Although it is crammed with art, The National Gallery provides spaces in which visitors can rest their eyes. In one of these, the West Garden Court, there are huge columns, many green plants and a fountain structure but no exhibited objects. A hush seems to hang between the huge room’s skylight and its terraced marble floors. It is a lovely spot, yet difficult to use as a stage. Sight lines are obstructed and acoustics may sound muffled or acquire overtones. Petr Zuska (he is a dancer from Prague) and Jen Shyu (she is an Asian American musician based in New York) chose to perform their “dialogue” in this grand yet sheltering and also challenging location. Actually, the two entertainers’ artistic territories overlapped. She moved about and even danced a bit in addition to playing a variety of string instruments, vocalizing and producing sound with her high heels. He too, after dancing, sat down to handle musical instruments. Both contended not just with architectural facets of the place but with the motions of a rather restless audience. What sort of dancer is Zuska and what type of musician is Shyu?
The title of Paxton’s solo for a male dancer is open ended. Prometheus sprang to mind instantly, before the performance began. Actual images of the action linger. One, from the dance’s final section, is of a man moving into a light beam along a cord or wire that seems strung through his head. Vivid, too, in my memory are the program’s curtain calls. The performer - Jurij Konjar – came out by himself and then brought on choreographer Paxton. Out of character and no longer behaving “as Paxton”, Konjar differed from both the choreographer’s current self and his own personification of him younger. It was then that I realized how good an actor Konjar had been.
Peabody Dance, a training institution 102 years old, has an artistic advisor who is 90 years old - Barbara Weisberger. Her birthday was celebrated by the institute’s spring showcase and two adjoining events: a biographical, historical interview with her and, of course, a party. Ballet, modern dance and structured improvisation - the three sorts of dance featured at the showcase - were performed by trainees and faculty from Peabody Dance plus a couple of guests from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet (Weisberger was the founder of Pennsylvania Ballet) but also by Peabody musicians (the Peabody Institute’s music programs date back 159 years). It was a pleasure to have live music for half of the program’s eight dances!
Poland has the bad luck of being situated between some of the world’s great powers, as historian Jan Karski details not without irony in his 1985 tome*. Company E’s Polish program had the bad luck of coinciding, first, with the huge January snowfall which closed down much of the Washington area and then being rescheduled for March 16 and 17, performances that took place despite the metro train shutdown on March 16 resulting in a half-empty house. The Family Theater was full on Thursday evening, March 17, for the four scheduled “Polish” dance works and for presentations of Washington Performing Arts’ recent “Polas” -- dance awards named for the late dancer/choreographer/teacher, Polish born Pola Nirenska who was Karski’s wife. What the program’s examples of choreography shared other than their national label was, arguably, a fascination with relationships – person to person but instances, too, of feelings connecting individuals and the group.
DIRGE by Pola Nirenska. Image by Paul Gordon Emerson
Pictured: Alicia Canterna, Tara Ashley Compton, Rima Faber, Abby Leithart, Kathryn Sydell Pilkington, Kyoko Ruch
It takes all ten dancers of Richmond’s junior ballet company to present the “Friar” piece, which is a reworking and condensation of Malcolm Burn’s full blown “Romeo and Juliet” for the entire Richmond Ballet (the first company, these juniors, and trainees as well as extras) plus the Richmond Symphony playing Prokofiev’s familiar music. I saw the big production again this past Valentine’s Day and was wondering how in the world Burn would reduce his huge tapestry. He did it by focusing on the most crucial of the Shakespeare play’s main characters, particularly the title figures. As the Juliet and Romeo, Melissa Robinson and Connor Frain were convincingly cast. She is appealing, moves pliantly, concentrates on what is serious and yet also knows how to play. He is more courtly and considerate than rash, but unflinchingly devoted. It is Robinson’s and Frain’s love scenes – their first encounter, their first kiss (the so-called “balcony” duo), the fleeting wedding night – that give substance to “The Friar’s Tale” and let some of it soar. The figures of sullen Tybalt, incandescent Mercutio and steadfast Benvolio show male temperaments that are alternates to Romeo’s, making conflict possible.
Odd program- ming opened New York City Ballet’s annual week in Washington. There were small pieces and big pieces. All, though, were danced with incredible energy. Especially this bill’s one well-known item, George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky piano-concerto ballet, gleamed. I couldn’t help comparing it to what I’d seen on the same stage just a few nights before, the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Raymonda”. The choreography for both productions calls for a large, classical, female corps. Did I prefer the splendid efficiency of New York’s women or the Russians’ limpid luster? Ensemble dancing of such caliber as either group achieved is rare. Long live the difference!
Laine Habony and Sara Adams in Peter Martins’ Ash. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
Listening to Stephen Foster’s songs, Dana Burgess hears dance melodies and rhythms. This isn’t the first time that Burgess has turned to Foster (1826 – 1864), a historic American composer. They share an inquisitiveness that is both keen and sensitive. The topic of “Loss and Longing” is death due to wartime combat, which also appears in the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Alexander Gardner’s photographs. Many of Gardner’s sepia pictures refer to America’s Civil War (1861 –1865), as do all the images in Burgess’s dance suite. Even though Burgess makes one believe that Foster composed waltzes and quadrilles instead of vocals like “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, he doesn’t disguise the anguish and grief that he has interwoven with the steps for this danse grave.
Sarah Halzak and Kelly Moss Southall in Dana Tai Soon Burgess's “The Foster Suite: The Remains of Loss and Longing”, Photo by Jeff Malet.
Introductions to this company’s programs have become performances in their own right. Usually the artistic director, Septime Webre, bounds on in front of drawn curtains and delivers his take on what we are about to see. Webre’s flair has been likened to a carnival barker’s even when the actual fare betrays a taste more subtle than his manner. This time, loud applause welcomed Webre before he said good evening. He executed a pliébut seemed untypically daunted. The reason for the audience response and his subdued behavior was the recent announcement that Webre would be leaving the company at season’s end, after 17 years in charge. A new artistic director is to be named soon, but Webre’s remarks did not address this news. He proceeded to talk about the key piece on his Director’s Cut bill, William Forsythe’s 1987 “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”. No question but that this Forsythe has been influential, as the 2014 “Prism” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa shows. The Forsythe was danced last on the program. Why not first?
A group from William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”. Photo by Theo Kossenas.
Lush symphonic music, troops of performers plus a treasure trove of dances: “Raymonda” has been called “Russia’s last grand ballet of the 19th Century”. That was apparent Tuesday night as a good portion of the Mariinsky Ballet from St. Petersburg together with local children and supers opened a week’s run of the much mulled over but seldom seen classic. What “Raymonda” hasn’t is a story that resonates. Just about everyone in 1898 as well as today seems to agree that no compelling theme results from the heroine’s encounters with two competing suitors. Moreover, redundancies occur in the way the story is told yet there are also gaps. People have tried to fix those problems and two philosophies vie with each other about how to proceed. One way would be to stick as closely as possible the 1898 original, hoping that some type of hidden intent and sense of cohesion can be uncovered. The Mariinsky’s current way is to update, sort of.
Yuri Smekalov as Abderakhman in the Mariinsky Ballet's "Raymonda." Photo by Natasha Razina.
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.