wrong, as this street is dominated by tenements and stores selling exotic Chinese edibles, but there it was right at street level, a small door leading into a vast and open gallery space, this night celebrating the opening of an exhibition of the works of Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk called "Curious Sanctuary." The work is fine -- succinctly summarized as simple women in intimate settings, exotically (in my view; the artist might not characterize it that way) depicted. What intrigued me, though, as I turned a corner on the far side of the gallery and sat down on a light wood bench against the wall, plopping down my bag of groceries next to some spilled wine, was the painting facing me on a partition a few feet away -- or rather, the frame. This painting too, an acrylic, is fine, a simply elegant portrayal of, as the title says, a girl with a black mask dangling from the back of her head. But the frame is not accidental or randomly chosen. A pewter color, it includes, on the top, an almost three-dimensional Day of the Dead-style skeleton, crawling along the ground or in this case, the top of the image. I returned to the entrance, where Kristine Woodward was welcoming guests, to ask her about the frame selection -- all in this exhibition seem deliberately chosen -- and she confirmed that the artist herself had made it. Later, Van Ouwerkerk explained to me by e-mail:

"I love the metal Mexican frames and I love the images from the Day of the Dead. I wanted to try to make my own Mexican-type frames and use the pressed-tin process to have my images in the frame surrounding the painting. I thought I could connect the English Victorian subject matter of the painting to Mexican frame imagery from the same time period. I just picked simple images to press into each corner of the frame and either a design/pattern or a Mexican/ religious image for the top piece. The metal is probably a mixture of metals that they call stainless steel, but it is not. It is light gauge enough to press and poke holes through. The colors come from powders, paints for metal, kinds of wax that I rub on, sand off, scratch off and then manipulate."

Before heading uptown, I asked Woodward why the gallery had bucked the SoHo to Chelsea migratory wave and decided to head further south. "The Woodward Gallery re-opened on the LES in May 2007," she said. "We moved from our SoHo gallery of 15 years because the once edgy neighborhood had lost its soul. The LES is gritty with a melting pot of cultures. It is alive and vibrant -- and unassuming. We found our space in 2006 and opened before the New Museum's grand relocation. We took a risk as pioneers to the neighborhood, but are very happy that we did. Most recently we expanded our Project Space that has been directly across from the gallery and opened a cafe behind it, Panade Cafe at 132 Eldridge Street."

New York City Ballet's Megan LeCrone and Andrew Scordato in Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

I left the women and their frames to hop a meandering uptown B train for Columbus Circle and nearby Lincoln Center, where more finely etched women, sitting next to me, framed by the New York City Ballet stage, and both elevating and elevated by the work of, particularly, Jerome Robbins, were awaiting me.

I'd been gravely disappointed with my first "Dances at a Gathering" of the season, but the company redeemed itself Saturday with a rendering that had me taking note of stellar outings in passage after passage until I finally, at the end, turned to my seat-mate, the afore-mentioned La Schorer, and exulted, "There was not a weak link in that cast," starting from Joaquin De Luz, who from the first entrance of the piece cast the gambol as a memory by scanning the space with his eyes, with just a wisp of melancholy before the reverie began.

As far as reveries, is there any dancer at City Ballet -- at least that I've seen -- that evokes this more than Rebecca Krohn, notably here when paired with Sebastien Marcovici? And in a trio with Tiler Peck and Abi Stafford, the reverie became twice as lyrical. For the men, give De Luz credit also for a new Spanish matador face-off element to a duet with Tyler Angle, but the anchor was surely Marcovici, especially in group sections, to which he lent not just his physical stature but dramatic substance. And, if one should never forget the musicians, here one has to give pianist Susan Walters equal credit for a virtuoso performance of the Chopin music. (The other virtuoso dancers: Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Adam Hendrickson, and Christian Tworzyanski.)

As if this wasn't enough, Saturday's 'Dances' also shed light on another question that's been nagging me: Has Maria Kowroski gone brittle, even at times vulgar compared to the last time I saw her prior to this season, about eight years ago? She bordered on the latter in the earlier 'Dances' I saw, and here, seeing the -- I'll say it -- sumptuous Sara Mearns in the same role, that of the girl in green, silky, smooth, and above-all seamless, I'd have to say that yes, Kowroski has a new brittleness I hadn't seen before, and which is knocking serious chips off her musicality. Even in Saturday's performance of Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," to Charles Gounod, she may have moved but wasn't moving, at least not in a lyrical fashion. The seams (of her dancing I mean) were showing.

Megan LeCrone, by contrast, in another long-hair Balanchine ballet, "Symphony in Three Movements," was positively bouncing, with that kind of off-kilter stance that shows a dancer is living on the edge of danger and breathing that same tenor of vivacity into dance and music. Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, in the central duet, were suitably serpentine. I'll grant the off-white unflattering costumes (especially the bottoms -- small wonder their designer isn't credited, who'd want to be?) may have something to do with it, but that bouncing opening corps still comes out looking like an aerobics class, although this time they got better later when they had to slowly unfold their arms in a vertical line.

Me, I danced a straight one home, thinking about dancers who know how to master form and line and journalists, like Jill Johnston, who celebrate breaking them.

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