LINES We Draw: Reflections on Alonzo King LINES Ballet at the Joyce (5 May)

The necessity of flight.

We must – when we jump out the window –  learn to develop very agile wings on the way down.

You can’t fall halfway.

For the first second of falling it always feels as if you are ascending.

What a splendid thing it is to see the shadow of something flying. It leaves no footprints or clues.

–Colum McCann, Writing Ground


 

There’s nothing like them in New York.

Last week (May 5-10), Alonzo King LINES Ballet returned to the Joyce Theater with a three-piece program serving as a reminder that there are some amazing things happening in the San Francisco dance scene. These dancers possess the technical prowess and attack of NYCB, the individuality of Cedar Lake, and a propensity for eating up the space that any member of Complexions would envy–the overwhelmingly tall, long-legged physique prized by King certainly does not hurt on that front. Yet all of this is only a fraction of the experience that we are privileged enough to be a part of when LINES comes to this coast.

Kara Wilkes, Robb Beresford, Michael Montgomery, and Laura O'Malley in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo credit: Gaston de Cardenas.

Kara Wilkes, Robb Beresford, Michael Montgomery, and Laura O’Malley in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo credit: Gaston de Cardenas.

Concerto for Two Violins, named for the eponymous composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, opened the concert. King’s choreography here is as academic as LINES comes, dissecting and illustrating the music that would be familiar to any Balanchine fan (Concerto Barocco) or to anyone who has seen Paul Taylor’s Esplanade. It is a bright piece, one that showcases King’s idiosyncratic, contemporized form of ballet technique. The dancers look at and react to one another, so that even the most presentational moments feel as though they are being done not for the audience, but for themselves and each other. There were some slight issues with marked disparities in unison sections for the ensemble, both in timing and in details, that the dancers more or less made up for with their individual charms. The audience is introduced to the company through a demonstration of the same barely-restrained passion that is found in Baroque music: the dancers are exultant, only just held in by the form in which they work.

Michael Montgomery in King's "Constellation" during last year's Joyce season. Photo credit: Paula Lobo.

Michael Montgomery in King’s “Constellation” during last year’s Joyce season. Photo credit: Paula Lobo.

After a brief pause, the program shifted tonally with an excerpt from King’s The Radius of Convergence. Led by the quietly luminescent Michael Montgomery, Men’s Quintet did more than just mark the music: the dancing accompanied and informed the score, and vice versa. The men’s technical abilities are again on display (eliciting appreciative murmurs on more than one occasion from the audience), but one never has the impression that it is effortless. Sometimes they are easy, but sometimes they strain–not as though they are struggling to complete the movement, but rather that this way of moving is how they live their lives, both the easy parts and the hard parts. Here, especially in Montgomery’s case, the act of reaching is made sacred.

Writing Ground, the final piece in the program, took the above observations and elevated them to a transcendent plane. The music itself is sacred (early music from multiple religious traditions) and the accompanying, eponymous poem by Colum McCann takes a human life to a place of flight. The viewer is left not with concrete ideas or images, but impressions: a pair struggling to cross the stage, a woman and man equally concerned with defying gravity and keeping the other grounded, four men pulling a woman blindly reaching for the heavens back to earth. Kara Wilkes, in the final movement, was not only a standout, but a revelation. Like the best of King’s work, what is seen onstage is not a direct translation of the music, the poetry, or the concepts that began the work, but an experience that leads the viewer to intuit these ideas in a manner that words cannot express. The steps stop mattering so much as the motion and the reactions it elicits.

Kara Wilkes supported by Jeffrey Van Sciver, Shuaib Elhassan, Robb Beresford, and Michael Montgomery in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu.

Kara Wilkes supported by Jeffrey Van Sciver, Shuaib Elhassan, Robb Beresford, and Michael Montgomery in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu.

For me, the questions that came up were these: How do we live with ourselves, live(ing) with each other?

Maybe, I think, these are the questions we are always trying to answer. Maybe what makes a life is learning how to live. The ephemerality of the words we speak and the things we feel and the myriad ways we can(not) relate to one another are all there, in the dance. Maybe that is where the answers are: as ever-changing and ephemeral and impossible to articulate as dance can be.


 

She looked as if she had, at last, discovered the right question.

–Colum McCann, Writing Ground

 


Featured image:Kara Wilkes with Babatunji and Jeffrey Van Sciver (right) in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu

Eclectic Impossibilities: Dusk and Melon at Judson Memorial Church

I will be the first to tell you that what is affectionately (or not) referred to as downtown dance is not my usual scene, but when one of my classmates invited me to see Dusk and Melon at Judson Memorial Church, of course I had to check it out. The hour-length piece was born from a collaboration between Franklin Barefoot (BAREFOOTHAUS) and Tara Lynch, both of whom graduated from Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance (the program in which I am currently enrolled). The work is described as “a retrospective on the presentation of societal roles, human development, and relationship dynamics.” What I saw was an engaging and eclectic work created for four dancers in a way that feels sprawling yet is delightfully compact in the completeness of its composition.

Elizabeth Hepp, Lauren Kravitz, Jonathan Matthews, and Holly Sass are four Tisch alums whose individual levels of wackiness are only matched by just how beautifully they are trained. Both qualities are put to the test repeatedly throughout the piece, from the Cunningham-esque balance series deftly handled by Sass to open the show to the three women decked out in sequined ballgowns throwing themselves around the space and into Matthews like a glamorously deranged version of Macbeth’s witches. The juxtaposition implied here is present throughout the piece: Steve Reich preceding Peggy Lee, linear simplicity against bombastic partnering and manipulations, Strauss followed by Curtis Mayfield, the grandiosity of the space surrounding four humans moving without pretension.

Dusk and Melon

Holly Sass, Jonathan Matthews, and Lauren Kravitz; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

Repetition and accumulation were oft-utilized tools throughout the evening, beginning with what I mentally tagged as the second movement. Angular, weaving walking patterns to the beat of New Paradise’s “I Love Video” repeated almost to the point of uncomfortability. I say almost because the walking, in its simplicity, served to open up the space, drawing our attention to how it seemed to embrace the dancers even as they moved to fill it. It also served to draw attention to the details as the movement became homolateral and gradually increased in complexity.

This repetition, however, was not always accomplished with ease. Much of the work, in contast to the ease in locomotion displayed early in the piece, became a source of obvious physical exhaustion as movements and sequences were performed over and over again. A running leap off a stool set center stage begins as a charming moment of near-flight from Sass but quickly evolves into a compulsory attempt at the impossible as it is repeated by the entire cast, harsh breaths echoing through the cavernous space as they are pulled back to the earth again and again.

Dusk and Melon

Lauren Kravitz; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

What is the task here? Is it to achieve the impossible and take flight? Or is it to exhaust oneself in the attempt? These questions and the tension they created resounded throughout the piece: Kravitz emerges dressed liked a starlet from an earlier era, impossibly and untouchably elegant; Matthews dances a solo in which it seems his body is throwing him around without his consent (his right foot seemed quite determined never to touch the floor). There are moments when the dancers purposefully place each other in space, only to have to continuously return to make adjustments when their colleagues prove less than compliant. One might wonder why they do not just give up on these impossible tasks. The answer, I should think, is the fact of someone watching, more often than not one or more of the other dancers in the piece. Requisite roles and given tasks, whether they can be completed or not, refuse to be ignored, and there is something so very familiar and human about the earnest/exhaustive/unwilling striving these artists put on display. Seducing, flying, walking, longing, falling, colliding. Perhaps, I muse, to be human is to attempt the impossible: fitting into a role proscribed by society, leaping and hoping to fly, becoming exactly what you think another person wants.

Compositionally, the work was lovely. The sections danced in silence were often beautifully rhythmic in a way that can be difficult to make clear to an audience, and the music selections were eclectic enough to keep the audience from taking repetitions of material for granted. I particularly appreciated the reappearance of Sass’ solo from the opening of the piece in the middle and at the very end. The former involved balancing on two stools at center stage, Sass assisted by her colleagues (this was, for me, the most beautiful and interesting section of the performance). In the latter, Sass emerged in a translucent black ball gown. She seemed to be dancing for Matthews, seated in the corner, as she made the attempt and failed and fell and got up to try once more. The dress surrounds her like a shroud after a long moment, from which she emerges exhausted, perhaps defeated, from trying so very hard.

Dusk and Melon

Holly Sass and Jonathan Matthews; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

It was funny, disturbing, heart-breaking, and odd in all the best ways. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I wasn’t ever entirely sure of what I was seeing, but the beautiful dancing and composition won me over entirely, as did the striking uniqueness of each individual involved. 

 

(Top image: Jonathan Matthews and Holly Sass; Photo credit: Daniel Stein)

On the Nature of Things (#underthewhale)

I am very, very excited to be performing at the American Museum of Natural History for the next three nights (March 25-27) as a student guest artist with Armitage Gone! Dance. If you happen to be in the New York area, I absolutely encourage you to check it out–the company members are beautiful and fierce, the concept exudes intellectual passion, and yes, we really are dancing underneath the giant whale.

I am a huge believer that dance can help us to articulate and understand things that we cannot always put into words. When academic and intellectual endeavors are added to the mix, I think the conversation between reason and intuition that occurs creates something that is deeply evocative. Even from my vantage point in the wings, On the Nature of Things creates this dialogue in a meaningful and beautiful way.

Event info and tickets here. (P.S. There’s a student ticket deal if you phone the box office.)

(un)finished

What is a work in progress?

This question, scrawled in my notebook last week as the lights dimmed for the dress rehearsal of “Starts and Fits, No Middles No Ends: Eight Unfinished Dances,” was the first and last coherent statement I wrote that evening. My classmates and I had rushed over to the Danspace Project to see our composition teacher Rashaun Mitchell in a brand new “dance dialogue” alongside Jody Melnick, Sara Mearns, and Sterling Hyltin. Theirs was a casual intensity, one that made the decidedly unfinished nature of the work feel like a natural choice. It was brilliant, strange, humorous, unexpected, thought-provoking…

Unfinished. It begs the question ‘What do we mean by unfinished work?’ A work in progress, something not-yet-complete, a piece in the midst of process.

All of which implies, when you think on it, that there is a place this work is attempting to reach–a place in which the work will be “finished” when it is reached.

So, next question: Does this place exist? Can we even get there? Do we really want to?

My reflexive answer: Yes, of course. Allow me to point to a standing masterpiece, say George Balanchine’s Apollo. Immediately, however, I have to amend my answer. Balanchine’s Apollo is an oft-performed masterpiece that the choreographer created, and re-created, and re-created throughout his career from his days at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to his own New York City Ballet. Even today, every major ballet company in the world who has Apollo in its repertory differs from every other, because virtually no one dances the same version. The Royal Ballet has a prologue that was later omitted, while NYCB begins with Apollo and his lyre and dances what is perhaps the most stripped-down version. Are these each in their own right complete? Yes, absolutely–just not in the same way. And, I would argue, they are all constantly, delightfully, works in progress.

Dance, by its very nature, is ephemeral. Our bodies are our instruments, and we wake up in a different one every day. The work that we do, by extension, changes with us. No two performances of the same piece will ever be identical, even with the exact same dancers. Add in new performers and the work changes even more: seeing Sterling Hyltin take over Wendy Whelan’s part in Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a markedly different experience, even though the choreography was identical. The work is never static or unchanging.

Maybe that’s what makes art so inherently human–maybe the ephemerality, the ever-shifting nuances, the countless choices that go into creating a moment onstage is what makes dance so transcendently us, in the end. It is all just an ever-changing, hopefully improving, draft. Does this lessen the work? I don’t think so. Do we attempt to present something to the audience that is “finished”? Yes, but the key word is not “finished,” but “attempt.” It is the striving, the discovery and the failures and the surprises that create the work, that make the work worth doing. “Process not product,” one of my teachers is fond of reminding us. “The dance is never done,” he continues.

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The work is always in progress.

 

 

 

{an aside: In the 2004 film Hawking, listening to Bach’s final, unfinished composition, Roger Penrose (Tom Ward) muses, “Bach didn’t finish it…but it’s so perfect. Everything done before it [is] so perfect, it’s as if it doesn’t end, you can hear it after it stops. Listen. Can you hear it?”}

 

Ballet, Relationships, Community: Justin Peck at NYCB and Cedar Lake’s Latest Installation

A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense (and unexpected) privilege of seeing not one, but two of my favorite companies performing brand new work: ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes (Justin Peck) at New York City Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015 (Alexandra Damiani and Cedar Lake Dancers). Surprisingly enough, the two works had more in common than you might guess.

On the evening that I made my way up to Lincoln Center (February 4th), Justin Peck and fellow NYCB Soloist Sean Suozzi were required to step into an injured Andrew Veyette’s role for the world premiere of the ballet. Despite the small hiccup this created in fully understanding the composition of his new work, the novelty of seeing Peck dance one of his own ballets was a treat–much like the piece itself. I will admit to feeling some trepidation at the announcement that Peck was to choreograph to Aaron Copland’s iconic score (Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo is, after all, a classic), yet he rose to the challenge of the wide spaces and rambunctious movement of the music beautifully. The movement highlighted the technical bravura, quickness, and lightness of City Ballet’s men while Sara Mearns, the sole woman in the cast, had a refreshing naivete and youthfulness that I tend not to associate with her typically fierce and soulful performances (her technique was, of course, as sharp and sure as ever). Another standout was Taylor Stanley, whose ability to fully embody any movement was particularly  notable in the second ‘episode’. The beautiful origami of Peck’s spatial organization gave way to humor, to casual conversation, to quiet friendship and the sweet possibility of more. In short: Peck’s usual quirkiness, beauty, and humor in perfect measure. (I highly recommend checking out the handful of clips on City Ballet’s website.)

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's Installation 2015

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015; Photo Credit: Nir Arieli

Four nights later, I found myself walking into a warehouse-like room already filled with bodies–including the members of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, wearing dark shawls and sweaters over black costume skirts and bare feet, moving around the circular mini-stage set in the center of the space. As the dancers came face to face, they initiated contact and held it, first with simple, intimate gestures and progressing to sharing each other’s weight.  A delicate intensity was already brewing between the dancers, and this was only the introduction. The piece, created by Artistic Director Alexandra Damiani and nine members of the company, had movement that ranged from delicacy to extremism, with relationships emerging between the dancers that could be sexy, tender, near-violent, or all of the above as they stripped down to near-nakedness in the course of the evening.

These were not the only relationships that were interesting, however. Violin and viola duo Chargaux, who composed and performed the music for the installation, were only rarely tucked away in a corner to play; more often than not, they were moved by the dancers or wound their way through the center of the space, sometimes drawing focus to a particular event but often giving a visible reference to the relationship every dancer had with what they were hearing. One memorable moment towards the close of the piece had one of the musicians ‘playing’ a female dancer like a violin, undulating under her skilled hands. The performers’ relationships to space were delightfully complex in that every part of the room could be used as a stage; at some points it was physically impossible to see everything that was happening. This multiplicity of focus is where perhaps the most fascinating relationship of the evening came to light: that of the audience itself with the performers and the space. Dancers might brush past to get to their next cue, create a human chain to make the audience shift positions in the space, or leave the audience to their own devices so that they have to make their own choices about how they experience the work. The piece was a study in and a ritual of intimacy, as much between the dancers as the audience. What was on display was probably a clearer demonstration of who the company is than you will ever see at one of their repertory concerts: a community of unique movement artists who are willing to let an audience get this close to their work.

So what does this study in intimacy by one of New York’s coolest contemporary ballet companies have to do with a brand new piece at one of the top ballet companies in the world? At first glance (or second), not much more than a general medium and a (somewhat) related technique base. The glitz and glamour of the David H. Koch Theatre against Cedar Lake’s unassuming rehearsal studios near Chelsea Piers; pointe shoes and ballet slippers against socks and bare feet; the work of a solo choreographer against a collaborative creation process; an audience comfortably relaxed in assigned seats beyond the proscenium arch against one that is free (and encouraged) to take any vantage point they wish.

The common thread, in a word, is community.

ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes   World Premiere Choreography by Justin Peck New York City Ballet   Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik studio@paulkolnik.com nyc 212-362-7778

NYCB in ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes (World Premiere) by Justin Peck; Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

What really impressed me about Peck’s take on Rodeo is the manner in which he created an entire world that felt very real without any of the encumbrances of plot. Sara Mearns first appears like a dream as the men stand casually grouped together, for all appearances chatting as though during a rehearsal break. Later, Mearns places a reassuring hand on Taylor Stanley’s shoulder before dancing a pas de deux with Amar Ramasar; equal partnership and friendship is on display as opposed to the more typical ‘man lifts woman’ paradigm that is often presented. Daniel Ulbricht took some light teasing for the contrast between his bravura dancing and diminutive stature; four men sat with their legs dangling into the orchestra pit below, laughing and horsing around. We are not just seeing choreographed interactions, but an extension of the relationships that exist between colleagues who have been working and training together for years. Now look at Cedar Lake, where the movement on display was so obviously from the dancers’ own bodies–different bodies, yet smoothed out among the company to look both natural and unique. Look at the care they took in partnering each other, in taking care of each other as they hung upside down and slammed into walls and navigated through seas of unrehearsed audience members. You get the sense, watching either of these companies in action, that no matter the situation, these dancers are going to take care of each other as they do their work, whether that means catching a colleague flying through the air or managing a few partnered pirouettes.

And, in totally different ways, both managed to reach out to the audience and say, “Hey, why don’t you join us tonight?” I felt swept up in both of these worlds, enamored by the dancers and entranced by the music and utterly unaware of the passage of time. I felt as though I was witnessing something important, something almost sacred–and what’s more, I felt myself to be some small part of it, whether the action was happening inches from where I stood or on the opposite side of a packed theatre. This, I think, is why I do the work that I do. This is what it’s really about: the ritual of art illuminating and creating communities of individuals.

Listen

Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say. –Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist

There’s a part of The Alchemist where Santiago begs his heart to never stop speaking to him. He promises (if memory serves) to always listen. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about listening. I’ve been wondering how much we miss when we’re so plugged in that we don’t hear the sounds of the city around us, or when we don’t hear what the people we care about are actually saying to us, or when we forget that our bodies can communicate with us very, very effectively without using anything that necessarily resembles language. And I’ve been wondering what would happen if we just listened. Not even asking questions and waiting for a response, but just…listened.

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As a dancer, someone who, by definition, is a professional mover, you would probably guess that I am very good at listening to my body—being aware of its quirks, what makes it look and feel good, how to imitate or create movement without needing to actually see what it looks like. You would be correct. But imagine, if you will, a roomful of us students of movement being given the task to stand as still as possible, in silence, with our eyes closed until further notice. After an interminably long time (okay, it was ten minutes, as we later found out) we were allowed to move again with the simple directive, “Move however your body wants to right now.”

Easy, right?

Blind, silent stillness. This task, set in my improvisation class this past semester, only left one thing for me to do, short of panicking. I told my body, “Don’t stop talking to me. Whatever happens, I’m here, and I’m listening.” It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I am a firm believer that our bodies understand things that we cannot quite express with our language-driven brains, so I allowed myself to (mentally) step back and just breathe.

I thought I understood how to listen to my body before then, but it was an entirely new world that opened up within my own skin. The experience I had dancing in that state of mind is something for which I do not have words.

We’re two weeks into 2015. Two weeks into a new year, and whatever resolutions that we have (or have not) made to greet it. Maybe those are going swimmingly; maybe not. Whatever the case, I’d like to offer you, dear reader, an additional challenge. Listen. Whether it’s to your heart or your friends, your body or the sounds of your morning commute, is up to you. You’d be surprised how easy it is, once you get past the difficult task of admitting that you might not already do so as well or as much as you could.

#WWFarewell

Tonight marks the end of an era at New York City Ballet. Wendy Whelan is retiring from the Company after thirty years–yes, that’s right, thirty years with one of the top ballet companies in the world. If you do not know her, get on YouTube, do a Google search, find her Instagram account, because she is important. Everywhere I look today, I am seeing pictures of and articles about and memories of watching this remarkable ballerina. What can I say that has not been said? What can one say, staring at the evidence of such an immense legacy?

Wendy is one of those dancers that, as a ballet student, you grow up knowing and admiring, no matter where you are. And we didn’t love her for her body (though there is so much to love about it, like any body that moves). Let me say that: we do not love her because of her body.

We love her because of what she says with it. We love her for communicating intelligence and humility and presence and wisdom without ever speaking a word, and then stepping off of the stage and confidently giving voice to all of those qualities when she speaks about what it is that she does. We love that she is herself–as have other dancers and choreographers and audiences the world over.

Wendy Whelan and Desmond Richardson, photo by Jae Mon Joo, courtesy CCB

Wendy Whelan and Desmond Richardson, photo by Jae Mon Joo, courtesy CCB

We love her because she is herself in the work, and because she acknowledges that there is an element of work in this thing called dancing. And yet she never appears to force anything; dance is her calling, and so she goes to work to answer it. She is the epitome of the hard-working, humble ballerina who seems to always treat herself as someone who has much still to learn and explore. I can remember seeing her dance as a guest artist with Complexions Contemporary Ballet when they came on tour to New Orleans several years ago. Tackling a duet created for herself and Desmond Richardson by Dwight Rhoden, I was (and still am) utterly in awe of the mixture of curiosity and guts that must have been required for her to undertake such an alien venture.

She is also one of those dancers that you expect always to be there, because no matter how much maturity she displays onstage, she has never once seemed to show signs of aging like other mortals, has never seemed physically fragile (even in the midst of hip surgery) or anything less than 300% committed. Wendy Whelan dances. Wendy Whelan has always danced. Wendy Whelan will always dance. After seeing her perform a week ago, my feelings on that matter have not changed.

There is no conclusion here, just like what she will dance tonight at Lincoln Center is not a conclusion. It’s another night of dancing, a necessary stillness, and then another move.

I simply cannot wait to see what happens next.