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“Weir/Welch ‘Here/After’ American Ballet Theatre,” Ballet-tanz Magazine, October 2003

OAbout the time a work of art – any art – begins the self-congratulatory business of considering itself to be momentous is also about the time its audience (while running for the door) deems it merely foolish. American writer J.D. Salinger, in his novella Franny and Zooey, describes the genre of poetry that has little but itself to talk about – metapoetry – as “terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings.” Natalie Weir’s and Stanton Welch’s metaballet, HereAfter, a puzzling partnership of independently realized but thematically mated pieces premiering May 16, 2003, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, by American Ballet Theatre, may well be described in the same terms.

In spite of an attempt in the program to explain the non-alliance between the choreographers, the final impression is that director Kevin McKenzie found it impossible to choose among the proposals before him, and so hired two choreographers, who worked without any sort of collaboration. The result is a contemporary dual narrative ballet in two acts, not only titled separately, Heaven and Earth, but destined to be performed – after this premiere  – separately.

Weir’s Heaven is set to John Adams’s Harmonium and concerns the life review that some people experience at the moment of their deaths. The chorus performing the music, the New York Choral Society, is arranged around the exterior of a kind of block-weave net, and the mood is futuristic, a knock-off from the gulag scene in the Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A bower descends transporting the Man, and the corps, in the role of. Humanity, pours downstage. Humanity represents mankind, of course, but it is also the quality of humanness, and includes our commonalties, and our sense of self.

The Man relives two experiences of love, the first erotic, the second romantic/idealistic. The dancing provides a narrative framework for Adams’ lyrics, and seems to describe a spiritual journey.  The style of movement is sequential and dramatic rather than rhythm-governed, although it is tied to music in terms of pace. The end is a sort of summary – the beginning in reverse – the Man returns to the bower and to somnolence.

The choreography for Welch’s Earth, set to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, is more conventional than that of Heaven. Sequences are repeated – to the left, and then the right. The corps mirrors the leads. Dancing in late sections reflects upon earlier sections – that is, steps in new contexts cause us to rethink them, reconsidering what is achieved and how meaning is conveyed.  It is rhythm-based movement, in contrast to the loose-thread straggle of Weir’s piece. But the corps is not fully used.  Dancers in isolated groups of twos and threes perform various combinations while the rest of the corps stands around, an approach that grossly underserves the grandeur of the music. Orff’s opus has become backdrop – setting, but not theme. Also, there are simply too many pauses – so many that the lack of dynamics begins to seem academic: this is choreographers’ choreography, so repetitive and predictable that in the last several minutes we seem to “hear” the dancing ahead of the music. Welch has forgotten his audience, allowing the piece to carry on and on like a drunk on a five-hour flight, talking about itself.

A second difficulty with this production was the casting. Overall, the first cast was strong, with Ethan Steiffel in a more earth-bound, mercurial role than we have seen previously, a soaring Julio Boca, and Julie Kent whose idol-like stance manages to persuade us that we are lost in some primitive tribunal. But the second cast, in spite of strong performances by Paloma Herrera and tiny dynamo Herman Corenjo, who makes a convincing Everyman – urban, youthful and contemporary – was painful to watch. One distraction was principal Xiomara Reyes’s poor posture and worse technique. She has lovely legs and feet, but no control of her arms.  Her shoulders are in her ears, while her head juts forward from her slumped back. Most terrible of all was David Hallberg in the role of Death. His unsure, wavering stance and hesitance in the choreography, as if he were asking himself whether it was time to go right or left, and obvious self-consciousness were almost unwatchable. With its fairly elaborate costumes and sets, tremendous music and highly effective lighting, HereAfter must have cost a good deal to mount. But I found myself feeling sorry for the elderly ladies in the seats next to mine, who paid out their little money to see this mess.

The final question for audiences may be: Why mate Acts I & II?

Well, there is a structural similarity between the two.  Both return to their openings at the end, a comment on the cyclical nature of individual experience as well as the similarity between all human lives. Both are somewhat pedantically Eastern in vision. If  these answers seem too much of a stretch, viewers may turn to the program notes, which seem to gasp in wonder that both choreographers have managed, all on their own, to hit upon these trite themes. Perhaps here is the message: that choreography can convince itself, if not its audience, that the line between trendy and truth is not very important.

“Funny Fiddler: Boris Eifmann’s ‘Who’s Who,’ Eifmann Ballet of St. Petersburg, Wang Theatre for Performing Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, March 14, 2003,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, July 2003

OThe Wang Theatre in Boston’s Chinatown was a singularly appropriate venue for the world premiere of Boris Eifmann’s Who’s Who, a broadway-esque ballet about the adventures of Russian immigrants to the U.S. during the 1920s. A broadly played dance pantomime and costume piece, the atmosphere is reminiscent of recent Broadway production works as Ragtime or Titanic, punctuated with the burlesque humor of Funny Girl or Victor/Victoria underscored by the shrugging soberness and concern with the phenomenon of change of Fiddler on the Roof.

Although the ballet had the general style and staging of a music theatre piece, the dancing defied the conventions of the genre.  Ever inventive, the choreography had a surprising newness, appropriate to the setting and theme of the story, a pathos and wackiness that never grew tame or tired, and a resigned finish, with the gaudily clad dancers and faded god hanging over them that mirrors life, if not the conventions of art.

Precise and fluent in technique, formally tight and masterful, principal dancers Alexey Turko and Igor Siadzko demonstrated well what partnering between two males can be.  In sequences alternately comic and moving, the two men’s strength in maintaining off-centered balances, and in supporting one another through them, in lifts and in conveying intimacy – along with their gifted clowning – matched point for point ballerina Vera Arbuzova potency and gender-bending technique.  In fact, gender differences throughout the piece are deliberately blurred, adding to the continuing choreographic surprises.

Set an amalgam of jazz pieces by American artists such as Scott Joplin (“The Entertainer”), Duke Ellington (“It Don’t Mean a Thing, If it Ain’t Got that Swing”), Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and others, with theatre-style sets and lighting, the story revolves around the adventures of a pair of dancers from Russia trying their chances in America.  It is in many ways the story of crushed expectations and of making do with less, of the inevitable brushes with the American underworld and of struggles in establishing and maintaining personal integrity and identity.

In creating this piece Eifmann continues to fulfill the promise shown in his previous choreography.  It is a ballet audiences will want to see again.

“Chicago: Cranko’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” Dance International Magazine, Spring 2003

O

John Cranko’s 1969 evening-length classic, The Taming of the Shrew, was brought to vivid life once again by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, October 16-20, 2002 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Revisiting masterworks of this stature presents audiences with opportunities for discovery in several areas. It gives them the chance to see the choreography performed by different bodies, perhaps offering nuances of characterization and meaning not suggested in other interpretations. It advances an occasion to view repertory in the context of time. This second item takes on special significance when the libretto is based in classic literature, as Taming is. Literary texts are subject to reinterpretation, and changes in the field of criticism open ways to seeing them from new points of view. In the case of Taming the effects of these changes are quite clear. When Cranko was working, Richard Burton in the only readily available filmed version of the play portrayed Petruchio as a drunken lout who wins the game by offering Kate a homeopathic remedy: a taste of her own medicine.  Only two years after the Stuttgart premiere of the ballet, Raul Julio in the famed Shakespeare in the Park series that still goes on in New York every summer, showed audiences a deeply confident Petruchio who offers Katherine a lesson in self control as well as the secret to true self esteem, instruction that allows her to become master rather than victim of her life. Critics currently argue in favor of this interpretation.

Nevertheless, Taming of the Shrew is successful as a story ballet in part because it is shaped, like many ballets in the genre, upon the eighteenth and nineteenth century comic opera model. Its opening with an overture is a bit of showmanship that prepares the audience to expect an opera-theatrical structure. Its melodic and episodic score contains airs for each of the main characters, a few bars of which repeat to introduce them in later scenes. The expense of the production, with its elaborate costumes and changing sets, its use of comedic foils to the main characters in the persons of Bianca and her three suitors, its background of clowns – especially in the final scenes – and their slapstick humor (their dousing with the contents of a chamber pot, Petruchio’s “stripping” by whores), the use of subplot to create dance opportunities along with the extended finale: all contribute to the impression. Likewise the weaving of ensemble pieces between solos and pas de deux imitates the comic opera pattern of balancing arias with choral works. The characters reflect and repeat dance phrases like repetitions in the lyric of a duet, so that even the dancing demonstrates the ballet’s relation to opera.

On opening night, Maia Wilkins, the Joffrey’s principal ballerina, played Kate with spitfire ferocity, demonstrating her strength as technician as well as mastery of gesture. Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss noted her “ready-for-battle pitch of the shoulders, the little suggestions of pain behind the rage, [and] nightmarish exhaustion during the wacky honeymoon ordeal.”

In the second cast, surprising newcomer Julie Kepley, recently hired from the Atlanta Ballet, appeared to upstage even this tremendous performance. Paired with Joffrey veteran Willy Shives–whose low-comedy portrayal of Petruchio transformed by an unexpected meeting with his equal and match –Katherine – inspired laughter, tears and a standing ovation.

Kepley approached the part with real daring, flying with flexed feet at the head of her suitor, and sustaining her role as sister, schlmozzel, lover, and, finally, adoring wife with the same energy and joy. In their final pas de deux, Kepley and Shives, re-costumed in the pale green of new birth, an echo of Shakespeare’s identification of Katherine as “another daughter,” the audience is privileged to witness the development of a relationship that is at once both romantic and original. Through sustained opposition of pulling and accord, we see that as partners Kate and Petruchio will retain their lovable independence as well as their eagerness to play. It is a necessary moment, satisfying the audience’s need for closure.

Other notable performances include those of the delightful technician Heather Aagard, and her three frolicking suitors, Calvin Kitten, Michael Levine and Matthew Roy Prescott, who seem to have stepped in from the stage of the commedia dell’arte. Bianca’s sweet pas de deux with Kitten’s Lucentiuo is a fine foil in its revealed falseness to the authenticity of Kate and Petruchio’s encounter. The servants schooled by Petruchio to portray themselves as gothic clowns, each with his own macabre handicap, add greatly to the fun. Even the orchestra participates in the storytelling when it suggests – musically – that the suitors in the guise of tutors have no ability to dance or sing. The weaknesses in the performance, clumsy male corps dancers who follow the choreography a beat or two behind, is effectively hidden by the busy-ness and lack of a single focal point during crowd scenes when dancing and interaction between characters is going on all over the stage.

Cranko’s ability to convey Shakespearean reversals through movement – nice girls are revealed as shrews, whores as managerial wives and spoiled brats as loving spouses – has found apt interpretation in this contribution from artistic director Gerald Arpino and in Georgette Tsinguirides (who worked with Cranko on the original production). They have demonstrated a faculty for revealing hidden talents of the dancers in choreography that remains, for all the gags, inspired, emotionally effective, and convincing.

“Dance/Gospel Fusion: Atlanta Ballet and New Birth Baptist Choir,” Atlanta Magazine, April 2003

Atlanta Magazine April 2003

Atlanta Magazine April 2003

New York-based choreographer Christian Holder had accepted a proposal to create a new ballet from Atlanta Ballet’s Artistic Director John McFall and was searching a website, skimming through titles for appropriate music when he discovered the 18th century John Marriot hymn, “Let There Be Light.” He had just reviewed a tape of his 3-day workshop with Atlanta Ballet dancers, and had in hand a cd of representative gospel music compiled for him by New Birth Missionary Baptist Church music director Kevin Bond.

“Bond recognized it immediately as the lyric for the Negro National Anthem,” Holder continues. “I’d never heard [it], but in fact it turned out to be thematically almost a blueprint for the ballet I was trying to create.”

Holder was looking for music that would be “all-inclusive, that the audience could relate to,” and that would also bring out the varied qualities he had discovered in the dancers.  “It’s a classically trained company, but culturally it’s completely mixed,”  he says. There are dancers from Mongolia and South America, all over the world. “I knew that to reveal these dancers strengths, I wanted a broad human story, but something that heals, something that transcends our human plight,” Holder explains. “Let there Be Light” is essentially a prayer for “the light of the gospel to shine into the darkest areas of the human void, into hate, into turbulence, into times like our own. It is a prayer for peace.”

            This ballet, Transcendence, has its world premiere at The Fox Theatre April 24–27 and may be one of the most unusual and innovative collaborations of its kind in Atlanta Ballet’s history, indeed in the history of dance. About a community in turmoil redeemed by a spiritual messenger, Transcendence is not a story ballet in a traditional sense. Made up of series of episodes held together by the presence of a single character, it contains narrative elements like adversity followed by triumph, and struggle leading to redemption. The idea is to illustrate the place of the artist in the universe.  “After 911, people drew together, and all of the gatherings were around music and dance,” says Holder.  “This is because music and dance heal. The essence of art is to communicate [that healing, because] the artist is the line between the human and the divine.”

“At first I thought ‘Let There Be Light’ would be recited over the music. We were in a production meeting at a hotel in New York, and I started to read it aloud.  ‘Oh, I know this,’ said Bond.”  By now Holder had chosen the sequence of songs and had a treatment for the ballet.  “It turns out, Bond knew the pieces I’d chosen and felt they would work for New Birth’s voices, that the choir could take these things and make them their own.”  The challenge then was for the dancers who would rehearse to the choir’s recordings, but perform at the Fox to live music that to some degree spontaneous. As such, each performance is a unique work of art that come into being at the moment it is performed and can never be repeated in exactly the same way. “The truth of the gesture can change from performance to performance,” Holder says.

            When ballet directors choose choreographers, they consider the history, the ingredients, the chemistry an individual can bring to a project.  In this case, having selected the music, although not in comprehensive way – McFall didn’t want to inhibit the artistry of his team, Holder, Bond, and composer Paul Chihara who brought the various elements of the piece together musically – he looked at Holder’s international experience. “ Holder has a spectral overview.  He doesn’t have the limits some people might. I watched him for years in performance and then when he started to make ballets.  Given his body of work, I was curious about how he would approach this music and our mission” to develop a dance that could convey “the spiritual resonance we find in this region.” Likewise, the New Birth Baptist Missionary Choir, whose contemporary sound, with the rhythms and cadence of traditional gospel music but plugged in to the various new technologies for conveying it, including electronics and computer imaging, celebrates Atlanta’s spirituality.  This music, McFall explains, is like the city itself, “enjoying a respect for tradition without being cemented in the past.”

Transcendence combines the talents of Atlanta Ballet, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church choir and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra—more than 200 artists sharing the stage for the first time ever—in a performance that mixes ballet, African-American religious music, Anglican prayer, Japanese drumming, contemporary dance, Bach and the blues. It is part of an ongoing effort by Atlanta Ballet to incorporate innovative, collaborative productions, as evidenced by the September 2001 concert with the Indigo Girls and last fall’s Ramblin’ Suite with The Red Clay Ramblers.

“We’re not a museum,” says McFall.  “The well-spring of the creative mission at ballet is to collaborate with the community of artists we find in Atlanta,” in the hope that by mixing the ballet form with a variety of genres “we discover ourselves as we enrich the city.” Transcendence meets this goal as a “new work that represent our time, what Atlanta is today,” he continues.  “The New Hope is one of many congregations in Atlanta that propels people in our community. It speaks to our present with vivid, emotionally charged music, and has been a clear choice in fulfilling our passion to express ourselves, with our artistic colleagues in the community, through collaboration.” 

The blend of forms, sometimes called fusion or multimedia ballet is increasingly popular across the country.  It has fueled the creation of regional companies like Complexions, in New York, Alonzo King’s LINES, in Oakland, California and Ballethnic here in Atlanta. Its concepts are also the basis for a broad spectrum of inventive ballets that employ video and computer-generated images and backdrops, ethnic and tribal music from around the world, and a wealth of critical stances from every field that offer new interpretations of old stories and ideas. A source of this dance style’s popularity may be the joy, novelty and challenge dancers and choreographers feel in putting together what seem to be oppositions.

            Holder was intrigued by the opportunity to reach audiences who might not necessarily attend ballets, and to do so with music and with a company he fell in love with. John McFall, in allowing Holder 5 months to work on the project gave him “a rare combination of security and freedom.” Certainly dance set to religious music has been done before. McFall’s own Requiem (also on the program at the Fox) is an example, as are the various Carmina Buranas done around the country. Transcendence is distinguished musically from others by the progression Holder terms “generational layering.” From Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major through spirituals and soul music to Bond’s own ”Bless the Lord,” whose technological currency and urban funk Holder describes as “in the moment,” the audience has a unique view of the richness and nobility of dance and history.

Holder grew up in Trinidad and London in a family of artists, writers and musicians and enjoyed a successful career as leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, where for many years he was the only black artist. He has choreographed and designed costumes for Washington Ballet, Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Ballet Théâtre de Bordeaux, and American Ballet Theatre, and taught ballet for Steps on Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. In June 2001, Holder choreographed the San Francisco Opera’s production of Aida. But he has found tremendous pleasure in working with Atlanta’s premier dance company, a group he found to be “beautifully trained and artistically astute.”

            Dancer and Atlanta native Emily Cook, who trained at Rotaru and Atlanta’s Center for Dance Education has found mastering Holder’s hybrid approach and cultural bilingualism rewarding. “Christian’s style is very fluent, very organic. Movement from one sequence to another just feels natural. I love dancing classical pieces, but when the performance has a deeper meaning, when it’s not just dance for dance’s sake, you reach another level of passion.”

“Deceptive Little Sweets: A Critical Review,” Up Yer Sleeve website, February 2003

Up Yer Sleeve, Deceptive Little Sweets

Up Yer Sleeve, Deceptive Little Sweets

It is a rainy November night in Seattle, and I am tooling north on I-5 with an old college pal, a wacky artist who nails canvas on the walls, and spinning around the room on roller skates and carrying a paint gun, executes four masterpieces simultaneously.

“Listen to this.” I pop the cd I just received in the mail into the drive. It’s the Salt Lake City band, Up Yer Sleeve’s 1998 release, Deceptive Little Sweets. There’s a pause as the machine shifts into action. Then we hear the first few guitar licks of the opening melody “Skeletons,” and my friend says, “Sounds like Jerry Garcia.” Then as lead vocalist Gail Krug’s slinky- sweet, tough girl voice takes over, he says, “and that reminds me of—”

“Jefferson Airplane,” we intone together.

At the first instrumental bridge he says, “And that, that right there – that sounds like what’s-his-name.”

“Knopfler,” I suggest.

Mark Knopfler! Exactly! Is the rest of it like this?”

Well, no. The songs are all different from one another. But my guess is that if you listen to this cd, you’ll find yourself thinking just like my friend and me.

Resembling the music of the sixties and seventies that informs these tunes, the selections are various and exciting, the musicianship solid, and the live- performance sound refreshing. Krug, herself, wrote most of these songs, and many of them have the tight, smoky atmosphere of a basement tavern with a linoleum floor, and the in-your-face feeling of musicians met by an audience at close terms. This is the kind of band for whom a nightclub venue is perfect, and when we listen to this cd it’s where we want to be.

Several of the pieces are real standouts. There is no denying the catchiness of a tune like “Marshmallow.” “Marshmallows, baby, are deceptive little sweets/We can burn you real badly when exposed to too much heat.” Yes, you can. The aforementioned “Skeletons” contains the sharp musicality that distinguishes the genre called “classic” rock. Others, notably “Avalanche Wind,” “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” written by Tom Krug and “Drifting,” have the brave, world- weary tone that might be considered trademark of Krug’s work; that is, it might be if we had more to go on. With only the cd here under discussion, and three more singles available for listening on line, it seems to be too early to make assertions. Still, we see her frequently making claims against her vulnerability.

One track that draws my attention is “Child.” This is the type of composition that can sound preachy to an audience, but that the composer himself invariably loves because it gives honest expression to outrage, to negative emotions atypical of successful popular music. Examples that come to mind are Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” In this piece, Krug seems to be addressing both one child who suffers from social ostracism, and also all children who undergo similar trials: “Child of rape … child of color … child of true diversity … savior of the human race.”

Another track I enjoy is “Better By Now,” partly because of the gentle harmonies that explore rather than insist upon the melody, and partly because of the lyric, which addresses the joylessness of addictive behavior. The piling up of “I should know”s is pleasing, hypnotic, and the logic is irrefutable. Even the rush itself becomes stupid after awhile, the speaker tells us.

At notable variance with all of these tracks is the piece composed by Duke Bonnell and performed by band member Tom Krug. “Finish Us Off” is a country-rock talk- song that might easily be sorted among humorous tomes such as Johnny Cash’sA Boy Named Sue,” or Pure Prairie League‘s “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle.” Krug, after drawing up a lengthy list of comparisons with the current human condition, such as the Biblical story of the luckless Job, or the fate of a young deer hit by a truck (trust me, this is funnier than it sounds), suggests that the Lord should simply put us out of our misery “Bring on the earthquakes, famines, floods and plagues/Haul out the big guns. We’ll wrap it up in seven days/Why don’t you finish us? Finish us off.”

Up Yer Sleeve’s Deceptive Little Sweets breaks no new ground, musically speaking. In fact, in some ways it’s very much throwback music, and familiarity is the source of the comfort and joy we feel in it. It bespeaks an era of certain innocence in the blues-rock genre. These are the songs you’ve never heard, but already know.

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