We’re back in the theater!
- Studio Theatre’s Victor Shargai Theatre
- Workhouse Arts Center
- American University Greenberg Theatre
- Vienna Baptist Church
- Shepherdstown Opera House
Bonus out-of-town venue: Steppenwolf Theatre Company mainstage.
We’re back in the theater!
Bonus out-of-town venue: Steppenwolf Theatre Company mainstage.
I have become mildly obsessed with Mantovani’s anodyne arrangement of “Charmaine,” perhaps the epitome of easy listening/elevator music. When I worked on Clybourne Park, it was one of the songs on Jim’s mixtape. I’ve just finished reading Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music, which has a few additional tidbits about the song (I wish that Lanza had included song titles in his index).
What has been nagging me is the dance performance that I alluded to back in my 2016 post: I could not summon any memories of it, except bland white background paper, dancers in black, and a burly, bearded male dancer crossing his arms in exasperation. What was the company? Not Mark Morris, although the dancer had a similar build. Where did I see it? Probably at the Kennedy Center.
And then comes Brian’s Siebert’s story on the long-running collaboration between Alex Katz and Paul Taylor.
With the rift behind them, Katz and Taylor continued their mischief. “I said to Paul, ‘You’re so good you could choreograph to elevator music,’” Katz recalled. “And Paul said, ‘I’m not dancing to that trash.’ And three months later, he said let’s do it.” This was “Lost, Found, and Lost” (1982), a brilliantly funny piece with chic black costumes, a flat white stage world and recycled bits of “7 New Dances.”
Yep, the $100 Jeopardy! answer, Paul Taylor Dance Company, whom I have probably seen four or five times.
A hat tip to Angela Kane and her catalogue of Taylor’s works, which confirmed that “Charmaine” was indeed part of the score for this dance.
It was quite a pleasure to see a full evening’s program from Company E, after having seen this young modern-dance organization at the VelocityDC Dance Festival showcase. The opener, the duet “Alma,” introduces an intriguing twist: the floor is liberally scattered with Granny Smith apples. Finding a way to execute the piece within this self-imposed structural obstacle makes for a dance with a fresh, improvisational vibe—quite satisfying. The piece also flirts with that silly pass-the-orange game that our hip parents used to play. (The company has filmed a site-specific version of “Alma” at a temple in Shanghai.)
“Jerky Boy’s Dream,” a premiere, takes us into mid-century pop dances: frugs and jitterbugs. If the choice of music is uneven (The Tijuana Brass is lovely camp, but really, do we need to hear Mrs. Miller?), the fourth dance of the suite, in which the pair manipulate each other like love-struck marionettes, is very sexy.
Paul Gordon Emerson’s “Falling” is a beautiful signature piece for the company, executed this time by Vanessa Owen and Robert J. Priore: an insistently yearning, driving movement from stage right to left, with holy music by Arvo Pärt.
The evening’s other premiere, the ensemble dance “Dialogue of a Portrait,” is powered by late-century techno by Autechre and others. Seven dancers gradually amass in a tight pool of light before bursting into hard-edged, robotic movement: this is what social dancing will look like when there are twenty billion of us on the planet. But let’s hope we’re not wearing this unflattering makeup.
Roslyn Sulcas profiles five top dancers with New York City Ballet.
The Taylor company opened its one-night visit to the D.C. suburbs with Brandenburgs (1988), a last-minute replacement for the planned Also Playing. This is one of Taylor’s lovely pieces that achieve such stunning effects with simple gestures—a group of dancers executing simple two-foot turns while rotating in circle, but blindingly fast. Certain of the stage pictures look stylized and flattened, as if Taylor was looking back to an even more distant classical period, his dancers glazed onto the surface of a Greek krater. There’s a ankle-shake ornament that the women do that’s an answer to the musical accompaniment (movements from the J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concertos), sort of a choreographic mordent.
We received the first Washington performance of Phantasmagoria, set on compositions from the Renaissance period, a stew of folk dance and bawdy hijinx wrapped around a poison mushroom of death. Signature Taylor is a dance for four men who comically fail to execute cleanly: as the bumping and shoving degrades into fisticuffs, this bransle has become a genuine brawl. Less effective is another Taylor trope, the Bowery Bum who provides the piece with its second ending.
The evening closes with the powerful Beloved Renegade (2008), inspired by writings of Walt Whitman and scored by passages from François Poulenc’s Gloria. The dance was commissioned in memory of James Harper Marshall by his family. For the most part, this is the Whitman of “The Wound Dresser,” the poet of somber joy who found a path to glory amid the world’s suffering and pain. By turns balletic and vernacular, the piece is a celebration of the mystery of life. Laura Halzack is majestic as the spirit who eventually carries away Michael Trusnovec’s poet in “the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.”
Here comes the sad but inevitable news that Merce Cunningham has died at the age of 90.
Four enjoyable pieces from Washington Ballet, emphasizing the strength of the company’s ensemble work. In Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, an elegiacal group piece sprinkled with some challenges to traditional gender roles, and accompanied by Glenn Sales at the piano, I was impressed by fifth-season company member Zachary Hackstock, who danced his solo breaks with especial power and brio. But reprising this piece from only last season seems an odd programming choice. After the first break: a clean reading of Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses—with its interesting lighting effects achieved with cyclorama and travelers—by the quartet of Sona Kharatian, Luis R. Torres, Jade Payette, and Jared Nelson; then a fluid duet by Kharatian and Nelson in Cor Perdut, by Nacho Duato. The evening closes with the spunky Baker’s Dozen, a dance for twelve by Twyla Tharp. The strongest effect in this piece are the masses of dancers rippling across the stage, dressed in white, the women in low character shoes. It’s a casual piece, perhaps to a fault, as it doesn’t seem to come to a proper ending. Pianist Sales didn’t seem to have the right mojo for playing Willie “The Lion” Smith.
The refurbished Eisenhower Theater is quite beautiful, the walls faced with warm wood acoustic panels and the seats equipped with the generous armrests that also featured in the Opera House renovation. The awkward enclosure for lighting instruments on the face of the balcony has been removed. Unfortunately, the theater’s setup is more than a little clumsy for musicians playing from the pit, as there appears to be no backstage access (granted, the Ike doesn’t serve the same purposes as the larger space); house management has to shepherd them through the auditorium at intermissions. Although I miss the interlocking E’s of the red act curtain (a plain blue one replaces it), the decoration on the proscenium provides an allusive pattern.
Some highlights from CityDance Ensemble’s mixed bill of six works by choreographers new and old:
The evening begins with a period piece, Sophie Maslow’s Folksay (1942), set on folk songs in the Woody Guthrie tradition and spoken word, in part by Carl Sandburg. The opening dance is a genial barn dance with flexed feet, punctuated by alarmingly vigorous foot stomps, the more so for the feet being unshod. Musicians Andrew Ratliff and John Ratliff perform the score on voice and guitar, and gamely execute certain passages of down home banter that would make the writers for Hee Haw blush. Still, there are some sweet passages, like the phrase, “Sometimes when I think about you, I think my heart will strip a gear.”
The evening then shifts into a darker mood, much of it costumed in black slashed with red. Han (2006/2007), scored in part by taiko drums and choreographed by company artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson, is typical of the company’s strengths: high energy, go-for-broke phrasing, themes of struggle. Jason Garcia Ignacio does well with Jason Hartley’s Nocturne Monologue (2003), a dimly-lit, muscular sketch with allusions to yoga postures as well as classic dance poses.
The evening closes with the most wide-ranging work, Christopher K. Morgan’s Ties That Bind (2002). There is a particularly lovely, languid passage in which a pair of women exchange energy almost as easily as if they’re doing a warm-up improvisation—hints of Pilobolus here. There are also human puppets, an odd solo with a parasol and veil, and a section that could be read as a particularly nasty game of Red Rover.
The standout dance, however, comes in the first half: Kate Weare’s Drop Down (2006), masterfully performed by Giselle Alvarez and Maleek Makhail Washington. Set on a score by Katie Down that sounds like sonically processed Astor Piazzolla, it’s a breathtaking power struggle of a duet. Equal parts deconstructed tango and exercise in especially violent martial arts, the opening sections are marked by a slow/snap quick rhythm. The climactic section takes place mostly on the floor, and is all the more powerful for having nothing but silence backing it up.
The surprise star of this production, set to a supremely danceable score by Sergei Prokofiev, is the role of the Jester, who stirs up the merrymarking at the Prince’s ball. At Saturday’s performance, Chauncey Parsons danced the role with aerial brio. James Kronzer’s set also deserves mention: silvery birches frame all of the scenes, even the palace, setting an other-worldly feel; the effect of a dozen clock faces descending from the flies on the foretold stroke of midnight is also very impressive.
Not that it will make a difference, but let me state a wish that the Warner would rethink its food policy (it’s acceptable in the house). The noise of crackling snack wrappers in the balcony was, at times, a noticeable distraction.
The afternoon’s two pieces from the company repertory, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Choo-San Goh’s Fives serve as reminders that some rules are to be broken. In Fives, it’s the rule that dancing must be set to music, for some of the most interesting passages come early in the piece when the ten ballerinas have nothing to sync with but themselves and their own breathing. Similarly, Balanchine achieves some stunning effects even when his dancers are motionless, in preparation. Jason Hartley’s dives to the floor in the “Melancholic” variation belie the truism that ballet is about pretending that gravity doesn’t exist, and Jared Nelson gives us a buttery-smooth “Phlegmatic” variation.
Hartley’s floor-tumbling prowess also works well for him in Trey McIntyre’s semi-autobiographical High Lonesome, set to music by Beck, a series of sketches of family dysfunction. Jade Payette, in the kid sister role, catches some serious air.