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Alvin Ailey, “Revelations” (1960) performed April 28, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , on April 29, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

"I Been 'Buked" from Revelations

DANCE IN PROFILE: Alvin Ailey, Revelations (1960)

A complete performance of Revelations from 1986 is viewable on YouTube here (28 minutes into the video).

With Revelations, dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) revolutionized the role of African-Americans in Modern dance and created an enormously successful fusion of widely accessible style and themes and artistic quality. Revelations draws on black vernacular culture (derived from what Ailey called the “blood memories” of his childhood in Texas); spirituals, gospel, and blues music; and the precision and virtuosity of “heroic” Modern dance.

Revelations is the most widely-seen piece in the Modern dance repertoire (seen by over 23 million people, according to this page). The dance has been performed at multiple presidential inauguration galas and cited by Oprah Winfrey as something “every American” owes it to themselves to see. Mattel even produced a Revelations “Barbie” doll based on former Ailey Artistic Director Judith Jameson’s design! There is a wealth of information about this piece at the official Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website.

“Rocka My Soul,” an exuberant group dance

I was fortunate enough to see Revelations performed live in Boston on April 28, 2012 by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company, founded by Ailey in 1958, continues to perform seminal works from Ailey’s repertory as well as the work of contemporary choreographers who continue in his spirit. Robert Battle was appointed Artistic Director of the company in 2011.

It is interesting to note that the original version of Revelations premiered in 1960 utilized six dancers and lasted over an hour, while the current version is performed with more than twice as many dancers and lasts about 40 minutes. Costumes and scenic lighting have also changed over time. The piece currently in performance certainly doesn’t seem dated, as the enormous enthusiasm of the Boston audience attested (which, incidentally, had a strong representation from every age group).

Revelations consists of three sections, each of which contain three or four numbers: first, “Pilgrim of Sorrow” alludes to the atmosphere of oppression in the south and a search for deliverance through spirituality; second, “Take Me to the Water” evokes baptism and a sense of hope and renewal; and third, “Move, Members, Move” consists of exuberant, high-energy numbers conveying church and community.

In addition to the personal love that the composer and his dancers clearly have for the material, the appeal of Revelations can be attributed in part to the combination of the excitement of the gospel music and beautifully composed group dances in numbers such as “Wade in the Water,” [view clip] “Sinner Man,” [view clip] and “You May Run On” [view clip]; the nuanced, controlled, and virtuosic expressions of yearning and aspiration seen in the duet “Fix Me, Jesus” [view clip] and solo “I Wanna Be Ready” [view clip]; and the structural clarity of the sequences of movements and the elegant, simple body shapes–both relaxed and clear–showcased in the opening number, “I Been ‘Buked” [view clip].

There were a number of stand-out moments in the April 28th performance. The delicate male solo “I Wanna Be Ready” [view a video from a 1986 performance] was performed with outstanding control and strength by Michael Francis McBride. The dancer uses the floor of the stage in surprising and captivating ways, alternately defying and giving in to gravity. The dancers propels himself off the floor while never leaving it: laying on the ground he suspends his hips off of the floor, then reaches his torso and legs outwards in a tight V-shape; he stands up, falls back to the floor, then glances back up at heaven. There is a clearly communicated sense of struggle combined with a representation of divinity and strength in the human form, which beautifully articulates the somewhat mournful solo vocal.

In “Wade in the Water,” [view clip] rhythmically propulsive music is paired with steady, determined movements in which the dancers flex and bend their torsos, leaning back and rolling their shoulders, creating a sense of barely contained energy simmering beneath the surface. Large blue cloths rippling along the floor suggest the river in which a baptism is taking place: a not-so-subtle yet effective device, which provides a clear sense a scene. The soaring leaps, spins, and plunges in the male trio “Sinner Man” [view clip] were thrilling, bringing to mind the athleticism of classical ballet.

Throughout, Ailey has the dancers clearly articulate the phrases, gestures, and forms of the music. The dancers are dancing to the musical score, not alongside or against it, and this mimicking of music brought to my mind the choreographed spirituals of Helen Tamiris. However, Ailey was able to achieve a far more substantial and cohesive expression of that music. The dancing in Revelations is both inevitable-seeming yet spontaneous; intuitive yet refined; stemming from personal impressions and experiences yet broadly accessible.

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ODC/Dance Downtown, March 22, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , on March 28, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

ODC Dance Company

ODC Dance Company

The second program on ODC’s Dance Downtown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco featured three works choreographed by the three Artistic Directors of the ODC. The San Francisco-based ODC Dance Company was founded in 1971 by Brenda Way, and is now among the leading professional Modern dance companies and training programs on the West Coast. The audience was perhaps the largest and most vocally enthusiastic I’ve seen at a Modern dance performance, testifying to ODC’s popularity within the community.

The program opened with a world premiere: “Cut-Out Guy” by KT Nelson, with an ambient electronic music score by Ben Frost that shifted between thick, driving textures and quiet canvases of sound. This piece featured only the male dancers of the company, clothed simply in shorts and white shirts with sparse backdrops of dark colors (lighting by Dave Robertson), and was inspired by the choreographer’s experiences watching male wrestling teams in her son’s middle and high school (according to her program note). The dance explored tensions between strength and vulnerability, determination and awkwardness, expression and frustration.

The piece featured each of the dancers in turn in a series of duets and solos, and seemed carefully custom-made for the individual styles of movement and body types in the group: at one point a small, agile dancer tucked himself into the frame of a taller dancer and climbed over the larger dancer’s body. A dancer with a balletic quality takes on broad, graceful movements.

A number of unusual kinds of movement were featured extensively in this piece. The predominant leitmotif of the dance: the dancers took courageous, determined leaps then crashed to the floor in a carefully cultivated recklessness (taking the “recovery” out of Doris Humphrey’s famous concept of “fall and recovery”!). Dancers also slid across the floor on slippered feet and sometimes on their knees, scrambling and shifting nervously. They embraced or fought with each other in ambiguous, impersonal moments of intimacy. Overall, the dancers did a wonderful job of living the choreography with strength, grace, and commitment.

“Cut-Out Guy” was the most overall compelling work of the evening, for me, though I felt a lack of  development over the course of the piece. Most of this relatively long dance offered elaborations rather than new discoveries, and based on a first viewing I came out of the piece with roughly the same impression as I had in the first several minutes.

Kimi Okado’s I Look Vacantly Over the Pacific… Though Regret (2011) explored one theme in three movements: lost in translation. The title comes from a Japanese pencil box, and the piece goes on to explore awkward misunderstandings between two cultures. The first movement explored language: the dancers performed word-for-word gestural interpretations of cliche English phrases (“beat around the bush,” “hung out to dry,” etc) from an ESL learning tape. The second movement was a manic interpretation of customary gestures of of greeting and insult. The third explored imported pop culture, with a Japanese interpretation of 1960s surf and psychedelic music as the high-energy score.

The subject was inherently compelling and the choreographer took many risks in making this humorous and bizarre piece. However, the piece fell flat for me: it was self-conscious and overwrought in its attempt to exude quirky satire, and the musical score—a combination of commissioned new music, found music, and speech recordings—felt more hokey than kitschy.

Part of a Longer Story (2006) by ODC’s founder Brenda Way, a dance to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in D, took a far more lyrical, neo-classical approach than either of the two preceding pieces. It reminded me in many ways of the works of Mark Morris (e.g. Mozart Dances or L’allegro) in that it took historical music as a starting point for creating delicate, charming dances that draw on diverse stylistic influences and are integrated with witty humor.

The relationship between the music and the movement on a micro level was clear in many parts of this dance: the dancers would often visually mimic the contour and gesture of the clarinet soloist’s line. But this didn’t come through on a macro level: the overall clarity of Mozart’s musical form and repetitions of musical phrases were generally not mirrored or responded to in the dance, so the structural clarity of both dance and music were obscured. Brenda Way made an entirely reasonable commitment not to be entirely tied down to the music’s phrase structure, but dancers’ shifts between mirroring and disregarding the music felt almost random.

The center of Part of a Longer Story is a gorgeous, emotionally intense love duet between two dancers—the middle slow movement. The dancers drag, carry, lift, attract, and repel against each other, evoking a myriad of emotional complexities, and the two dancers exuded clarity and intensity. I would have rather watched this without music altogether.

The use of humor in this piece generally lacked the organically infused wit that Mark Morris has often been able to pull off. When a dancer interrupts a sequence of lyrical solos to “shake their booty,” for instance, it lacks spontaneity or necessity. Humor in dance seems incredibly difficult to achieve gracefully, and I feel it has to come from a place that is genuine.

The evening featured masterful dancing by the company and distinctive and mature choreographic visions, but I left the venue craving some of the rigorous structural clarity of Martha Graham’s choreography in which every movement is carefully considered, every turn of the head or lift of the leg is expressive, and every dance is a closed world in which there is exactly as much or as little going on as there needs to be.

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, February 17, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , , on February 21, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

I had the pleasure of seeing Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the national ballet company of Monaco, perform a program of two long works, Altro Canto and Opus 40, at the Joyce Theater in New York City. Both works were created by the company’s director since the early 1990s, Jean-Christophe Maillot.

Maillot’s vocabulary is far from traditional ballet (although slippers and pointe shoes were worn by the dancers), and the dancers moved in ways that are highly unconventional: they dragged each other around the stage by the wrists, they stepped on each others backs, their limbs were sometimes extremely fluid or limp (creating an impression of passivity), and they often made extreme concave or convex shapes with their torsos (bringing to mind the contraction and release technique of Martha Graham). The movements were also often acrobatic in nature: in Altro Canto, the lead female dancer was off of the ground for several minutes, being lifted by and diving into groups forward and backward like a highly controlled crowd-surfer (one of my favorite sequences). All of this was pursued in a highly graceful manner, however, and was far from raw or violent (unlike the movement of choreographer Pina Bausch, whose work I watched just two days after this performance).

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing "Opus 40"

While I found this to be a compelling evening of dance that explored a range of movements and feelings in a way that felt original and sometimes unexpected, the pieces seemed to lack a cohesive structural flow. Strings of movements at times felt arbitrarily varied, and I found it difficult to detect a clear direction or an internal formal logic from moment-to-moment. At the end of a piece, I felt that I hadn’t been taken on a journey but rather spent time wandering between different facets of one place. There was a clear structural device in Opus 40: at the end of every music/dance segment, the dancers of the next segment—typically costumed in a different color scheme—would wander onto the stage, interrupting the ending of the current segment before the transition of focus occurred.

Altro Canto utilized a score of excerpted segments of Baroque music (recorded—no live music here), especially sacred music by Monteverdi, and sought to respond to the atmosphere of the music in a number of ways. Echoes often occur in the music—a solo violin line is repeated by an offstage violinist—and this was at times referred to onstage, with a duo of lead dancers downstage and and an echoing set of dancers upstage. Two singers would also sometimes be represented by two dancers, for example.

"Altro Canto"

In "Altro Canto," the minimal golden lighting was intended to evoke candlelight (Maillot explained in the program that he associated candlelight with sacred music performed in cathedrals).

Generally, I felt that the dance was not always connected to or subordinated by the spirit of the music but it utilized the music when it pleased. The mood and vocabulary of the dancing did not change drastically in Opus 40, a selection of music by the avante-garde composer/vocalist Meredith Monk—stylistically extremely different from Baroque sacred music—so the dance’s connection to the music seemed to have more to do with pacing and phrasing than style.

The costuming played a large part on the visual impact of the pieces: in Altro Canto, half of both the men and women wore corsets and pants, and the other half wore tank tops and extremely poofy skirts—all gold-colored. The gender ambiguity of the costuming was intended to evoke the duality of masculine/feminine identity.

In Opus 40, the dancers were clothed in bright colors. Maillot’s program note refers to the piece as a return to childhood. While this aspect of the piece didn’t resonate with me, as the piece felt very adult and introspective, the color scheme was an effective allusion to playfulness and purity in simplicity.

Dance/Draw at the Institute for Contemporary Art [Review]

Posted in Art, Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , , , on January 16, 2012 by Nell

Last Saturday I visited the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) to catch their exhibit Dance/Draw: an exploration of the influence of dance on artists, art created by dancers, or artists’ capturing of dance. Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, writes in the exhibit introduction that the following works show “how artists and dancers have produced lines either as a gesture on a surface or as a movement in space.” The exhibit particularly focuses on work produced out of the influence of the Judson Dance Theater (1962-64) in downtown New York City, which stimulated the creation of anti-elitist, anti-establishment Postmodern dance emphasizing the incorporation of movements not traditionally considered “dance;” the absence of “emotional” expression; and the absence of conventional narrative.

Trisha Brown, "Untitled."

Trisha Brown, "Untitled," 2007. Charcoal, pastel on paper.

The exhibit first focuses on works that are impressions of gesture or bodies on paper, or that use the body as the drawing instrument itself–giving rise to the question asked by John Cage, “what is drawing?” Choreographer Trisha Brown creates large drawings by putting pieces of chalk or charcoal in between her toes, rubbing chalk on her feet and hands and smearing and pivoting across the surface of the paper (the curation calls these pieces “part self-portrait and part choreography”). The finished works imply rapid movement and circular, flowing gestures, but the live video of Brown shows that she is painstaking in her process.

In Butterfly Kisses (1996-99) and Loving Care (1992-96), Janine Antoni uses her body as a paintbrush–she coats paper with impressions of her mascara-coated eyelashes, and drags her ink-soaked hair along the floor of a gallery (taking Pollock’s “action painting” to the next level!). David Hammons created Body Print (1974) by making direct impressions of his face, clothing, and body on paper using grease.

Other artists in the exhibit focus on creating on an awareness of space that is somehow paralleled by or related to movement. Faith Wilding‘s Crocheted Environment, 1972/95, is a surreal, web-like space large enough for three people to stand in. The crocheted texture of the “walls” give the impression of a “drawing in air.” Drawing without Paper by Getrud Goldschmidt aka Gego (1984-7, enamel on wood and stainless steel wire) suggests the lines of an intricate drawing suspended in three dimensional space.

In addition to the themes of bodily gesture and space, a number of the artists in this exhibit engage with ideas of temporality: the temporariness of both dance and the artists’ creative process. I was particular intrigued by Daniel Ranalli’s Snail Drawings (1995-2011), in which Ranalli placed snails in spiral patterns on a beach and photographs the trails the snails produced in the sand as they crawled out of position. The photograph is all that’s left of this multi-process live event.

Bill T. Jones Body Painting with Keith Haring

Tseng Kwong Chi, "Bill T. Jones Body Painting with Keith Haring," 1983. Silver gelatin selenium-toned print.

The exhibit also includes works that capture or reflect dance and dancers (photography, videos, figurative portraits). Tseng Kweng Chi‘s photographs of dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, sporting neo-tribal body painting by street artist Keith Haring, is an especially striking record of a collaboration between three artists. I was also intrigued by choreographer William Forsythe’s Lectures from Improvisation Technologies, 2011, an instructional film and a record of Forsythe’s technique. The filmmaker animates Forsythe’s movements by drawing lines to clarify his gestures–once again, dance is interpreted as drawing in the air.

The exhibit was accompanied by a live in-gallery performance of Trisha Brown’s 20-minute The Floor of the Forest, 1970, a piece that challenges definitions of dance, or performance art. In the piece, two dancers moved across a metal structure hung with empty, oversized clothing on ropes. The dancers alternatively take on and take off the pieces, hanging suspended about two feet off the floor, in articles of clothing–often in uncomfortable, contorted positions.