Monday, April 28, 2014

Dribs And Drabs-The Rest Is Silence

Tanaquil Leclercq
Seattle ballet fans might want to check out the new documentary film "Afternoon of a Faun," about the late New York City Ballet dancer Tanaquil LeClercq.

Tanny, as she was known to her friends, was a rising star when she contracted polio in 1956. She was only 27 years old. "Afternoon of a Faun" shows us some ghostly footage of LeClercq as a young dancer. It also addresses the pain she faced as she came to grips with her physical situation. But more than that, the documentary provides a glimpse at Tanny's husband, George Balanchine, and the very complex relationships the choreographer formed with the women who inspired his art. As an added highlight, we see a bit of the complicated friendship between Tanny and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Most of all, it's food for thought on the fleeting life of a dancer, whether due to illness or the fact that a dancer's performance life is limited.
The film plays at Seattle's Varsity Theater. I can't imagine it'll stick around for a long run, but it's definitely worth checking out now.

Kaori Nakamura in Peter Boal's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

In other ballet news: Pacific Northwest Ballet's eternally beautiful principal dancer Kaori Nakamura gives her farewell performance Sunday, June 8th. Nakamura announced last fall that this artistic season would be her last. Now in her early 40's, Nakamura is more lovely than ever onstage. But ballet's physical demands have taken their toll. Lucky PNB students: Nakamura will join the faculty of the company's dance school. You can also see Kaori Nakamura dance the title role in "Giselle", opening Friday May 30th at McCaw Hall.

Also taking their last Seattle bows June 8th: Liora Neuville, a lovely PNB corps de ballet member who has given us some gently pretty performances over her years with the company. According to PNB, Neuville will head to nursing school. A bigger loss to local audiences: corps member and emerging choreographer Andrew Bartee leaves the company when the season ends. The long, lanky redhead has shone in such contemporary work as Crystal Pite's "Emergence," (re-emerging on June 8th) and Ulysses Dove's "Dancing On The Front Porch Of Heaven." He's also been a semi-regular with Olivier Wevers' company Whim W'him. Lucky for us, Bartee is only a road trip away: he's joining Ballet BC. Good luck Andrew; how we will miss you!
PNB departing dancer Andrew Bartee, rehearsing in New York

Looking ahead to some other dance events in May: Whim W'him will be at Seattle's Erickson Theater, in a new program called #unprotected. Look for new work by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, the aforementioned Andrew Bartee, and company Artistic Director Wevers. The show runs May 15-23rd.

And Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater presents "Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers and Dance" May 15-17th at Fremont Abbey Arts Center and May 22-24th at Washington Hall. The festival features seven new works with live accompaniment by Simple Measures chamber music ensemble. Byrd told me no two programs will be the same. Between "Rambunctious" and #unprotected, plus "Giselle" in late May, it looks like Seattle's in for a wild dance ride. Bring it on!
bonus Kaori photo!
in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake", photo by Angela Sterling

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dancing Beyond The Stage: It's A Revelation

Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"
courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
It's been years, probably decades, since I last saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform. No particular reason-mostly timing conflicts, I suspect. This year the stars aligned, and I had the good fortune to be part of the Seattle audience during Ailey's 2014 Spring tour. Not only was this performance an opportunity to watch some amazing dancers; it was also a thought-provoking experience. More about that second point in a bit.

The tour was more of a marathon: more than 20 cities over a couple of months. I believe Seattle was the 18th or 19th stop. The dancers didn't betray any particular exhaustion onstage. If anything, the adoration lavished on them by the capacity audience surely buoyed the performers' spirits.

We were treated to three works. Ronald K. Brown's 2013 "Four Corners" opened the Saturday evening show. Almost a dozen dancers (the women in flowing dresses and head scarves, the men in loose trousers and shirts) undulated across the floor to a musical pastiche. At times the dance felt vaguely African, but what was most remarkable was the dancers' prowess. Brown required of them a technical control that was breathtaking. Bent at the waist, arms extended, the dancers drew up through their backs, forming arches that they then mimicked with their arms and hands. They shimmied and shook, following the ebb and flow of the music. The dance ends with a line of dancers snaking out, one by one, from the wings, moving upstage, then back downstage and off. The movements passed from dancer to dancer down the line, like a relay runner passes a baton.
Dancer Yannick Lebrun, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The men, in particular, shone. Alas for the audience, the program offered us no photos, so it was hard to pick out our favorites by name. One man stood out for me. A bit of detective work identified him, I think, as Yannick Lebrun. He launched himself into each movement with his full being, exuding a sort of radiance that separated himself from his colleagues. "Four Corners" left me breathless, both in empathetic response to the nonstop energy of the performers, but also with respect to the scope and ambition of the choreography.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company members
in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16"

After a short intermission, the show resumed with Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's high voltage 1999 work "Minus 16." I've seen Naharin's company, Batsheva Dance, perform this; the Ailey dancers were equally impressive. "Minus 16" began with a disarming front-of-curtain solo. Marcus Jarrell Willis stood, looking out at the audience, dressed in a dark suit, white button down shirt and dark lace-up shoes. The house lights remained up as Willis' elastic body seemed to collapse in on itself, then spring upright in one swooping movement. Willis never stopped regarding the audience regarding him, as he dropped down and slid across the stage floor, to end up, prone with his chin propped on his fists. The house lights slowly faded, and the stage erupted in a frenzy of music and movement, as 20 more dancers in suits and matching hats joined Willis.

"Minus 16" is more than a single dance: it's like a cavalcade of insistent energetic dances. Each is distinct, yet tied into the whole. Even a bittersweet pas de deux, a momentary lull in the action, was super charged. The hullabaloo culminated with an extended section that included the audience. Artists have broken the fourth wall before, but "Minus 16" heaves a load of TNT at it, smashing through with gusto.
Marcus Jarrell Willis in "Revelations"

The evening ended, as do most Ailey company tour performances, with Alvin Ailey's seminal 1960 dance "Revelations." And this is when my brain went into overdrive. Because "Revelations" is more than a dance; it's more than a tradition. Built in three sections, "Revelations" is steeped in a sensibility that comes out of Texas-reared Ailey's life, as well as the wider African American experience. From the exhaustion and torment of oppression, to anger and struggle, to a joyous affirmation of what it means to be alive, "Revelations" is an impressive work of art. But watching the audience response, it was clear that, to them, this was far more than a piece of choreography well executed. I needed to know more.

Choreographer and former Ailey student Donald Byrd graciously sat down with me to give me to talk about this. Byrd grew up in the Deep South, and he says as a young man he had a visceral negative reaction to spirituals (the soundtrack of "Revelations"), because they reminded him of slavery, a chapter of his heritage he preferred not to dwell on. When he left Florida to study in the Northeast, Byrd was a voracious consumer of dance performance. He says he went to see everything. On the recommendation of Tufts University classmate William Hurt, Byrd attended an Alvin Ailey performance. He says as "Revelations" ended, he was surprised to find himself on his feet, cheering with tears running down his cheeks. It was a personal and artistic revelation: Byrd told me he thought at the time "I want to make art that makes people feel like this."

Since those school days, Byrd has maintained a long and evolving relationship with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: he studied there, caught Ailey's eye, choreographed for both Ailey II and the main company. In particular, Byrd's dance "Shards" drew national acclaim. It was Alvin Ailey who, personally, validated Byrd's choreographic aspirations, his artistic sensibility, despite the fact that the younger man was more interested in New York's downtown, avant garde dance scene.

It's clear that the 2014 Seattle audience felt much the way Donald Byrd did more than 20 years ago: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is, for them, as much a symbol as an artistic institution. As such, it bears a weighty responsibility. Byrd says he believes the new Artistic Director Robert Battle wants to bring more contemporary dance pieces into the Ailey repertoire. But it's a delicate balance: too much new work overshadows the company legacy; too little relegates it to museum-status. And, it turns out, on these marathon cross-country tours, we audiences in the hinterlands are not exposed to the full artistic cornucopia that Ailey offers. For that, Donald Byrd says, I have to travel to New York in December.

Sounds like a plan.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lucky Lucky New Yorkers!

Sandra Jackson Dumont
photo by Jennifer Richard
Seattle is losing one great arts leader. Actually, we're losing one great woman: Sandra Jackson Dumont. She's moving to New York at the end of May to take a job with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you don't know her, you may know all that she's done as Education Director at Seattle Art Museum:
Remix, the regular evening festivities at SAM? Yep, that was her doing.
Hooking up teens with urban design professionals? Sandra Jackson Dumont, again.
Inviting non-visual arts folks to give museum tours called "My Favorite Things?" You guessed it, Sandra's great idea.

Sandra Jackson Dumont arrived in Seattle in 2006. As she told me, the dust hadn't really settled at the new Olympic Sculpture Park. Like that park, it feels like Sandra has always been here. She's made ties to people outside the museum, folks who have never really thought the Seattle Art Museum was something they'd be interested in.

Sandra was lured here by former SAM Director Mimi Gardner Gates, who liked to talk about the art museum as an institution that should be permeable, a place that would be a touchstone for this community.Under Jackson Dumont's stewardship, SAM has come a long way toward that goal.

When I asked her what she was proudest of at SAM, she reeled off a staggering list of achievements. Then Sandra Jackson Dumont told me a story. At the reopening of the expanded downtown museum, a little girl lost her stuffed rabbit. The wayward bunny was located, and returned to its owner, tucked inside a SAM backpack. The little girl's father called to thank the museum. Then he told them, before the bunny's safe return, his daughter had enchanted him with tales of all the amazing things she imagined her rabbit had done during its time at SAM.

That story says a lot about Sandra Jackson Dumont: she wants to amaze us, to tickle our imaginations, to astonish us, and to help us create memories and stories of our own. Thank you Sandra! Lucky Metropolitan Museum of Art! Sandra will be making your institution and your city a richer, more amazing place.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bodies Moving In Space: Is That All There Is?

Ballet de Geneve dancers
Last weekend a dear friend invited me to see Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. The company was going to perform a piece by the Israeli-born choreographer Emanuel Gat. I'd seen Gat's work a few summers ago, at the American Dance Festival. I had an immediate negative reaction to it. But I still remember the dance, so I figured, why not see what he was up to?

Why not, indeed. Sitting through the hour-long "Preludes et Fugues," I had several reasons to ask myself 'why?' Not as in 'why had I come,' because I'm always glad to see something new. More like, 'why is it enough just to have strenuous movement set on excellent technicians?' Or, 'why are people giving this a standing ovation?'

Set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed live onstage, "Preludes et Fugues" was a series of high powered vignettes. At first, I was intrigued at the technical prowess Gat's work demanded from these dancers. Then, when the tempo of the piece never altered, my intrigue gave way to boredom. It was a lot of "sound and fury, signifying nothing." What a waste of good dancers!

I left the theater thinking about that catch-all definition of dance: bodies moving in space. Are these moving bodies enough to make something artful? At the top of this post you'll see a photo of some of the beautiful dancers who performed Gat's work in Seattle. They were skilled, they were lovely. It was the dance that was empty.

Writing about this dance got me to thinking about artfulness as embodied in artists. Recent I read a book by evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond. He cites art-making as one of the key differences between contemporary humans and Neanderthals. In other words, the ability to create is what separates us from the rest of the animals on our planet. Does that mean all creators are artful? Is a modicum of artfulness inherent in all artworks? Is it something you can teach dancers?
PNB Corps de Ballet member Leta Biasucci in George Balanchine's "Diamonds."
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

I'm mentoring a colleague right now; she's producing her first dance story for radio, a profile of young Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet member Leta Biasucci. I chose Leta as the focus of our story about aspiring dancers, because when I watch her onstage, I get the sense that there is more to her than a body moving in space. Her boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, told me Leta has an inherent artistic sensibility and presence, "which is something really hard to teach." Boal says "some dancers never really get that." I imagine that's true of some choreographers as well. Or dramatists, or classical instrumentalists. Or writers, for that matter.
Former PNB principal Lucien Postelwaite in "A Million Kisses to My Skin", by  David Dawson
photo by Angela Sterling courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

There are Seattle dance artists who I have loved over the years. The sublime Lucien Postelwaite comes to mind immediately (oh, how we miss you!). Catherine Cabeen is another; Zoe Scofield, Ami LeGendre, KT Niehoff. The list goes on. Each of these people can imbue a performance with that intangible extra...something. They can elevate even some mediocre work.

I have only seen Peter Boal performing in his prime through the miracle of videotape. But I did see him onstage in Seattle a few years back, at a Men In Dance Festival. Boal performed a solo choreographed by Donald Byrd. There wasn't a lot to the dance; I think Boal was 43 at that time, well past his physical peak. But he managed to captivate the audience simply by looking over his shoulder. I remember thinking at the time that Boal must have been quite a stage presence in his heyday with New York City Ballet.
Peter Boal at 18, with New York City Ballet
photo by Steven Caras, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Which brings me back to Emanuel Gat and Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve. Some beautiful technical moments, some lovely dancers. But it was like a nonstick pan: four days later and I retain barely a trace of the evening. I guess, as the saying goes, 'you pays your money; you takes your chances.' That's about gambling, but it's equally true of a performance. Each time we enter a theater, we have high hopes that we'll experience a moment of artfulness, something transcendent. I guess the fact that those moments aren't a dime a dozen makes them all the sweeter when we find them.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who's Afraid of Deborah Hay? I Might Be

Shannon Stewart (l) and Mary Margaret Moore
photo by Jeff Huston
Why do humans create? Given the archaeological and historical evidence, we've been dancing, singing, painting and making theater for centuries.

Some folks speculate art was, and continues to be, a form of worship. Others call it a response to current events. The last time I wrote about this subject, one reader commented that he was simply driven to make things, that it wasn't in response to anything particular. Art, the great mystery.

"Why Create?" was a question Seattle choreographer Shannon Stewart asked herself. At a recent rehearsal for this weekend's "Who's Afraid of Deborah Hay?", Stewart told me she turned to Hay's work to make sense of her own creative impulses. Hay makes dances, but apparently she's developed an introspective practice that requires performers not only to learn those dances, but to prepare themselves psychically to perform them.
photo by Jeff Huston

I watched Stewart and her collaborator Mary Margaret Moore run through two separate solos. The dances were sparse, almost enigmatic, a blend of quotidian motions, quiet, almost yogic poses, and what I think of as, for lack of a better term, "dancerly" movements. (Hey, I've heard visual artists described as "painterly," so why not "dancerly"?)

For those of you who, like me, aren't too familiar with Deborah Hay: she came of age in New York in the 1960's. Hay danced for a time with Merce Cunningham's company. She left (according to Stewart and Moore, Cunningham's choreography "terrorized her") to join with a group of like-minded, experimental artists who later came to be known as the Judson Group.
Mary Margaret Moore (l) and Shannon Stewart
photo by Jeff Huston

I was curious why Moore and Stewart chose to devote so much time and energy to Hay's practice and dances. Stewart told me that she has been a dancer almost her entire life, but she's never been able to connect that dance life to her other passion:  political/community activism. Presumably, working with Deborah Hay has helped her to bridge those worlds.
Shannon Stewart and Mary Margaret Moore
photo by Jeff Huston

You can check out "Who's Afraid of Deborah Hay?" this weekend (April 5-6) in Seattle at Washington Hall, and April 18-19 at Conduit Dance in Portland.