75 dancers, 300 solos of work by Merce Cunningham on his 100th birthday, livestreamed.
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.
- Long Road Home, Company E, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington
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.”
- Paul Taylor Dance Company, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Vienna, Va.
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.
- Genius2 mixed bill, Washington Ballet, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington
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.
- CityDance Ensemble, Next, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington
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.
- Cinderella, choreography by Septime Webre, Washington Ballet, Warner Theatre, Washington
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.
- High Lonesome, Washington Ballet, Washington
The WB brings us seven sketches on the theme of love, some of them duets, others with more complex groupings. In the leadoff pair, Elizabeth Gaither reminds us that a dancer’s hands are an important expressive part of her instrument in Stephen Mills’s “Desire.” Adam Houghland’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” is a flirtatious punk-inspired piece for two couples, set on music of the same name by Soft Cell. The groupings in Nicolo Fonte’s “Aria 1&2” (music by Handel) are more complex: one woman and three men, arranged into a two-man pair with the other man and woman providing an ostinato behind, followed by a reversal of figure and ground. After the break comes the Philip Glass-scored “2 Long 2 Love,” a lush, dangerous piece by Nejla Y. Yatkin danced in soft slippers on a deck strewn with red paper rose petals: a man, a woman loved, and a woman spurned. After this piece, the company appears with dust mops to Zamboni the dancing surface in preparation for “Falling Away with You,” choreographed by company member Jared Nelson. This is a sharp, fast, go-for-broke piece for two pairs, well-executed by Runqiao Du, Aurora Dickie, Corey Landolt, and Giselle Alvarez.
- 7×7: Love Duets, Washington Ballet, England Studio Theater, Washington
There’s a lovely passage in Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (1988) where something happens that you don’t often see: the dancers look down at their feet. The ballerinas on pointe, arms outstretched, step forward daintily, their eyes demurely cast down, as if they were moving from one rock to another to cross a mountain stream in spring spate. That’s the fresh feeling of this ensemble piece, set on Virgil Thomson piano etudes.
After spring must come summer and fall, and both of the latter seasons are represented in the superb There Where She Loved (2000) by Christopher Wheeldon. Cheery sexy pieces set on Chopin songs (performed by soprano Kate Vetter Cain with Glenn Sales’s accompaniment) (e.g., Brianne Bland’s post-coital joyful rolls on the floor) alternate with dark ruminations on love gone wrong by Kurt Weill. The most heart-breaking of these is “Surabaya-Johnny” (wrenchingly interpreted by mezzo Shelley Waite): serially monogamous Luis R. Torres dances through three girls, Diana Albrecht, Morgann Rose, and Jade Payette. Unfortunately the background scrim created some nasty moire patterns when it was hit by the follow-spot.
I have a weak spot for Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (1982), and not in a good way, as it is scored with some of the worst late-career excesses from the singer Frank Sinatra, chief among them the smug attitudinizing of “My Way.” But it’s hard to resist Erin Mahoney-Du as the comic drunk girlfriend who won’t leave the bar, her trapeze dress failing to stay in place to cover her bottom, in “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Or the adolescent fumble of “Somethin’ Stupid” by Maki Onuki and Zachary Hackstock. Ball gowns for the women, designed by Oscar de la Renta, are stunning.
- Genius!, The Washington Ballet, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington
The comfy seats in the Harman Hall steeply-raked balcony have extra-high backs.
With the theme of Shakespeare, it’s not surprising that two of the pieces in Washington Ballet’s latest installment of 7×7 feature spoken-word accompaniment. But it is a couple of the wordless pieces that are the most effective of the evening.
Trey McIntyre’s Queen of the Goths, drawing on two scenes from Titus Andronicus, ends with a saucy flourish. quick bright things, by Matthew Neenan in response to a line of Lysander’s, is a colorful romp for six.
In Lovers Speak, Brianne Bland and Runqiao Du dance a meaty, muscular adagio duet by Matjash Mrozewski. As their bodies intertwine on the floor, there’s a strong sense of intimate improvisation.
The standout piece is by Cathy Marston, scored by Henryk Górecki: Whispers recounts Hamlet’s scene from Act III with his father’s ghost and Gertrude in her chamber. Third-season company member Zachary Hackstock gives an agile, expressive performance as he is called upon both to partner and be partnered. This is lean-forward entertainment that you can’t get from a screen.
- 7×7: Shakespeare, Washington Ballet, England Studio Theater, Washington
Washington Ballet continues to make improvements to the friendly confines of its England Studio Theater. Stepped risers (that apparently stow away like a trundle bed) now allow for six rows of seating (and every seat has a back). Sight lines are pretty good, though seats on the extreme right and left lose sight of some of the far upstage action.
The local company returns with a glorious restaging of Septime Webre’s signature work, Carmina Burana, preceded by the company première of Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses. Wheeldon’s exploration of biomorphic forms (scored by György Ligeti) demands strong partnering by Luis Torres and Jared Nelson, while Sona Kharatian and Jade Payette display silky arms with steely strength. And how often do we get to see a ballerina use her fingers to such good effect? Payette and Kharatian evoke spiny critters of the ocean deeps. Mark Stanley’s lighting effects (recreated by Joshua Michaels), achieved by coloring the cyclorama while pulling open slits with the upstage travelers, are top-notch.
The magic spectacle of 1999’s Carmina is recreated with a full staging. Members of the Cathedral Choral Society and Children’s Chorus of the Cathedral Schools are arranged on industrial scaffolding, forming a U on the deck, altogether making four layers of dancers and singers, with two followspot operators on a tier above them. (Unfortunately, some of the stage machinery at Thursday’s performance was not noiseless.) The “Tanz” passage, a dance with pushbrooms used to clear the deck of rose petals strewn across the stage in the preceding dance, retains its sexy wit. The soloist for “Olim Lacus Colueram” eloquently thrashes, to evoke the throes of the roasting bird. And the reprise of “O Fortuna,” as the soul (much-buffeted Jason Hartley) binds himself to Fortune’s wheel and ascends into the heavens, is still a heart-breaker. Special recognition to vocal soloists Laura Lewis, soprano; Robert Baker, tenor; and Stephen Combs, baritone.
Charles Cave offers a wealth of background information on the “scenic cantata” that is Carmina Burana, debuted in 1937 by composer Carl Orff.
- Carmina Burana with Morphoses, Washington Ballet, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington