performing arts

ChristinaNoel and The Creature in Ash & Honey Part 1

Rise from the ashes and make sweetness from the rubble.

Standard black on black paint to cover the walls and support pillars, a small stage set up at the back of the space hosting instruments and sound equipment, four small sections of seating to the left and right. In contrast, a gleaming floor, enchanting chandeliers, lighting that seems simultaneously both warm and cool. Based on the decor in the Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente, I could have been attending a punk concert as easily as a Gothic-themed ball. On May 22, however, I was there to see the 2015 Spring Season of ChristinaNoel and The Creature, a collaborative company whose work resists any simple categorization other than performance. Everything, from the larger than life portraits of the performers in the lobby to the chandeliers I admired on my way to my seat, was designed by The Creature to create an atmosphere.

ChristinaNoel and The Creature is a passion project, and I knew this before the performers had taken a single step. It’s in the way that ChristinaNoel Reaves interacts with her company manager, in the way she speaks about the work and her collaborators, in the way she explains the notion of The Creature–the projects and the people and things that are adored even through the challenges they create. One also gets the sense that The Creature cannot be ignored; this is the work that cannot remain undone, the ideas that cannot be denied.

ChristinaNoel Reaves (center) with Mark Willis and Mary Kate Hartung in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

ChristinaNoel Reaves (center) with Mark Willis and Mary Kate Hartung in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

And, as it turns out, this passion project has a lot of craft and skill to back it up. Ash & Honey Part 1 served to demonstrate not only Reaves’ compositional skill set, but also the highly versatile dance technique, musical ability, and personality of the performers who comprise The Creature. I recognized highly technical modern dance movement alongside steps that might be danced by a teenager to their favorite song on the radio, hints of flamenco serving to segue into pedestrianism. The performers (of whom Reaves was one) spoke, sang, and played the trumpet, french horn, or piano, accompanied by an original sound score by Aeric Meredith-Goujon.

Mary Kate Hartung and Mark Willis in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Mary Kate Hartung and Mark Willis in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

The opening is an aural assault–three keening voices, purposefully dissonant, sound as the lights almost imperceptibly raise the theater from darkness. The impression is one of arriving in slow motion to a strange elsewhere before everything slams into action with a duet that is more than half conflict. My primary critique of the work came here, as I found that the abrupt shifts between highly physical movement with elevated speed and syrupy slowness did not sit well with the overwhelming sound score; pauses like these have to be earned and did not seem to fit this early in the piece.

Jonathan Matthews in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon

Jonathan Matthews in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon

If the opening served to create a darker, stranger world, the second introduces a feeling of surreality as a sense of playfulness overtakes the performers in the midst of a rhythm study that evolves into the dancers standing in line, shaking their hips in unison. Jonathan Matthews soon begins a solo section that was easily one of the highlights of the evening. As he executes a highly technical movement phrase involving complex floorwork, Matthews monologues with a meandering logic that only someone with his odd brand of charisma could make convincing. Words evoking distance and closeness run into each other without ever becoming specific, never ceasing even as Matthews falls to the ground or stands on his shoulders. Mary Kate Hartung has a similar solo later in the piece, her voice trailing in and out as she runs not just through the designated dancing space but the entirety of the theater.

Jasmin Simmons in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Jasmin Simmons in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Jasmin Simmons, a long-legged standout throughout the work, dominates the final section. Her movement slows to an agonizing melt, arms weakly embracing the space as she repeatedly intones, “I will pray for all you motherf***ers.” Half song, half moan, Simmons moves sinuously through exhaustion as the rest of The Creature moves around her; when she is alone, the ensuing breakdown feels all too real, Simmons shaking as she continues to sing into the silent space. The piece closes with a now-familiar interruption, juxtaposing  rhythm and movement sequences seen earlier in the work that culminate in The Creature moving together, turning and turning past the end of the sound and the light. The cheers and applause that greeted the end of the piece were well earned, as was the individual introduction of each dancer to the audience with which Reaves closed the evening.

Ash & Honey Part 1 succeeded both on the individual merits of each performer and on what was mostly a compositionally strong structure. The movement and music were neither traditionally relational or purposefully contradictory; rather, both used repetition of rhythms in sound and in motion to provide a clockwork and touchstone to keep the world moving. The work excels when there are multiple focal points within the space or when a single focal point is fought for by a performer and earned by the audience’s emotional engagement. The utilization of text and the performers’ perspectives without ever becoming bogged down in a concrete plot line was impressive, as was the work’s ability to suggest ideas to the audience’s intuition rather than their reason. It ranges from strange and unknowable to strangely relatable, from humorous to painful to wacky to somber. ChristinaNoel and The Creature created a beguiling, intriguing world, and I am already looking forward to next season.

The Creature at work. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

The Creature at work. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.


Featured image: ChristinaNoel Reaves in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

 

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(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.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet @ the Joyce

When I grow up, I want to be Meredith Webster. And I mean that quite literally, because she is probably a foot taller than me.

Meredith Webster is everything that a contemporary ballet dancer should aspire to be. She extends her arms to the sky and it is as though all of the air has been sucked out of the room because it is being inexorably drawn to her. This is a dancer who owns every millimeter of her length and understands what her body can do perfectly–on top of which, her presence is so absolute that it is impossible not to watch her, and yet hers is a quiet sort of authority, not one that screams to be looked at but one which you cannot but acknowledge.

I should probably also mention something about the rest of the company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet. After only one viewing, I fear I cannot do them justice, nor will I be able to really delve into this ballet as much as it deserves, but I’ll give you a few impressions.

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Today (22 March 2014) at the Joyce Theater, I had the immense pleasure of seeing Alonzo King’s 2012 ballet Constellation (click here to see several excerpts). The program notes on the ballet are as follows:

Sidereal time–the time of stars–is the way that astronomers fix their telescopes on remote constellations from night to night, since the earth spins them away each day. Celestial geometrics align our bodies with the complex grids of galaxies, and fireflies remind us that we can almost cup the stars in our hands.

In this piece, Alonzo King explores the orientation of our bodies to light. A ground-breaking collaboration with artist Jim Campbell, Constellation is both luminous and lucid, encompassing and intimate.

A scrim at the front of the stage initially separates the audience from the action. The back curtain is made of strings of what look like white orbs about the size of tennis balls; several of these are hanging from above into the space, glowing like fireflies or stars. Meredith Webster is the first of the dancers to enter the space and, eventually, claim one of the glowing orbs for her own. Other dancers do the same, some treating the orbs as though they are of a great weight, others as though they are simply pure, weightless light. As the ballet progresses through two acts, the orbs come and go, rolled off and on the stage or even between dancers. At one point, one of the men finds himself with four of the orbs and manages to dance with all of them. By the third movement of the first act the front scrim has been raised, making it slightly easier to believe that the dancers we are watching are actually real; by the last of each act, even the strings of orbs in the back have been covered by a basic black curtain, not an orb in sight.

The first act is serene, ethereal. Even the faster-paced sections give an impression of otherworldliness. The overall impression is of the dancers themselves being bodies in space, in sight but just unreachable; else-wise, they are reaching and contemplating, but not necessarily yet grasping the stars above. The second act is more up-tempo, the set and props more changeable; it opens in total darkness save for the light given by two orbs, one in each hand of Michael Montgomery as he moves through the space. There is a scaled down version of the orb-string back curtain placed downstage with which the dancers interact; in another movement one dancer wears an even smaller version like a cloak, a skirt, while two of the men pass between them a sort of scarf of the orbs. Mr. King almost seems to be asking, okay, we’ve grasped the stars, but what do we do with them then? Do we wear them, embrace them, fight over them, play with them? How heavy are they, these tiny balls of light, and can we bear the weight?

There was also a beautifulmovement in the second act (at 5:16 here)in which one of the women danced in the light cast by three light boards. Held and moved around her by other dancers, they showed the moving image of the legs of a crowd of people walking. She danced in their silhouette, under them, past them, and as an additional pair of legs in the crowd–just one pinprick of light in a larger constellation.

The final movement of each act was a pas de deux danced without any orbs in sight, the back wall a mere black curtain once the dancers emerge from behind the strings of orbs. In the first act, it was Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford in a sublime display of classical technique tempered by contemporary movement–Kim’s grande rond de jambe on its own left me breathless. In the second, it was Meredith Webster and David Harvey, lending the sense of unreality of watching a tragedy unfold from a great distance. The choice to have them both barefoot, in particular Webster, the first and only time we see a woman barefoot in the ballet, lent an incredible amount of intimacy to their interactions, especially in the moments in which they shared weight, pulling each other in, pushing themselves away.

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Webster and Harvey in the final pas de deux, with Maya Lahyani (left) providing vocals onstage. Image source

I honestly don’t have anything bad to say about this production. The movement, composition, music (vacillating between pre-recorded sound, classical music, a live pianist, and a singer who joins the dancers onstage), and set design were all brilliantly complimentary and made for a breath-taking experience. The New York Times might disagree, but that’s okay. Now, there were a few moments in performance where the unison wasn’t as exact as one might hope and a few wobbly legs in there, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care because the dancers were so wholly invested in the movement that it did not matter. Speaking of whom…

I’d always heard that Alonzo King favored tall dancers (and been slightly annoyed by it, seeing as I’m 5’2″), but after this performance I completely understand why. These dancers are the best of both worlds. They have all of the precise articulation and spinal control that characterizes great modern dancers and the most beautiful technique and sharp lines you expect from the highest caliber ballet dancers. Their ability to be perfectly on their leg, executing seemingly endless turn combinations that somehow do not seem like tricks but rather natural manifestations of their movement, is matched only by how comfortable they are throwing themselves wholly away from their own centers. They embody every bit of length they have in order to accomplish movements that I was only vaguely aware were possible, and the rare moments when the entire company was onstage together seemed as though they might actually blow the roof off the auditorium because they needed–and deserved–that much space to dance. And on top of all that, they are so elegant and ethereal through it all that they seem to have achieved what the original founders and practicers of classical ballet back in the sixteenth century were aiming for:

“But if he danced…man might break some of those earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels. The movements of the body…could tune him to celestial harmonies.”  –Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels

So here’s the point: if you ever have the opportunity to see this company, or any work by Alonzo King, do not under any circumstances pass it by. I only wish they were in New York more often.

note: The quote from Jennifer Homans is from an advance uncorrected proof of Apollo’s Angels, which is the only copy I currently have access to. If anyone knows that I misquoted her from the actual published version, let me know so I can correct it!