As the Obama era in the USA draws to a close, what are the Alvin Ailey company’s responsibilities? The dance company, like the presidency, stands for several things in addition to representing America. President Barack Obama is the nation’s first African American chief of state. The Ailey gives audiences access to artistic traditions that are emphatically those of modern dance and, moreover, the American sort often linked specifically to African American life. Robert Battle, the Ailey’s artistic director, seems aware of what is needed, not just in the remarks he made before the opening night performance of the company’s week in Washington but in his programming. Dance from different but predominantly African American experiences was extrapolated by choreographers Ronald K. Brown, Rennie Harris and Alvin Ailey on Program 1. Repertoy for the rest of the run also promised to be loaded with dance that was not tangential. These pieces aim at truths.
Men of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Andrew Eccles.
Ten works plus many memories made up Dance Place’s 35th Anniversary Concert. All of the nine makers represented on the program had helped to build Dance Place into what it is today – the prime site in DC for dance that in one way or another is non-establishment. A couple of these makers also performed, but most of the cast was a current crop. How rich the encounters among generations proved to be! Six of the works had been made in the last century and four pieces were from the 21st. I don’t think that made a difference. Being ornery and insisting on skill are traits independent of time.
Carla Perlo in Adams Morgan. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Attempts to perform a perfect, a true version of “The Sleeping Beauty” are like quests for the holy grail. Currently, two top individuals at American ballet Theatre have caught the fever. One is the company’s resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has sublimated his own inspiration in order to serve an 1890 idea by the then Russian czar’s French ballet master Marius Petipa. The other seeker is Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director who has put the company’s considerable resources at Ratmansky’s disposal. The excitement of their search was felt Wednesday night by a Washington audience that had battled post-blizzard obstacles to get to the theater on time.
American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak in Alexei Ratmansky's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo: MIRA.
The choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has chosen an ornery story to tell! Once committed, like the captain of a ship, he encounters the likes of icebergs and blizzards in navigating the plot. There are improbabilities of action, monstrous flaws of character, social conventions as inscrutable as the Sphinx plus a moral code. Wheeldon and his chief helmsmen – composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley – use skill yet also take chances in transforming William Shakespeare’s word text into moving, living theater. I’ve now seen this version of “The Winter’s Tale” twice: Tuesday night’s American premiere in Washington, and about a year ago the cinema videocast from London by Britain’s Royal Ballet. Despite differences, both renditions touched emotions deep within.
Harrison James, Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in "The Winter's Tale." Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada.
Fun could be had watching “Sita” and trying to sort out the sources of its diverse dances. Sorties of foot stamping were followed by displays of finger splaying. Sword play contrasted with skirt swaying and with the wafting of veils. Poses that seemed to plant the dancers’ weight firmly into the ground were followed by leaps as if into a saddle that lifted bodies off the floor. Once upon a time the classic dance traditions of Southeast Asia may have shared an origin, but they became distinct. This performance by dancers based in America but trained in the movement techniques of India, Thailand or Indonesia was a singular collaboration to highlight similarities and differences within one choreographic work. At the piece’s center is Sita, heroine of India’s saga, “The Ramayana”. She is the daughter of Mother Earth and the abducted wife of a king. This production’s devisers see Sita as “the ideal woman – adored yet misunderstood”. They have her provoking dialogue between custom and change concerning feminist issues. How far did they advance
towards their ambitious goals – artistic and philosophic?
This prank started late. The audience sat for some time staring at an ugly cardboard scrim and listening to what might have been a lovely song or aria, but the music was faint. When the volume increased, there was electronic noise accompanied by light projections that vulgarized the décor idea of an earlier ADI presentation, “Stripetease”. However, Pavel Zustiak’s deconstructions had already begun in the printed program that serves as ticket at ADI and in the info fed to Melanie George, ADI’s imperturbable pre-perf lecturer. Phrases such as “communist Czechoslovakia” and “artistic liberty”, “human and humane”, “abstract”, “nonlinear”, “multidisciplinary” and “multi-sensory” littered the introductory texts. At least, Zustiak seems honest confessing that his “Custodians of Beauty” title was cribbed from a pope.
Three movie theaters dominated the social scene in an urban neighborhood of America’s Midwest where I spent part of my childhood during World War 2. There was the big, expensive, palatial house that belonged to a chain and showed recent releases made by major studios. It happened to be the one farthest away from downtown. There was a small, cheap and dilapidated house, closest to downtown, that showed new movies made by the marginal studios (Republic, Monogram), all sorts of old movies and, especially, adult fare. In that neglected place, belonging to no one known, I got to see “Ecstasy”, Gustav Machaty’s marvelous camera exploration of Hedy Lamarr’s moods and body - although censored for American audiences not by cuts in the original Czech footage but by the addition of a church wedding scene for the principal lovers. The middle theater (geographically, in ticket price and social standing) was the locally owned Logan. On Saturday evenings, after the kids’ matinee and before the evening’s double feature, the Logan had a live talent show. It featured singers and dancers, comedians and musicians who played odd instruments such as the saw. Mostly the talent was amateur or unknown professionals, yet the show became popular not only in the neighborhood but beyond.
“Walpurgisnight”, “A Midsummer Night's Dream” Duo, Scene from “Romeo”, “Emeralds” The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Opera House The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington, DC October 30, 2015 - Opening Night November 1, 2015 - 1 PM, Final Performance
Opening night of this bill of ballets to mostly French music – Gounod, Berlioz and Faure, with Mendelssohn the sole exception – had highs and lows, delights and disappoint- ments in the dancing. Ravishing was the start of George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”. Two dozen young women dressed (by Holly Hynes) in light lilac, moved with the precision of a Russian corps yet beamed with American abandon. It was apt magic for the Halloween revels from Charles Gounod’s Goethe opera “Faust”. Leading the many women, soloist Allynne Noelle toyed with her steps like a kitten with a spool of yarn.
Dancers of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in "Walpurgisnacht". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
The amazing amount of dance in and around Washington during October is attracting audiences. Velocity, which aims to show characteristic cross sections of the area’s movement landscape, held 10 events in a 3-day period. Sidewalk, lobby and Forum-space performances at the Harman were free. Those on the Harman stage were reasonably priced. Some of the public commuted from Velocity’s competition at the Kennedy Center to the Harman. These people saw the Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s free program on the KC’s Millennium Stage at 6 PM on Thursday (Oct. 15) and then Velocity’s very mixed 8 PM bill on the Harman’s stage. Vice versa for those going from Velocity’s Saturday (Oct. 17) matinee to still other competition: Washington Ballet at the KC Eisenhower Theater that evening.
Dance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stages makes me keenly aware of the conditions and mechanics of watching. Both of these stages (there’s a North stage and a South one) offer the viewer live as well as virtual scenes. Right above the actual stage is a giant screen that shows what is happening on stage in real time. Recently added have been two smaller screens, one on each side of the physical stage. Now, when a ballerina dances a solo on stage, we can see her four times simultaneously. Focusing on the real woman isn’t easy. The screen images, even if I keep them peripheral, may be more intensely lit, sharper, more colorful and more close-up. Especially the big screen overhead often provides more detail. The temptation is to avoid reality – theatrical reality though it surely is. These days it is still sports arenas that usually are equipped with such imaging devices, but it may be just a matter of time before all venues have them. Then, will there be a reason to indulge in the ritual of attending the theater? People might as well stay away and watch on their sets at home or on their mobiles. My feeling that stepping up to and in to a theater is akin to approaching a sacred place undoubtedly seems old fashioned. I like to do it even when there’s no performance going on.