Post-Millennial, New York and London

Written by:
Joanna G. Harris
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Post-Millennium Views

Limón Dance Company
David Gordon and Pick Up Performance Co(s)
“Singin’ in the Rain” (U.K.)
Royal Ballet
Tanztheater Wuppertal
Matthew Bourne’s “Play Without Words”
Trisha Brown Dance Company
Paris Opera Ballet
New York and London
June/July 2012

I visited New York City to attend the Dance Critics Association conference and “crossed the pond” to visit friends and family in London. After a short, much-needed rest in Portugal, I returned to rainy London, its Olympic-size crowds and its many, many dance events. London is a fantastic city for dance.

First things first. The DCA conference had several important discussions (including mine on Dance/Talk), a look back at New York dance critics with Alastair Macaulay (of the New York Times), the current ongoing problems of the profession and suggested procedures for preserving dance archives. The association needs to enlist more members and enlarge its scope of dance writing.

The Limón Dance Company was performing at the Joyce Theater, showing two works by Limón (the 1942 “Chaconne,” set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin [competently danced by Kathryn Alter] and “The Emperor Jones,” Limón’s 1956 version of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic drama, with Daniel Fetecua Soto as the Emperor and Durell Comedy as the Trader), as well as the world premiere of “Come With Me” by choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras, and Jiří Kylián’s “Cathédrale Engloutie.” Except for Soto and Comedy’s performances and the devoted ensemble work of the company, this was a dreary event (albeit a chance to see Limón’s works revisited).

beginning_of_the_end_7-12David Gordon, who has visited the Bay Area as part of Margaret Jenkins’ “Chime” project, was on the boards at the Joyce SoHo, offering his take on the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello‘s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (1921) and “The Man With the Flower in His Mouth” (1922). It was entitled “Beginning of the End of the…”. Written, directed and choreographed by Gordon (seen at right, with glasses, surrounded by “Beginning” cast members) and performed by his Pick Up Performance Co(s), the cast included Valda Setterfield and Gus Solomons Jr., dancers well-known for their performing days in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Gordon’s selected verbal phrases are interrupted by a formal dance phrase that is both elegant and satiric. Gordon sits center stage directing while Setterfield pronounces most of the lines, responding to and offering criticism of her (real life) husband/director. The whole event was carried off with aplomb and witty execution.

The London weather was wet,wet, wet — the perfect setting for a live performance of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the Kelly/O’Connor/Reynolds classic film brought to the stage, with Adam Cooper in the lead Gene Kelly immortalized. It is a joyous event, particularly “Good Morning, Good Morning,” performed by Cooper, Scarlett Strallen, and Daniel Crossley. Cooper, it might be remembered, was the star of Matthew Bourne’s all-male “Swan Lake.” Here he is, years later, singing, tapping and moving on. The transformed choreography is by Andrew Wright. Crowds fill the Palace Theatre, the first rows of the “stalls” relishing Cooper’s splash as he kicks water across the apron. The show will probably outsell the Olympics.

In London, the Covent Garden Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet, is a princess of a theater and the ballet company is tuned to the royal command. Its history is awesome; many of the stars of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes were among its founders. For this season’s repertoire, the retiring artistic director Monica Mason chose works by or dear to Frederick Ashton, the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer. There were Ashton’s “Birthday Offering” (1956) and “A Month in the Country” (1976). In 1966 he brought his former mentor, Bronislava Nijinska, to restage her extraordinary “Les Noces” (1923). The music for these three works is Russian or Polish: Glazunov, Chopin and Stravinsky.

What an extraordinary performance of “Les Noces”! The style is peasant Russian, shaped and formed as only Nijinska could. Accompanying the dancers were two pianos, four vocal soloists and large separate choruses of men and women, underlying the corps of men and women dancers who are attendants to the bride and groom. Although the Oakland Ballet staged this work years ago, the Royal, with the original, has revived a masterpiece.

“A Month in the Country,” was performed by Zenaida Yanowsky and well-partnered by Rupert Pennefather. Only this company seems to be perfectly capable of bringing drama to dance. Ashton’s “Birthday Offering,” an exercise in classical dance technique, opened the program.

Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, performing at Sadler’s Wells, gave the last of ten of Bausch’s “city” dances: that is, dances dedicated to or taking themes from cities around the world. “Wiesenland” was a response to a stay in Budapest. Water is the predominate element in this piece: water is poured over the women, spit from the men’s mouths even while the women are smoking, trickling down the mossy set and sprayed, splashed, dripped and drizzled. I am told there are many bathouses in Budapest. As usual, Baush’s work is part dance, part musical hall and always vivid theater. The performers are soloists at every level. In this event, which closed the month-long series, the men dominated as dancers. Solos and small-group action enlivened the stage between the various delightful and sometimes repetitious vaudeville acts.

Matthew Bourne’s “Play Without Words,” also at Sadler’s Wells, was premiered back in 2002, when it raised British dance theatre to a new pitch of sophistication, so they say. Now in 2012, its period films to this viewer look stale and clichéd. There are references to Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” and other film noir dealings. Designer Lez Brotherston and lighting designer Paule Constable brought their Olivier-nominated work, and Terry Davies’ acclaimed jazz influenced score was played live at all performances. Characters are tripled; seductions abound. There are good guys and bad guys and mostly bad girls. The sexuality looked and felt artificial but the young audience was gripped and entranced. It’s too gaily British for me.

astral_converted_7-12Back in New York, I was able to get a last minute ticket to Trisha Brown’s “Astral Converted” at the Park Avenue Armory. Brown is now considered the doyenne of post-modern dance, as she, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, and others from the Judson Center experiments still prevail. Her company now numbers nine; among them is former Cunningham member Jamie Scott.

Dressed in silver and white skintight unitards (seen at left; photo © by Stephanie Berger), they move through and with Robert Rauschenberg’s construct of pipes and lights to John Cage’s sound score “Eight.” It is a very beautiful construct, technically brilliant, featuring solos for outstanding individuals. Yet, to me, it is completely devoid of expression, either of dance elements (space/time/energy) or feeling. The movement vocabulary is what I remember from 60 years ago at Mills College: swings, falls, small jumps, many turns. Ironically, the women have triangles of cloth between their legs (note says Rauschenberg liked that); it is a recall of Martha Graham’s costume invention for freeing the lower body.

I couldn’t get to Paris, (alas), but Paris came to New York, as the Paris Opera Ballet joined the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival. For the matinee on July 15, the great traditional company gave us “French Masters of the 20th Century,” including works by Serge Lifar (“Suite en Blanc”), Roland Petit (“L’Arlésienne”) and Béjart (“Boléro”). A dance critic friend suggested I skip the latter and so I did. I have never enjoyed Béjart’s over-erotic, bad musical taste. (Note: we will see his work during the 2012-2013 season at Cal Performances.)

“Suite en Blanc” was a series of solos and duets, and like Ashton’s “Birthday Offering,” a display of basic classic dance vocabulary. I wish these pieces would remain in school shows; audiences adore them since they are what most people accept as essential ballet. But, all was forgiven in the amazing performance of “L’Arlésienne.” The piece is reminiscent of Nijinska’s “Les Noces” in that it is a series of “peasant” dances to the familiar Ravel score. Again, drama prevails. The fabulous Benjamin Pech took the leading role opposite Nolwenn Daniel. Petit develops the plot of a young man, about to be married (so that the opening group numbers resemble “Les Noces”) and then, literally step-by-step, goes mad. It intimates the story of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh lived in Arles; he painted the wheat fields depicted in a backdrop. Whether this is literally so doesn’t matter. Pech’s work as a dramatic soloist gave new wonder to the Paris Opera Ballet’s masterly performance.

I have entitled this range of work, along with all the many varieties of dance I have seen lately, “Post-Millennium” Dance. Everything seems possible; everywhere companies and audiences are participating in dance. It’s hard to know what it is, but we are delighted that it is happening across the world.

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