Paul Taylor Saves the Day, and Morphoses Regroups
One of the principal attractions of the Fall For Dance festival is its democratic premise—Five different programs! Four companies per performance! Ten dollars!—but this weekend revealed the limits of the notion of egalitarianism. In other words, democracy has its limits. Not all dance is created equal.
Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 2-3) were devoted to the third of five programs, which consisted of: “Shu-Yi & (Dancers) Company”, from Taiwan; a pas de deux for two dancers from the San Francisco Ballet; Emanuel Gat Dance, founded in Tel Aviv but based in Paris since 2007; and the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
In its U.S. début, Shu-Yi performed “Ravel and Bolero,” a piece from 2007 by the company’s founder, Shu-Yi Chou. According to press materials, the company won the 2009 Global Dance Contest with this piece. I can’t imagine why. For starters, it takes enormous courage (foolhardyness) to make yet another dance set to Ravel’s admittedly infectious score, written for the Ida Rubinstein company in 1928. It has been used by everyone under the sun, from Nijisnka in 1928 to Ruth Page in 1935, Maurice Béjart in 1960, Alexei Ratmansky in 2004, and Ohad Naharin in 2008. It has been suggested that a “moratorium” should be placed on the use of this piece, but I would be more circumspect and say merely that the bar should be set extremely high. In this case, the ideas behind the choreography were simply not interesting or new or clever enough to withstand the weight of the music’s familiarity and history. Twelve young, attractive dancers in colorful outfits out of a J Crew catalogue yelled unconvincingly, performed flailing solos, posed as if for a photograph, and fell to the ground repeatedly, alone or in groups. The ensembles were messy and unfocused, and the dancing lacked refinement. It was hard going.
The pas de deux that followed, “Diving in to the Lilacs,” by Yuri Possokhov (the resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet), was well-executed by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith, two polished, senior principal dancers with this excellent West Coast company. But the dance itself lacked distinction. It was pretty and nostalgic and tried, but failed, to be deep. Tan was beautiful, Smith was attentive and strong. She “ran” into his arms and showed off her 180 degree extension in a split to the side, he caught her gallantly and flipped her overhead with manly ease. It is exactly the sort of thing many people expect from ballet, and what can make it seem like such a tired form.
Things improved after the break with Emanuel Gat’s “My Favorite Things,” set to Coltrane’s sax variations on the Rodgers and Hammerstein song (“girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes”), danced by Roy Assaf on a bare stage. You may remember Assaf from Gat’s “Winter Variations”, set to Schubert lieder, and performed at the Lincoln Center Festival last year. Like Coltrane’s extemporizations, the choreography is basically an extended series of riffs, a meditation. Assaf moves, fluidly and seductively, with a low center of gravity and cat-like agility. He begins with a series of swooshing sweeps of the hands and arms around his head and torso; he glides side to side, sways his pelvis, turn his torso to face the audience as his lower body faces away from us, walks on his knees (as he did in Winter Variations), and slides on his posterior along the back of the stage. Assaf is an extremely musical dancer, and one could watch him for a long time, and we did. The piece is pleasant enough, and allows the audience to get a real feel for how this dancer moves, but that’s about it.
Thank goodness for Paul Taylor’s “Company B.” I’ve seen it performed a lot over the past few years, by Taylor’s main company, his smaller touring troupe (Taylor 2), and by A.B.T. I’ve written about this dance elsewhere, so I won’t go into it again here, but suffice it to say that this is a true master-work of Americana. The combination of the Andrews Sisters songs, so upbeat and dreamy and yet so filled with double meanings (intentional and not) with Paul Taylor’s strained cheerfulness and brittle innocence is potent and clever. Taylor strips away the layers with seeming nonchalance, and arrives at a kind of bitter truth. People die; we are all alone; life is gone in an instant; romance is a lie we tell ourselves to get through the day. This wasn’t the best performance I’ve ever seen of the work; the dancing was ragged at times, and the energy was not terribly high. But still, it worked. There are several new dancers in the company, and I noticed one in particular, Michael Novak, whom I’d seen before, performing Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” at the Miller Theatre a couple of years ago. Once again I was struck by the grace of his dancing and the innocence of his smile. He seemed understand all the nuances of this work, and to be happy to be part of it. It was a welcome sight.
When Christopher Wheeldon announced early this year that he would be leaving Morphoses, the company he formed with much hubbub back in 2007, it seemed that the whole enterprise would fold overnight. What was Morphoses without Wheeldon? But the company’s co-founder, Lourdes López, a former City Ballet dancer, swore she would go on, and so she has. The newly-reconstituted company had its New York début on Oct. 3-4 as part of the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim. It’s still a pick-up ensemble, employing mostly dancers who are already involved with other companies. It still attracts very fine dancers indeed: the current crop includes Kristi Boone, Misty Copeland, Eric Tamm, Blaine Hoven, and Isaac Stappas, all from A.B.T., as well as Matthew Prescott (seen most recently with Armitage Gone!), and Melissa Barak (formerly of New York City Ballet and a rising choreographer in her own right), just to name a few. The idea now is to have a changing roster of artistic “curators” who will, in the company’s own words “take on the role of resident artist for one season, leading the company’s artistic vision for that year.”
Morphoses’ first project was a commission, by Works and Process and others: two choreographers were asked to create pieces using the same two pieces of music, both by the New York choreographer David Lang (founder of Bang on a Can). Lang seems to be in vogue with choreographers—Benjamin Millepied’s new work for New York City Ballet, which will première on Oct. 7, is also set to his music. The choreographers were Jessica Lang and Pontus Lidberg, both young, both quite busy all over the place. Lang is American, and has danced for Twyla Tharp and made works for the Joffrey, ABT, and Cincinnati Ballet. Lidberg, who is Swedish, has made works for the Royal Danish Ballet and others, and also creates dance films (he is currently working on one with Wendy Whelan set to music by, you guessed it, David Lang).
If this all sounds very interesting and worthy, the results were more mixed. The two pieces, “The So-Called Laws of Nature” and “Forced March,” were not ideal for dance, lacking clear structure or melodic or thematic development. At the same time, they had a strong enough character to impose a certain amount of interpretation. One was gentle, the other more muscular and percussive. But these were not pieces one particularly wanted to sit through twice in quick succession. In addition, Jessica Lang’s interpretation of the score was dishearteningly literal, taking the banging and clanging of “Forced March” at face value and translating it into a quasi-military exercise, closely matched to the beats. There was a sub-theme dealing with gravity (one of the “so-called” laws), which consisted of dancers walking sideways along the back wall of the stage and being briefly suspended in flattened poses against this same wall. After watching people walking walls, both interior and exterior, at the recent Trisha Brown show at the Whitney, this did not have much effect.
Lidberg took a different approach in his piece, which he entitled “Vespertine”. Rather than feeling bound to the beats as Lang had, he took a more poetic, freer approach, choosing to lay his dance over the score, as if providing a kind of melody. His dance was more legato, more mysterious, and derived much of its tone form the push and pull of partnering (though the partners changed throughout the piece). The men touched the women’s legs, heads, and backs; the women placed their arms around their partners’ necks intimately. There was a sexiness to the movement that was intriguing; at times the dancers watched each other closely, as if trying to read each others movements. Once in a while a man lifted another man. But where Lang’s piece had felt overly literal, Lidberg’s began to seem increasingly disconnected from the score. As the music evolved, the steps continued in the same vein, barely acknowledging changes in intensity or color. It felt as if the movement had not been developed in response to the music at all.
In the end, both dances were handsome, in large part due to the very high level of the dancing, but neither was completely satisfying. It’s not easy to replace a choreographer like Wheeldon.
This said, the experiment is a valid one. Last year, when a similar approach was applied to a Steve Reich piece (choreographed by both Larry Keigwin and Peter Quanz), the results were more convincing, perhaps because the music was more suited to dance (and more fun to listen to), and perhaps because the choreographers came from such radically different backgrounds that the results were shockingly and amusingly in contrast with each other.
You can see some film of the Morphoses/Lang collaboration here.
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