Monday, March 31, 2014

Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"

Zoe Scofield, foreground and Ariel Freedman, promotional photo for "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards
Let me start with the obvious: Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" is stunningly beautiful.

From the moment the audience entered the theater at Seattle's On The Boards, we were enveloped by the world these artists created; a world that was simultaneously filigreed and almost feminine, yet somehow fierce and a bit menacing. It's a world that has lingered in the days since I saw this performance, and it has provoked me to ponder whether we ever really can begin from scratch. "Begin Again" for me was as much about memory as it was about the birth of something new.

Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey are creative and life partners, a duo whose collaborative performances bring audiences equal parts visual art and dance. Scofield is the dancer/choreographer; Shuey the visual/video artist. They are among the few who successfully meld artistic disciplines into something larger than either would be on its own. "Begin Again's" magic started with the set: two huge curtains billowed at either side of the stage, over beds of what looked like the kind of cedar bark you'd use in your garden. On one bed, a dancer lounged inside a plaster cast of her body. Beyond the curtains and the bark beds was an expanse of unlit unknown. As the audience found its seats, a faint soundtrack played: chants punctuated by cricket-like chirps. Above our heads, banks of lights slowly dimmed, brightened, then dimmed again in a subtle pulse. Finally, slowly, the theater went dark, and "Begin Again" really did begin in earnest.
Paper wall by Celeste Cooning, video images by Juniper Shuey from Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo by Juniper Shuey

Three dancers emerged, lit so faintly from the wings that we could hardly trust our eyes that we'd seen them before the lights went out. But we heard a rhythm they continued to beat out with their feet, and despite the darkness, we knew these dancers were real, not an illusion. The billowing curtains became screens for Shuey's delicate videos: what looked like flocks of blackbirds swooped across pillows of grey Northwest clouds. Silvery dancers stood still, then moved across the curtains, even interacted with the live performers. Shuey's videos never detracted from the action on stage (which is so often the case at multi-media performances). In fact, sometimes it was impossible to tell if we were watching the dancers or projected images of those dancers.

Scofield and her choreographic and performance partner Ariel Freedman were dressed in short, almost lacy grayish tunics. Slowly, they flexed their feet, toes splayed, then raised bent legs up from the floor, extending those legs straight behind them, only to snap back to their original, neutral positions. It was as if they were auditioning new ways to move their bodies, bravely daring something new, only to retreat from that frontier. Dancer Kate Wallich entered for a slow solo, and she, too, moved slowly across the stage, venturing a movement, then quickly retracting it. Each woman began again, over and over, the way we all do when we learn something new.
Paper wall by Celeste Cooning, from Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy Juniper Shuey

The black expanse at the rear of the stage, ultimately, was lit from behind, and revealed itself as a huge cut paper mural, designed by Celeste Cooning. At its center were the lacy silhouettes of two dancers, women kneeling to face one another. The light streamed through the cutouts, imparting a celestial glow from above onto the live dancers. (Kudos to lighting designer Amiya Brown.) Scofield and Freedman moved through what looked like classical ballet exercises: first position to tendu, ronde de jambe to arabesque, including all of ballet's pointed toes and rounded arm positions. Then, as if overtaken by some external force, their balletic poses gave way to angular legs, flexed feet, bent waists. Was Scofield retreating to her ballet past, or building on that foundation? For a brief moment, she seemed possessed by anger, as she wrestled Freedman onto the bark bed. It was a jagged shard in this almost misty dreamscape.  It passed as suddenly as it appeared, and the two women stepped back onto the smooth black floor.

"Begin Again" ended with a haunting song, chanted at center stage. I couldn't make out the words, but it left me with a wistfulness, a longing for something that I couldn't possible name. Scofield and Shuey have told other media that "Begin Again" represents a creative reboot, a new way of making art. Perhaps, but the peformance left me thinking about the ways we transform ourselves, how we incorporate our pasts into our presents, either consciously or unconsciously. Can we ever truly shrug off the experiences and circumstances that shape us? They almost always linger deep within, emerging at the least expected moments, like the fleeting images of young girls that Shuey superimposed on his flocks of birds, or the way Scofield's years of ballet training made a cameo in this piece.

I have always been impressed by the beauty of Zoe/Juniper's performances. With "Begin Again" they have moved me, touched me, in a way I haven't experienced before with their art. I am left to contemplate the delicate shreds of my own past, and how I have woven them into a new shape for my future. And I linger over the memories of ephemeral beauty this duo brought to life.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo by Juniper Shuey, used by permission of the artist

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Memory That Really Glows

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members Andrew Bartee and Leah Merchant in Alejandro Cerrudo's "Memory Glow."
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
I meant to write about Alejandro Cerrudo's new dance "Memory Glow," which premiered at Pacific Northwest Ballet as part of the Director's Choice program March 14-23, 2014. I really did. I saw it twice, just so I'd be certain of what I wanted to say. I meant to devote a whole post to this dance. I had the best intentions, but Molissa Fenley took over my brain. I'll tell you why in a second. First, "Memory Glow."

Alejandro Cerrudo, the choreographer-in-residence at  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, created a lovely piece for the PNB dancers. Three women and seven men, clad in shades of cream and gray, with socks on their feet, move across a stage backlit by more than a dozen floor spots. "Memory Glow" starts with a duet (Andrew Bartee and Leah Merchant one night; Bartee and Elizabeth Murphy on another). Then the men enter. Bartee and Ezra Thomson in particular held my attention with their deft performances of Cerrudo's choreography. Repeatedly over the course of the dance, they hold one palm to their foreheads. Are they trying to forget? To remember? It's a poignant gesture.

PNB Principal Dancers James Moore and Rachel Foster (lovely in early pregnancy) really stole the dance. Contemporary choreography particularly suits Foster. She winds her body around Moore, hooking a long leg over his shoulder then suspending herself, head to the floor. Moore grabs her by the abdomen (I had to avert my eyes: she's pregnant!), swings her high into the air, then sets her lightly onto the stage. Foster seems lighter than a feather; Moore anchors her to this solid earth.

I truly enjoyed this dance, but as I mentioned, Molissa Fenley had already stolen my brain. "State of Darkness" preceded "Memory Glow" and it's a far more resonant piece. Fenley made the solo for herself in 1988. In the PNB production, it's set to a live performance of Igor Stravinsky's powerful 1913 "Rite of Spring." On opening night, Principal Jonathan Porretta poured a ferocious intensity into the 36 minute dance. As I've already written, Porretta brought his years of artistic and life experience to it, and his performance was masterful. On March 21st, I got the chance to see the solo in an entirely different way, performed by young corps de ballet dancer Angelica Generosa. The end result was equally intoxicating.

Generosa has never performed anything like "State of Darkness" on the McCaw Hall stage (at least not for a paying audience). Dressed in black, footless tights and a flesh-colored camisole (Fenley performed the solo bare-chested), hair scraped back into a tight knot at the back of her head, Generosa began the dance almost tentatively. "State of Darkness" is physically grueling; perhaps she was trying to pace herself for what she knew was ahead? However, as Stravinsky's powerful, rhythmic music built, Generosa began to unfold: she extended her long arms above her head, then swept them in huge arcs behind her as she circled the stage in a loping pace. It was as if she was preparing to catapult herself into the air. A tightness seemed to melt, and Generosa began to make this dance her own.

Where Jonathan Porretta knifed the air in front of him with straight arms, fingers held together, Generosa's fingers were splayed, each seeming to flutter independently of the others, the way Thai or Balinese dancers use their hands. Porretta conveyed a barely contained primal energy. He was a tight coil ready to spring loose at any moment. Generosa's performance was more deliberate, her energy meted out over 36 minutes. Porretta was wild, Generosa less feral. That didn't make her performance less rewarding.

Generosa's body knew the choreography from start to finish, but the longer she danced, the less it seemed she was carefully remembering, the more she seemed to give herself over to Stravinsky. At one point, Generosa bit her lower lip in concentration as she poured everything she had into this difficult solo. As the last notes faded, and the lights dimmed, the audience leapt to its feet with cheers and applause. Generosa beamed a huge smile: in celebration of her accomplishment, of course, but perhaps in relief as well.

PNB didn't make any public photographs of Generosa's performance. That's just as well. Dance is ephemeral; it's of the moment and of our memories of that moment. Perhaps that's the 'memory glow' that Alejandro Cerrudo refers to in the title of his world premiere? I don't know, but I do know that I carry the memories of Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" with me, and their glow hasn't diminished. How I wish I could have been in the audience in 1988 when Fenley brought this piece to life for an audience for the first time! For now, I have to content myself with the memories.
It's not "State of Darkness," but here is Angelica Generosa rehearsing for Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
World premier, PNB, September 2013. Photo courtesy PNB

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nice Choices, Mr. Boal!

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness,"
choreography by Molissa Fenley, photo by Angela Sterling
Every March, Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal and his company present a program called "Director's Choice." It's usually a mixed repertory, with a healthy dose of contemporary choreography on the bill. After watching the opening night performance of this year's edition, my friend turned to me and said "tell Peter Boal for me, good choices, Director!" Amen to that, sister!

Four dances were on the evening's bill, all made within the last 25 years, including a world premier by Hubbard Street Dance choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo. (More on that after I get a chance to see it a second time). The four works were vastly different from one another, from Susan Stroman's jazzy crowd pleaser, "Take Five...More or Less," set to Dave Brubeck's jazz standard, to Molissa Fenley's intensely powerful solo "State of Darkness," danced on opening night by Jonathan Porretta.

"Take Five" is breezy and upbeat, and featured a lively opening solo from Kaori Nakamura. Scene stealers Kiyon Gaines and Lesley Rausch got an ebullient response from the crowd. "Take Five" is bubbly and fun, but it was Jonathan Porretta's work on opening night that had me up on my feet.
PNB dancers Lesley Rausch and Kiyon Gaines in Susan Stroman's "Take Five...More or Less"
photo by Angela Sterling
Molissa Fenley made "State of Darkness" for herself in 1988. She was inspired by Igor Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece, "Rite of Spring." Fenley writes that, at first, she played a recording in her studio and simply moved to the music. Then she realized she was creating a full blown dance. The PNB performance is accompanied by a live orchestra. The lush, full sound is an interesting juxtaposition to the solo dancer onstage, bare-chested and dressed in a simple pair of black capri-length pants.

Fenley is very slim, and in a videotaped performance from 1992, with her hair cropped short, she presents an androgynous, almost elfin persona. PNB's Jonathan Porretta, on the other hand, is solid and compact. With his dark hair hanging loose almost below his ears, Porretta commands the stage with a barely contained ferocity. Sometimes it was like watching a caged, semi-feral animal as he kicked his legs and slashed his arms to Stravinsky's percussive passages. In the dance's gentler moments, Porretta pulled back inside himself. He seemed to withhold his intensity for a few minutes, (and maybe gather more energy) only to unleash himself later on.
PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
Photo by Angela Sterling
Porretta lends a vast quantity of charisma and drama to any material he performs. (Go see him dance the role of Mercutio, for example, in Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette.) In "State of Darkness," he undulates from mid-torso, steps gently in circles, forcefully swings his head down and up, whipping his hair across his face. Fenley has created a series of precise arm and hand movements for this dance. At times, Porretta extends his arm toward the floor, his hand palm up, then flipped down, then up again, as if he's a farmer sowing seeds. At other moments, Porretta dances laterally across the stage, facing the audience. The movements evoke the images I've seen from Nijinsky's 1913 Paris version of "Rite of Spring."

As the musical energy builds, you hold your breath, waiting for Porretta to let loose one of his technically dazzling jetes across the stage. And you keep waiting, because Fenley doesn't give us that release until later in the dance. The tension escalates, the caged animal paces, then finally explodes with a burst into the air.
PNB's Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness", choreographed by Molissa Fenley.
Photo by Angela Sterling
"State of Darkness" demands endurance: it's 36 minutes long. It also demands intellectual concentration. Jonathan Porretta delivered both on opening night. At times, he surveyed the audience, his dark eyes almost ferocious, daring us to keep watching him. Porretta is an audience favorite: his technical abilities coupled with his dramatic skills make him stand out on stage. But with this performance, I felt like I was watching an artist who had marshaled all his training, his life experience and his talents.What a transcendent dance experience!

Also of note for all PNB fans: opening night of "Director's Choice" marked Carla Korbe's return to the stage, after months of recuperation from an injury. Korbes and fellow Principal Dancer James Moore performed Susan Marshall's "Kiss." It's an all-too-brief, poignant duet, with the dancers harnessed to sturdy ropes that are anchored high above the McCaw Hall stage. Moore is smoldering and sexy; Korbes, as always, shimmers like an ephemeral shooting star. The audience welcomed her back with ecstatic and sustained applause.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Carla Korbes and James Moore
in "Kiss" by Susan Marshall. Photo by Angela Sterling
 I know this program probably isn't everybody's cup of tea when it comes to ballet. Some of you may read this and say, "wow, was she at the same production as me?" But, seriously, the 2014 edition of "Director's Choice" rocked. You'll kick yourself if you're the only one in town to miss it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

She's Too Fat To Dance! Or Is She?

When I was five years old, I wanted to be a ballerina more than anything in the whole world. Me, and probably half the little girls in America. The other half wanted to go horseback riding.

I don't know when or where I got this urge. I grew up in Detroit, and believe me, there was no ballet company in residence. I do remember being taken to see the Kirov when they came through on tour. Or maybe it was the Bolshoi? Russian/Soviet, in any case, and a really big deal.

Alas, my ballerina dreams were shattered not long after my mother enrolled me in a dance class in kindergarten. This was more than half a century ago, but I remember the day of the recital very clearly. My group was dressed as bumble bees, little black leotards and yellow headbands with antennae attached. Through the wispy curtains of time, I still recall the sense of humiliation I felt when I looked at the other little girls. They were slim and reedy. My chubby tummy bulged out. Even at that age, I knew I was too fat to dance.

Several years ago, chief New York Times dance critic Alastair Macauley kicked off a shit storm when he wrote of New York City Ballet principal dancer Jenifer Ringer that, in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night of "The Nutcracker," Ringer appeared to have "eaten one sugar plum too many."

The dance world responded immediately, most defending Ringer and challenging the assumption that a ballerina had to have a particular body type. Macauley defended his original column.

Jenifer Ringer told me that after an initial feeling of horror upon reading Macauley's scathing words, she took a deep breath and relaxed. In 2010, Ringer was self confident in both her dancing and her body. If this had happened twenty years earlier, though, Ringer would have been devastated. It turns out that Ringer suffered debilitating eating disorders at the outset of her professional career. She was hired at NYCB at the age of 16, one of four students from her class at the School of American Ballet who were offered jobs with the company. Ringer was acutely aware that her curvier body type was rounder than those of many of her fellow company members. She stopped eating, then became anorexic. A year or so later, still almost paralyzed by negative self image, Ringer started to binge-eat junk food, balancing out each quart of ice cream with frantic exercise.

Eventually, Jenifer Ringer gained so much weight that, ultimately, NYCB asked her to leave the company. Ringer says she had to hit that bottom to figure out how to gain some control over her mental health and her eating. The story has a happy ending: through her religious faith, and the help of a fellow dancer who she later married, Ringer worked her way back to her professional dance career. In her new memoir "Dancing Through It," Ringer chronicles that period of her life.

Ringer's experience reminds me of a visit I paid last year to All That Dance, a multi-generational dance school in Seattle. Every fall, the school suspends regular classes for "Love Your Body Week." It's a chance for teachers to talk to the students about body image, healthy eating, and potential eating disorders. The large mirrors in the studios are covered with butcher paper; by the end of the week, that paper is covered with dozens of handwritten notes. The students scrawl things they love about their bodies, or what their bodies can do in the dance studio.

All That Dance founder and director Maygan Wurzer doesn't keep data to track what happens after her students leave. She has no proof that making kids, in particular, aware of potential eating and body image issues will prevent crippling disorders like Jenifer Ringer suffered. But Wurzer says over the years she's watched kids who grow up attending her school; she's observed how they behave. Wurzer's convinced they have a healthy awareness of and attitude toward their bodies.

Jenifer Ringer says these days, New York City Ballet actually has counselors available for the dancers. But she's not sure whether people seek out help. Ringer says 20 years ago, she lied when people asked her what was wrong. She thinks that some professional dancers may do the same thing today, despite the availability of help. More to the point, Ringer says as a society, we still value thinness, and we expect it in particular from professional ballet dancers. She doesn't think things will really change until general attitudes about beauty and weight change.

So, will we ever see plump ballerinas in the mix at professional companies, like New York City Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet? I can't imagine it, and that's partly because the physical demands of the profession keep dancers fit and lean, for the most part. Might we see a different mix of body types: women with bulkier muscles, for example, more womanly hips and breasts? Part of the change will have to come from those of us who watch dance, and write about dance, and think about what's beautiful onstage.
The ever-beautiful Carla Korbes in Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Swan Lake"

I think back to my five year old self, to my ballet dreams. I know now that I never would have made it as a ballerina, not only because I was too fat. Turns out, I'm a klutz; I'm far more aware of my thoughts than my body's position in space. That was true then, and it's true now. These days, I live vicarious ballet dreams. That's fine with me.