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Maria Kowroski in Balanchine's "Mozartiana." Photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- Because off-Broadway theater has long proved essential to this city's artistic life, "off-Broadway dance" should not be considered a patronizing term for what is offered away from City Center and the gilded confines of Lincoln Center when major companies are between seasons. One reason I would hesitate to apply the term to recent spring offerings of the Juilliard School's Dance Division, however, is that this institution's renovated home, the Irene Diamond Building, is not only on Broadway but a stunning steel and glass addition to the neighborhood. Another is that the program "Juilliard Dances Repertory" (March 23-27), by including Bronislava Nijinska's rarely seen but historically essential 1923 setting of the Stravinsky powerhouse "Les Noces," made a stunning contribution to our artistic life out of all proportion to its occasionally raw, unflaggingly dedicated performance by 34 students.

Jerome Robbins once said that he would never have created his "Les Noces" if he had seen Nijinska?s first. American Ballet Theatre premiered the Robbins version on March 30, 1965, in the New York State Theater; Leonard Bernstein conducted four singers, a chorus, four pianists and a percussion battery backed by an Oliver Smith setting of towering Russian icons. (Reportedly, Robbins had regularly left the ABT corps in tears after most rehearsals.) I was there that evening, and I can assure you the electricity generated by this performance could have run the theater for a week. When Bernstein relinquished the baton for all subsequent performances, the current dwindled alarmingly.

Although the Juilliard students danced to a recording and the duplication of the original Natalia Goncharova backdrop proved surprisingly bland, the "Les Noces" performed in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater was wholly treasurable. Howard Sayette's staging more than sketched in Nijinska's relentless matching of Stravinsky's chugging-motor energy. Nothing matters more than energy in this rugged masterpiece. Robbins naturally inserted some show-bizyness, such as having both mothers of the soon-to-be-wedded couple dancing the "loss" of a child. Nijinska choreographed a fleeting solo at that point only for the mother of the bride. Robbins also showed the groom's marriage broker setting up future nuptials among the youths. Nijinska spurned the opportunity to pad the roles of a bit player and concentrated on the corps' tectonic shifts and tightly knit groupings. We are truly indebted to Sayette and Juilliard and its indefatigable, gutsy students for their dedicated performance of probably the least performed ? because it is the most challenging ? of the masterpieces created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Eliot Feld's "Skara Brae" (1986) for 19 dancers and Mark Morris's "Grand Duo" (1993) for 14 were included on the Repertory program. Neither stood a chance at holding our attention coming after a steamroller like "Les Noces."

Juilliard?s senior production concert (April 20-26), performed in the black-box Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater, concentrated on dances created by student choreographers under mentors Risa Steinberg and David Parker. My ever-hopeful expectations on these occasions were met by exactly one of the seven offerings, which I insist is an excellent average, under the circumstances. Zack Tang's "Launching Into the Void" looked ominous on paper, set as it was to a text, Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art: Fear," imposed on Max Richter's score, "On the Nature of Daylight." In 2008, Tang had been content to dance his own solo "Answer in Silence" while a pianist played Debussy. 'Launching' had five dancers constantly moving to a recording of musicians accompanying an orotund speaker (drama student Corey Antonio Hawkins) declaiming a cosmic text ("the cold void of starry space").

To my surprise, Tang successfully avoided the potential for unintentional farce lurking in such material. Helped no end by the intimacy of the Willson, Richter's steadily surging score seemed expansive enough to support Pressfield's starry inspirations. Tang's steps for his student quintet created a darkly roiling mass with an intriguing life of its own. 'Launching' was doubly impressive because it didn't overstay its welcome at the end of a particularly gamy program. I am eager to see what Tang can do with other material, and I hope he always has a cast every bit as responsive as classmates Roman Cruz, Melissa Fernandez, Gentry George, Nathan Makolndra and Casia Vengoechea.


Juilliard Dance students in Nijinska's "Les Noces." Photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy Juilliard.

Unintentional farce was flawlessly realized farther downtown in Baruch College's Mason Hall, when Lumiere Ballet offered Venti Petrov's "El Cid" (April 23). Proudly described as a "new classical story ballet," it was danced to taped music from Massenet's opera plus such interpolations as 'Meditation' from his "Tha´s" and "Elegie." A glance through the program could trigger hilarity, but embedded as I was in an audience eager for a vanity production, I passed up all opportunities to laugh out loud. According to their bios, almost all the dancers were either students or have bounced from company to company. (One, for example, is described as having danced for Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Coyote Dancers, Catherine Gallant Dance, the American Bolero Dance Company, Cuadro Romeria Flamenca, Danzas Espanola, and Ballet Fiesta Mexica. Another, according to the program, "performed on four continents" with Kansas City Ballet, Momix, South African Ballet Theatre, Ballet Tucson, Quixotic Performance Fusion, the Chase Brock Experience, BalletX, Peter Kyle Dance, Ballet NY, and the Metropolitan Opera. Petrov, also Lumiere's principal dancer and ballet master, listed at least eight affiliations: Arizona Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Arlington Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, New Jersey Ballet, Omaha Ballet Theater, Connecticut Ballet, Nouveau Chamber Ballet, and Sioux City Ballet. An ominous exception was Jeremy H. Canade; he joined Connecticut Ballet in 2010 after "leaving his previous position as a mutual funds analyst.")

Production values were low; there was no scenery and the costumes were rented. The stage was bare except for curtains hung across the back wall. Props created a problem in this spartan setting. When a toast was drunk in Act I, the goblets had to be left standing on the floor. Eventually each was surreptitiously whisked away by a departing dancer except for one that remained on duty like a tiny sentinel on Stage Left until intermission. Bigger props such as weapons provided aural distraction. During the undermanned battle fought in Act II by four guys in hot pants with broadswords and shields, the clonk of wood on wood replaced the ring of steel. Was the abrupt appearance of six odalisques in Act II due to the costume warehouse's having offered a really good deal on harem costumes?

The makeup budget must have skimped on wigs and beards because everyone onstage seemed to be pretty much the same age. The crucial duel of honor that our hero Rodrigo (Petrov, naturally) must fight with Don Gomez, father of his beloved Jimena, lost considerable gravitas when this patriarch looked more like a randy kid brother than an aged parent. Still, Tanner Schwartz's fiery energy as this miscast was welcome. Gabriela Gonzales's alluring Jimena had its merits as well. No; we are not impressed. Petrov?s fatal gift for generic choreography was all too obvious. How he might have danced when he possessed ballon, line & charisma was anyone's guess.


Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasa in Balanchine's "Who Cares?" Photo copyright Erin
Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

Full-time professionals were out in force for the April 25 benefit Dance Against Cancer, produced by New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht and Erin Fogarty, director of programming for the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and performed in MMAC's black-box theater. Five companies were represented -- City Ballet alone supplied eight of the 19 dancers -- plus three free-lancers. And if anyone doubted that the occasion qualified as "a gala," there were two pianists and a violinist on hand to occasionally supplement the inevitable taped music.

Occasionally the quality of the dancing exceeded that of the choreography. One selection from "Love Songs," a group of pas de deux set to Aretha Franklin and Roy Orbison recordings and ominously credited in the program to "Lance Keigwin with the Company," would have been sufficient. Four 'Songs' apportioned out to a quartet of Keigwin dancers was the kind of gift I return at the earliest opportunity. I also could have done without "Little Rhapsodies," Lar Lubovitch's prissy solo to Schumann, well danced though it was by Lubovitch company member Attila Joey Csiki, to pianist Kathy Tagg's accompaniment. Attila Bongar's "A Memory," a gentle pas de deux to Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G-Flat, performed by Bongar and fellow Carolina Ballet member Lara O'Brien, won't make it into the history books, but the fact that there were two dancers named Attila on the same program just might.

Miami City Ballet's sensational former dancer Alex Wong should have made the headlines for the way he tore through Rachael Poirier's high-flying solo "747" to music by Moloko. (Don't ask.) You would never have guessed from his tautly muscled torso and unstoppable virtuosity that Wong had been sidelined a year ago after snapping a hamstring on "So You Think You Can Dance." "I go for physiotherapy twice a week," he told me. "I'm okay."


Alex Wong in Rachael Poirier's "747." Photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

A less strenuous but similarly gratifying solo was Earl Mosley's "That's Alright," made to the Dave Brubeck recording for the Ailey company's Matthew Rushing. Although he performed in a business suit with both feet on the ground much of the time, Rushing's sunny artistry and personality shone through regardless. His infectious smile was working at full wattage. His ever-rippling musculature under his solemn garb proved as witty as it was awesome. Rushing said that on the first day of rehearsal, Mosley, whose parents had died of cancer, began creating a very gloomy work. On the second day, he decided a benefit audience deserved a joyous solo and began working on just that. The rest was up to Rushing, who delivered big time.

Co-producer Ulbricht set himself no easy task by dancing "Tatum Pole Boogie," a solo that he had set to an Art Tatum recording. (Its pun-ishing title should be blamed on the pianist.) Ulbricht?s solution for matching his footwork to the fingering of this master was rapid-fire virtuosity bristling with alarming difficulties. If a series of chainé turns proved just the thing for a particularly glittering passage, Ulbricht not only danced each with unbroken clarity but topped off that feat with a slashing high kick as effective as an exclamation point!

It should be noted at this point that the enveloping intimacy of MMAC's little theater contributed no end to the considerable impact of the evening. If you didn't know that City Ballet's Maria Kowroski and former Royal Ballet dancer Martin Harvey were lovers when you saw them begin the passionate pas de deux Christopher Wheeldon had made for the third act prelude to the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Bizet's "Carmen," you certainly suspected it by the time their pairing concluded just a few yards away.

Excerpts from familiar works in City Ballet's repertory gained immensely from the up-close-and-personal scrutiny not permitted at Lincoln Center. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall's negotiation of the intricacies of Wheeldon's pas de deux from "After the Rain" earned new respect for them and Wheeldon. Pianist Cameron Grant and violinist Artur Delmoni's mastery of Arvo Part's pointillistic score was as well timed as ever. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar's ardent performance of 'The Man I Love' from Balanchine's "Who Cares?," which pairing Lincoln Center has yet to see, was the intriguing novelty that every self-respecting benefit should provide.

Without in any way denigrating the dedication and artistry of the performers, all of whom donated their services and many of whom had lost loved ones to cancer, I must credit Kowroski and Balanchine with the evening's most mesmerizing achievement. The 'Prayer' which opens "Mozartiana" has rarely held an audience to such hushed attention. Tchaikovsky's flawless orchestration of a Mozart a cappella motet was duplicated on tape. The four School of American Ballet children, intended by Balanchine to impart monumentality to his muse, Suzanne Farrell, were not present. Kowroski -- discovered in the dark, advancing on pointe until she reached the closest she has ever been to an audience, miming prayer with clasped hands, unfurling her ever-undulant line with luxuriant ease, radiating a beauty that arrived in waves -- needed no help. Did I call this performance "an achievement"? Please make that "an experience."

The audience stayed around for free food and drinks before going home with gift bags containing "Dancers Against Cancer" T-shirts. The American Cancer Society took home some $29,000.


The spring performances of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (May 10-11), official training ground for American Ballet Theatre, successfully put as many students as possible onstage at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse without leaving the audience numb with boredom. JKO instructors Susan Jaffe, a former ABT principal, and Raymond Lukens achieved this goal respectively and splendidly with "We Insist" and "Jerusalem Divertissement."

Ever-shifting patterns of light and a similarly moody score by Zoe Keating afforded Jaffe repeated opportunities to put her students' technique and artistry to one rewarding test after another. Lukens helped himself to lighter fare, the ballet music Verdi crammed into "Jerusalem," his 1847 revision for the Paris Opera of "I Lombardi" (1843). Several of these jaunty tunes bobbed up in the merry potpourri Robbins assembled for "The Four Seasons" (1979). JKO fledglings Gabrielle Johnson, Fernando Duarte and Shu Kinouchi bobbed up in both ballets to acquit themselves repeatedly. Kinouchi went well beyond the call of duty after he suddenly collapsed in the midst of a seemingly unchallenging step. (Right. What do I know about "challenging"?) After a frightening moment of utter immobility on the floor, he arose to continue his solo with a la seconde turns. I ran into Kinouchi a week later outside the Metropolitan Opera House during ABT's current season there. He was not in a cast or on crutches but one foot was encased in what looked like an oversized ski boot. I thanked him for his gallantry and asked how he was doing. He said he was doing okay.


No one fell during the benefit performance of the School of American Ballet's Spring Workshop (June 7) at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, but long-stemmed honor student Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara came close. She almost spun out of control while scrupulously attempting to match conductor Martin West's accelerating tempo at the conclusion of 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' from Balanchine's Gershwin masterpiece "Who Cares?," but she made it to the wings on two sparkling feet to a tsunami of audience affection. The usual SAB virtues of dedication, schooling and modesty were on display throughout the evening. I would have welcomed more of JKO's edgy professionalism among the nine men, led by Harrison Bell, in Peter Martins's "Les Gentilhommes." The women dominated Balanchine's relentless "Allegro Brillante." Few moments this evening were more gratifying or touching than when Angelica Generosa amid the turmoil of 'Allegro' came languidly off pointe, surrounded by four corps sisters who duplicated her feat with equal grace. What does the future hold for such lovely young people who have worked so hard acquiring these precious, evanescent skills? The 44 little girls in tutus who pranced around in Robbins's setting of Stravinsky's "Circus Polka" had an easier assignment. They just had to be adorable as they set about forming the composer's initials. They succeeded.


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